Rude Place Names and Victorian Class Warfare on the Thames

In my never ending search for “vintage” books on boating I recently purchased a copy of Time on the Thames by Eric de Maré. It was published in 1952 and, like his The Canals of England; it was published by the Architectural Press. It includes some delightful and artistic monochrome photographs and is a good read. It is largely a description of the Thames from its estuary to its source. Some of descriptions are familiar, and a lot of the history should be familiar because it is covered elsewhere, but two quirky aspects immediately caught my attention.

The first aspect was the caption that accompanies the photograph of Wittenham Clumps. This is the spinney that tops the Sinodun Hills just above Days Lock. When boating near here we particularly enjoy mooring near the lock and walking up the hills to enjoy the fabulous view from the top. The last time we boated along this stretch, in 2003, Channel 4’s Timeteam were carrying out an excavation on an Iron Age fort at the top of the hills. What caught my attention in the book were the names quoted by the author for the hills. Evidently they are, or were, called the Berkshire Bubs or Mother Dunch’s Buttocks. De Maré thought the reasons for the name are long forgotten. Although I don’t know who Mother Dunch was, I would have thought that the anatomical references in both names are quite obvious!

The second aspect that caught my attention was a quotation that de Maré used from a parliamentary Select Committee in 1884. Evidently a certain Sir Gilbert Augustus Clayton East did not object to the public using the river but he did object to the “type” of person. To quote:

“My complaint is not of the public coming to use the river, but the class who come.”

“I have often wanted to know whether these people were naturally savages; or whether they become savage when they come to the river.”

“There are two classes of roughs on the river; one class belongs to the London ‘Arry’, the other is a superior class … yet these are the people who do as much, if not more damage, than the others. They real river roughs offend by their appearance, their language and their deeds.”

Sir Gilbert went on to complain about the “real river roughs” not having shorts that reached their knees, wearing sleeveless jerseys, and yet being accompanied by women!

De Maré thought, quite rightly, that this attitude hardly accorded with the spirit of the Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede. He reported that the Select Committee did not agree with him – thank goodness for that!.