Alfred Watkins, Two articles on “Cole” and “Cold” place names

Watkins later used this material in The Old Straight Track (1925), chapter XI.

(1) Notes and Queries, Series 12, 11, 404–406 (18 November 1922).



Although the subject originated in my case by observing the frequency of the place-name element “cole” on the ancient track-ways, the datePresumably a misprint for ‘data’ and first conclusion I now communicate would not be affected if my hypothesis of straight pre-historic trackways is not accepted.

In my own county of Hereford I found two sighting hill-points (one with a solitary marking-clump of Scotch firs) bearing the name, viz. Coles Tump and Coles Hill. Then I found that there were a number of Colehills and Coleshills in other districts, one, Colleshyl, mentioned in a Saxon Charter of 799 (Gomme, ‘Folk Moots’); also that the element was joined on to -wood, -way, -green, -bury, -lane, -stock, -ley, etc., in scores of instances.

Past discussion on Cold Harbour has been strangely narrowed by the omission of a consideration of fifty other “cold” place-names as in my list. This lack of co-ordination reached a climax when an Oxford Professor was reported to have said that the Cold Harbour of his district was so called as being a shelter for benighted travellers who could not enter the city after the gates were closed. This derivation is obviously absurd when applied to the numerous (a score certainly) Cold Harbours which are at least half a day’s walking distance from any walled town.

The following list is partly from Bartholomew’s “Survey Gazetteer,” supplemented by names of places I know or have noted. I have kept separate the Cole-, Coles-, Col-, and Cold- lists. The names are those of to-day, but I do not find substantial difference (as regards the prefix) when examining old forms, although a comparison has aided my conclusions.


Cole (rivers, hamlets), Cole Abbey (St. Nicholas. London), Colebatch, Colebreen, Colebrook, Coleburn, Coleby, Colebury, Cole Church (St. Mary, London), Cole Cross, Coledale, Colefax, Coleford, Coleham, Cole Harbour, Colehill, Colehouse, Coleman’s (Hatch, Farm, Town, Well), Colemere, Colemore, Colepike, Cole Pool, Coleraine, Coleridge, Colerne, Colethorpe, Colewell, Colewood, Coley.

Colesborne, Colesdon, Coles Farm, Coles Green, Coles Hall, Coles Hill, Coles Lake, Coles {404b} Park, Colestock, Colesty, Coles Tump, Coles-wood, Colesworthy.

Colbury, Colchester, Coldrum, Colfin, Colford, Colgate, Colgrain, Colham, Colhugh, Colkirk, Colman, Colman’s (— well, — street, — town), Colstey, Colway, Colwall, Colwell, Colwich, Colwick, Colwyn.

Cold Ash, Cold Ashby, Cold Ashton, Coldborough, Cold Brayfield, Coldbrook, Coldcoats, Coldcotes, Cold Conniston, Cold Eaton, Cold East, Cold Elm, Cold Fair Green, Cold Fell, *Cold Green, Cold Hanworth, Cold Hatton, Cold Henley, Cold Higham, *Coldham, *Cold Harbour, Coldhayes Coldheart, Coldhesledon, *Coldhill, Coldhurst, Cold Kirby, Cold Kitchen, Coldmans Hill, Coldmore, Coldmeece, Coldnap, Cold Newton, Cold Norton, Cold Nose, Cold Oak, Coldon, Cold Overton, Coldrenick, Coldrey, Coldred, Coldridge, Cold Rowley, Coldroast, Coldshiels, Coldside, Colds Farm, Coldsmouth, Coldstead, Coldstone, Coldstream, Coldswaltham, *Coldswood, *Coldwell, Cold Weston.

The 10 “cold” names marked with an asterisk have, it will he seen, corresponding names in one (or sometimes two) of the other lists, but without the d.

Before investigating the meaning of “cold,” I will first give other evidence which has led to my conclusion that almost, if not quite all, the “cold” place-names were “cole“ place-names with the intrusion of a d.

There are nine cases in the above lists of a vowel following the first element, eight of them are in the “cold” list, only one, Cole Abbey, being in the others. The d made the word easier to say. I have only limited facilities for tracing early forms of a place-name. But the following are instances (which good investigation could add to) of the intrusion of the d in the name of one place.

In the ‘Chronicle of Roger of Hovenden’ (12th Cent.), Vol. i, p. 45, Coldingham is spelt “ Collingham,” but with the d in other pages. In MSS. temp. Ed. I., St. Nicholas Cole Abbey is given as St. Nicholas “Coldabbay.”

The other two instances are from Bannister’s ‘Place-Names of Herefordshire.’ Coldborough was “Calbrawe” in 1303,” “Calbarewe” in 1346, “Caldebarewe” in 1428, and “Caldebarowe” in 1431. (I did not lengthen my list by including the “cal,” “cauld,” and “cald” forms of “cole,” as in the frequent place name Caldicot; but the connection is verified in cabbage tribe names colewort, kale or cale, and cauliflower). Cold Green was “Colgre” in Domesday {405a} Book. In the ‘New English Dictionary’ “Cold-prophet” is given as a variant of “Cole-prophet.” It is remarkable that with so much inkspilling on the word Cold Harbour (which places number a score or two) no one seems to have given a thought to the fifty other “cold” place-names, or benefited from the facts (all from ‘N. & Q.’ pages) that it is given as “Cole Harbour” both in Ben Jonson’s ‘Silent Woman’ and in Healy’s ‘Discovery of a New World;’ also that in London, on the Thames, was a Cole Harbour.

The supposed chilly meaning of “cold” is fairly probable when applied to -well, -brook, and -stream, just possible with -harbour, -hill, and -cot, but breaks down entirely when applied to -man, -ash, -oak, -elm, and other forms.

