Beaconsfield - what's in a name?

Clare Bull

Beaconsfield people pronounce the name of their town as “Bekkensfield” and those from out of the area pronounce it as “Beaconsfield”, which makes them easy to distinguish from residents.  Why is the local pronunciation of the name of the town different to the spelling?  It is suggested that this pronunciation is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words for a “clearing in the beech woods”

A clearing in the beech woods

The first written evidence of the existence of Beaconsfield is in 1184 when it was referred to as Bekenesfelde in a pipe roll.  Hunt & Thorpe in “Beaconsfield, A History” provide other early references around 1200 when local farms and land were sold.  Mentions during the 13th century, in various other documents, all give spellings such as Bekenefeld, Beckenesfeld, Becnefeld and Bekenfeld which seems to indicate that the local pronunciation (not the modern day spelling which may have come into being around 1720) is historically correct.  As a result, it is thought that the beck sound comes from the OE (Old English) word bēce meaning beech tree, and feld, means a field or clearing, hence “Bekkensfield”.    This would make sense as there are large numbers of beech and other deciduous trees (Burnham Beeches for example) to this day in the area.  Therefore derivation from this source would be probable and has nothing to do with beacons.

A beacon in a field

However, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names says that the name Beaconsfield comes from the “feld by the beacon”, taking their lead from Mawer and Stanton (1925) Place Names of Buckinghamshire which states:

“OE bēacnes-feld, a genitival compound denoting apparently ‘open land marked by a beacen’ v. feld.  This is our word beacon but its sense here is uncertain.  Beaconsfield stands high and a ‘beacon’ fire may have been lighted here.”

The problem with this definition is that there is no record of a beacon being lit in Beaconsfield during any emergency in the past (whilst at Penn there are records of Thomas de la Penn constructing a ‘bekyn’ to warn should an enemy invade and the road named Beacon Hill is extant evidence of the Penn beacon).  Although not impossible, it is likely that there would have been some record of a beacon had one existed in Beaconsfield.

No doubt the debate on the origins of the name will go on, but along with Beaconsfield Town Council and the Beaconsfield Old Town Association, the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society has decided to feature a beech tree as part of its logo.  We feel that the beech tree, in a scroll (referencing the charter given by Henry III to hold a Tuesday market in 1255) best sums up the Society and our continuing quest to preserve and promote the history of the town.

 

 

Comments about this page

  • After my daughter had written her note about the pronounciation of “Beaconsfield” I happened to be reading “Further Recollections of Old Beaconsfield ” by Kathleen Day, published by the Society in 1990. On page 52 she records a similar explanation given by Lord Rosebery whilst speaking on the occasion of Edmund Burke’s centenary memorial in 1898.
    I like your new web site and am keen to learn more about my old town

    By Chester Field (23/05/2016)
  • It is said that Disraeli’s wife preferred to be called Lady Beaconsfield, with the accent on the “beacon”, to distinguish her from the common people who lived in a local town called “Bekkensfield”. The majority of towns and roads elswhere in the world that bear the name “Beaconsfield” are named after the good Earl and his wife and are usually pronounced “Beacon-sfield” in his (or her) honour.

    By Becky Field (06/05/2016)

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