I would imagine that many of us have heard different explanations as to how the name of Tottenham came about. Clearly the name has been in existence for many many years although there have been several variations in the spelling over this time. We do know that ‘Toteham’ is the way the parish is referred to in the Domesday Book.

In his book ‘The History of Tottenham’, written by Fred Fisk back in 1912, he refers to some of the explanations that have been written by eminent historians of Tottenham in the past:

“Bedwell in 1631 says –Tottenham – the name of the place is, as you may easily conceive, compounded or made of two words, TOTTE or TOTTEN and HAM. That they are Saxon words it cannot be doubted. Totte in the Saxon tongue means tuft, corner, the end of anything like unto an horne. The word Ham is more common and signifies a town or dwelling place “. He then explains that the west end of the parish running from Fryon (Friern Barnet) to Edelmlton (Edmonton) has a very sharp corner, like a wedge, and thus resembles a horn.

“Dyson in 1790 say the same as Bedwell and yet he says. ‘But, after all may we not suppose Tottenham the mansion or estate of Tota. As Ethelmeton, the town of Ethelm; for owners have oftener given names to places than situation”

“Lord Colerane: Mr William Baxter, who was master of the Free Grammar School, tried to prove that the name ‘Tottnam’ was miscalled by the Normans and was originally Theodan holm which is in ancient Latin, villa publica”.

“Robinson: Says the name is derived from the Saxon words Totia and Ham. Robinson then alters Lord Colerane’s spelling in quoting from Baxter.- The Normans did so terribly murder the old Saxon tongue after their conquest , scarce any word escaped alteration, but came to be disguised by various writings of it; thus out of the Saxon Deodholm and Deodanholm they made Toteham, Thoteham and Totenham”.

It is evident that there are many variations as to how Tottenham obtained its name and in more recent times I suspect that many people considered the most plausible explanation to be close to that of Dyson and that it was the village or estate of Tota and therefore Toteham as it appeared in the Domesday Book.
How and when the word ‘High Cross’ were added on to Tottenham making it the ‘Towne of Tottenham High Crosse’ has been a subject of discussion for many years; some critics asserting that it was added owing to a large wooden cross which at one time was on the tower of the Parish Church and which could be seen for miles from all quarters; while others affirm it came from what is now called the High Cross.

“The opinion of Lord Colerane respecting the cross on the Church tower being a signification of some cause why the towne and parish had the appellation of High Cross is not endorsed by any other writer that I have met with, and I submit it is not probable”

So there remains confusion among these historians as to why our predecessors constructed a High Cross in Tottenham. One constant source of agreement however goes to dismiss any suggestion that this could have been an Eleanor Cross as it was in existence in Tottenham well before this time.



And now for something completely different !



I have recently read a most interesting book titled ‘Ancient Tottenham’ by William James Roe and first published in 1949. In his introduction he ponders on some questions that in his opinion remained inconclusive one of which was as follows:

 Whence was the name Tottenham derived ? The explanations of Bedwell and others somehow did not satisfy; it seemed fantastic to suppose, for instance, that the Saxons, who were without maps, should perambulate the parish, find part of it in the shape of a horn, and promptly call the place Toteham, from Tota a horn.” 

William Roe then questions the origins and previous explanation about Tottenham High Cross:

 “The same apathy is shown by Bedwell and others about the High Cross. Here was an ancient monument that had stood on the hill on written evidence from early in the fifteenth century, and yet there is no reason given for its existence in all the histories: Bedwell’s, Coleraine’s, Dysons and the rest. There was no market and so it was not a market cross. Bedwell mentions Queen Eleanor, and seems in half a mind to attribute the erection to King Edward, but finally thinks better of it”.

 There is no doubt that the current spelling of Tottenham has only been used for the past four to five centuries. Prior to this there have been several variation such as Totham, Totyynham and Totenham and then back to Toteham as found in the Domesday Book. However William Roe now introduces his theory that Toteham, the ham, or hamlet of Tot or Tote or where the Tot was situated. He then suggests a simpler explanation of the origins of the word Tot:

 Sir Montague Sharpe gives the origins of Tot or Toot as being the equivalent of ‘Botontinus’ a Roman word applied to a mound or hillock having a tree or post upon it and used as a survey mark by the Roman surveyors. The Oxford Dictionary of place names gives the origin of Tot as A.S Totaern –Look-out ham – watch-tower, and suggests Totham (Essex as ‘Look-out ham’ and Tothill (Leicestershire) as ‘Look-out hill’.’

 Later publications such as ‘Roman Roads in Britain’ (T Codringtonn 1919) says ‘Toot is claimed as a name connected with Roman Roads. The word is said on good authority to signify a place or look-out and some ‘Toots’ like Tothill Fields. Westminster or Toot Hill in Sussex may have looked out along Roman Roads. Other London districts have names such as Tooting and Totteridge and have place names called from Tot-Hills.

Source ' Ancient Tottenham' by William James Roe

In a book by Norden in 1788 it reads ‘Tottenham High Cross was a hamlet belonging to Tottenham and hath this adjunct – High Cross of a wooden cross there lately on a little mound of earth’.

 In Dyson’s (History of Tottenham) 1790

‘Formerly it was a column of wood raised upon a little hillock and of considerable height.’


Now we do know that the parish of Tottenham stood on the route of ‘Ermine Street’, one of the earliest Roman roads built in Britain so if the hypothesis of a Roman survey mark is to be accepted it will be obvious why a cross was erected at this site. The Romans surveyed to a large extent the line of their streets visually from survey mark to survey mark: a simple post on a hillock for such a work would be a help, but two posts in the form of a cross would be better. It is therefore most plausible that this could be the origin of the High Cross.


Roman London: There were eight roads radiating from London in a semicircle.