Cold was “cole,” and the d was intruded in quite early times, the meaning of the original word being obscure even then.

What then was the meaning of “Cole”? Several things can be gathered from the full list I have given above. Firstly, that the name element “cole” is descriptive of something which applies not to one type of place, but to all imaginable spots which a track may pass, from mountain-top to valley-stream, and that scarcely a characteristic of a trackway (as -way, -ford, etc.) is absent. Secondly, that it gave name to some man’s occupation well known in ancient times, the possessive “coles” as well as the frequent addition of -man indicating this. Colman and Coleman places occur throughout England and Ireland, and the Colemanstrete of London City is mentioned in the ‘Liber Custumarum,’ temp. Ed. I, being spelt also Colmanstrete. The frequency of the surnames Cole and Coleman to-day indicates an occupation. I will surmise the Cole-man’s occupation presently.

My inclusion of Colchester (which is spelt “Colecestria” in MSS. temp. Ed. I) amongst the “cole” names may be disputed, as it is usually given a Latin origin, but everything indicates that “cole” names have a pre-historic meaning, and if so the King Coel of the Chronicles, the King Cole of nursery rhyme, the colonia of the Romans, and even the river Coln may all be traced to one early source.

The suggestion which comes first to mind {405b} is that in all these words “cole” had the meaning of the present “charcoal,” or the man who brought it along the trackway. There is something to be said for this, for I find that the salt-man (to give one example) gave the “white” or “whit” prefix to almost every point he passed, whether way, hill, bourne, or well. And charcoal was known to the ancient Briton. But “cole” in this sense was an article (and occupation) thoroughly familiar all through the Middle Ages, and there seems to be no reference in literature to the “coleman” in this sense. Moreover the alteration from “cole” to “cold” in the early Middle Ages seems to denote that its meaning was even then lost. If so, it was probably an occupation in decay before written records commenced.

Let me mention some evidence which leads to my own surmise of the original meaning. The occupation of a “colman” or “coleman” must have been of high standing, for in ‘Chronicon Scotorum’ (a record of Ireland) about a score of separate persons called Colman are mentioned (chiefly as to their deaths) in the Index, and they are bishops, archbishops, and the sons of kings.

Now in the ‘N. E. D.’ is the mention of a word so obscure as to have a doubtful existence. It is our friend “cole” with the meaning of a juggler. There is also given, as of more frequent usage, “cole-prophet,” sometimes spelt “ cold-prophet,” as also meaning (in 1532) a wizard, sorcerer, or diviner of the false type. There is also there the word “cole-staff” or “cowl-staff,” used (in the Middle Ages) as a carrying-stick—evidently long like a wand.

Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ refers to a witch as “riding in the ayre upon a cowl-staffe out of a chimney top,” which again connects the word “cole” or “cowl” with magical purposes. Now my investigations into the straight-sighted, pre-historic trackways show that the men who planned them must have used for sighting purposes over hill-ridges (as ploughmen to-day set up a pair of cop-sticks to get a straight line), a pair of sighting staves, which may have survived as the cole-staff, the pilgrim’s staff and the wizard’s wand. As such surveying was highly skilled work, the surveyors—{406a}whom I surmise to have been the “colemen”—probably held high position, and exercised much power over the people, from whom there is reason to think their methods were kept secret. It is a natural surmise that on the decay and disuse of their occupation they degenerated into sorcerers and diviners. I do not expect such a derivation of the place-name element “cole” to be accepted, until the fact of the straight-sighted ley is confirmed by observers in other districts than my own. Fortunately this is already being done, particularly in East Anglia by Mr. W. A. Dutt. But the conclusion that “cold” in place names is a corruption of “cole” is not affected by a doubt on this point. I should mention another meaning of “cole” given in the ‘N. E. D.,’ a slang phrase for money payments, perhaps toll or tax. It might be a by product of the larger meaning, and explain the “cole-free” fields which were the subject of a query in ‘N. & Q.’

Alfred Watkins.

(2) Notes and Queries, Series 12, 12, 56 (20 January 1923).


“Cole” and “Cold” Place-Names

(12 S. xi. 404, 454, 497).—I now find a clue pointing to a Celtic origin for the place-name element “cole.” In Rowland’s ‘Mona Antiqua Restaurata’ (2nd edition, 1766, p. 48), the word “coel” is mentioned in connection with tumuli and cairns, and it is said there are “grounds of probability that it really was some solemn appurtenance of religion, although now quite forgotten.”

Consulting Dr. Pugh’s ‘Welsh Dictionary’ I find:—Coel, An omen, belief; Coelbren, A piece of wood used in choosing or ballotting, whereon are cut the names of candidates; Coel y beirdd, The alphabet of the bards; Coelcerth, Omen of danger, beacon, bonfire; Coelfain, The stones of omen. The above suggest Druidical practices.

There is an earthwork east of Colchester marked on the 1in. Ord. Map as “King Coel’s Castle,” and between Neath and Brecon is an early entrenched camp called Coelbren.

As regards “cold” in place-names, the following are additional Herefordshire experiences tending to connect the word with sighted trackways. (1) I visited Coldstone Common on account of its name, and found a straight slightly sunken track (which could not be a water course) along its whole length. (2) I visited Coldman Hill for the same reason, and found a straight sunken track going down to a Wye crossing from which the track (its hollow) formed a V notch in the sky-line. (3) I halted at a certain spot (a road junction) on the high-way because I had a long distance sighted track marked as crossing there. A cottage stood on the high ground at the spot. No name was marked for it on the map, but I remarked to my companion that being obviously a sighting point it might have an ancient place-name, and would he knock at the door and ask? The name was Cold Nose.

Alfred Watkins.