Note Bishopsgate the start of Ermine Street.

'Ermine Street begins at Bishopsgate where one of the eight gates in the wall surrounding Roman London was located. From here it runs north up Norton Folgate, Shoreditch High Street and Kingsland Road through Stoke Newington (Forming Stoke Newington Road and Stoke Newington High Street), Tottenham, Edmonton and Eastern Enfield (Ponders End). Enfield Highway, Enfield Wash and Freezywater) to Royston. This section of Ermine Street from London to Royston, Hertfordshire is now largely part of the A10.'




In the above illustration from a road built in Nottinghamshire, you can see a high point in the distance that resembles an early cross and in the foreground you can see a mound that presumeably is another survey point.

The Roman Road was essentially a military institution; it was planned originally to enable the legions to move with the utmost celerity (swiftness of foot) from place to place, and in order to fulfil this objecective it ran straight taking no heed of natural obstacles unless they were completely impassable.

The roads might go straight up a hill rather than contour around it. The soldiers couldn't very well complain. To go in a straight line requires only a modest surveying instrument, which in Roman times was the groma. 



Intruiging measurements of Roman Origin !

(or when in Tottenham do as the Romans do)

In certain parts of the country the land will have been found divided up by roads, paths and field divisions into rectangular areas, all giving the same scale of measurement. These areas are particularly noticeable in and about former Roman settlements and are generally accepted to be of Roman origin. William Roe suggests that the same system of measurement, giving eveidence of a similar Roman origin, may still be evident in Tottenham and Edmonton despite significant urbanisation over many centuries.

William Roe explains that the Romans divided up a country into a kind of canton called a 'pagus', the boundaries of which were natural ones, such as rivers or hills. Within the 'pagus' the positions surveyed for settlement and cultivation were regular in shape and divided into a number of square areas, called 'possessa' by cross parallel lines. One side of the 'possessa' measured 612 Roman poles, equalt to 1,980.43 English Yards.

The Possessa was then subdivided into 25 ' centuriae', each of fify 'jugera' or 31.15 English Acres. The side of the 'centuriae' measured 12 Roman poles or 388.322 English yards. Finally the area of cultivated or occupied land in the 'possessa', apart from the roadway, was called a 'saltus'.


Table of Roman Measures referred to above (Length)

1     Roman Pole  = 10 Roman Feet =       3.236  English Yards
12   Roman Pole  = 1 Actus =     38.832  English Yards
120 Roman Pole  = 1 Centuria   (side of) =     388.32  English Yards
600 Roman Pole  = 5 Centuriae (side of) =  1,941.60  English Yards
612 Roman Pole  = 1 Possessa   (side of) =  1980.432 English Yards

Table reproduced from 'Ancient Tottenham' by William James Roe


We have reproduced the table for the purists, and also to reinforce the ancient Roman measurements, but it is not important to fully comprehend them all other than to know that in a very large number of cases they still apply today. It has been found that, when applying these measurements to Tottenham, our modern borough and urban boundaries have endured for centuries and with little alteration.

 Now here are a number of most interesting facts when applying these measurements to Tottenham:

  • Beginning at Stamford Hill the measurement from the top of the hill to High Cross Tottenham is 1980 yards  (1 Possessa).

  • This explains why the High Cross is not exactly at the top of the hill nor on the southern brow but a few yards to the north of the hill top.

  • The High Cross would appear, therefore, to be not only a survey mark for the road northwards, but also being situated on and so marking the quintarial line between two ‘Posessae’.

  • From the High Cross northwards the measure of 1980 yards brings you to White Hart Lane.

  • The southern boundary of Tottenham Parish from Stamford Hill to the end of Hermitage Road in Green lanes is also 1980 yards.

  • The western boundary from the end of Hermitage Road to Turnpike Lane is another 1980 yards.

  • The Possessae line both north and south of the High Cross follows the alignment through the present High Road (Ermine Street).


To continue with this hypothesis by W.J Roe you will recall that these ancient Roman measurements were also used to determine roads, paths and field divisions.  Consequently, there should be four intermediate roads, paths or field divisions all at a distance of 388.5 yards apart (1 Centuria) between the High Cross and White Hart Lane.


W.J Roe submits that these have survived the centuries and are to be found as follows:

  • ·        High Cross (Starting Point).

  • ·        Stoneley South and the passage between the Wesleyan Chapel.

  • ·        Reform Row and the passage beside the former Barclays Bank.

  • ·        Lordship Lane and Lansdowne Road.

  • ·        Church Road and Park Lane.

  • ·        White Hart Lane (end of possessa).


He concludes that these measurements are near enough to be correct; for four roads to be the same distance apart by accident is asking too much from coincidence.

Click  'HERE' for a link where we have attempted to superimpose William Roe's findings on an extract from the 1894 ordnance survey map of Tottenham.

 We are sharing this information as a point of interest only and have no more definitive information other than what appears in the book. We are not in a position to either defend or reject the hypothesis other than it all appears to be very plausible.

 For a more detailed explanation together with many other fascinating connections with Tottenham relating to these Roman measurements and field boundaries (e.g. All Hallows Church and Bruce Castle Park) we would recommend you obtain a copy of this most interesting book.

 It certainly puts forward a strong case that perhaps Tottenham owes its origins to the early Roman road makers when constructing Ermine Street, with the ancient High Cross being a Tot or Toot as a survey point en-route.

 We acknowledge that much of this information is not our original work and much has been quoted directly from the book by William James Roe.





The Roman Roads of Nottinghamshire


Roman Roads: Big Vision, Big Costs


The Development of Transport in London - from Roman Times to Today


How Did the Romans Achieve Straight Roads? –Richard Hucker


Article prepared by Alan Swain - July 2017

Background Image - The building of a Roman Road.