Linda Richards: Deaf Head Wood… and other ‘Deaf’ place names

Posted on November 30, 2012

Recently I was going to Bentham, a place on the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, some twenty miles east of Preston, UK. So, like many, I headed for Google and the AA Route Finder and spotted in the map a place near to where I was going called ‘Deaf Head Wood’.

How interesting, or maybe even gruesome…?

Had a Deaf person in days gone by been beheaded for some misdemeanor with their head displayed as a warning for all to see? Or had it evolved because it’s next to a junction of roads [on that note, check out the root of the word ‘trivia’!] and was a meeting point for Deaf people in days gone by?

Was it the equivalent of meeting under the Lamp-post for Deaf people? Or had it been a site of Summer picnics for Deaf people – a kind of early Blackpool Rally [now ‘Deafpool’] or ‘Sign Circle’?!

I knew when I got there that I’d certainly be asking the folk there what they knew of Deaf Head Wood and its origins.

It reminded me however of a time many moons ago when I applied for a job in County Durham in the north of England, and as part of that, I was looking at the local papers [there’s some fascinating stuff in local papers that tell you so much about the community] and specifically at the property pages.

How I loved the quaint names and I smiled at the thought of living in Pity Me. Did the people there feel sorry for themselves? How did others view them?

But then I spotted Deaf Hill! Wow, imagine living in a place called ‘Deaf Hill’! The name first appears in the Ecclesiastical Parish records of 1874 and is listed as Deaf Hill cum Langdale. Bit of a mouthful, methinks!

As a result of all this, a ‘Deaf’ bee in my bonnet developed and I started to do a wee search. ‘Wee’ being apt for it was easy to start with the most well known Deaf place name in Britain.

Those of us familiar with Edinburgh and its Deaf history [and thanks to John Hay for confirming the accuracy of my information] will be aware of the part of Edinburgh known as Dumbiedykes. This was the location where Thomas Braidwood established his Academy for the Deaf and Dumb in 1760, recognised as the first Deaf school in Britain.

The building was called Dumbie House and I assume the prominence of the school and its pupils later led to the area being affectionately known locally as Dumbiedykes.

Anyway, this started me on the search for other place names and I uncovered a wonderful YouTube clip from the Irish Deaf Archives in which Alvean Jones uncovers and relates the findings [in ISL] of Irish Deaf Place Names as referenced by P.W. Joyce in his book ‘The Origins and History of Irish Names of Places’ published in 1875 and specifically on pages 46-49.

What was fascinating was that the Irish word ‘bodhar’ meant ‘Deaf’ and had variations including ‘bother’ of which there were two meanings, one being ‘to signify annoyance or trouble’ and the other, which was originally ‘Deaf’ and used in the phrase ‘to turn a bothered ear’ – known to us now in English as ‘to turn a deaf ear’.

There are references to ‘bower’ which is another variation of ‘Deaf’ and Jones illustrates the six place names in Ireland called Glenbower – or the ‘Deaf Glen’…. Grab a peek – and if you’re not au fait with ISL, grab an Irish friend too!

Other place names around Britain, nay, the world, include…

Deaf Adder Creek which is a river in the Northern Territory, Australia, near Darwin. Searches on the internet may throw up references to both Death Adder and Deaf Adder….

According to ‘The Explorers of Australia and Their Life-work’, the name ‘death-adder’ seems to have been given by explorers to the area in 1878 and is linked with the number of death-adders found and killed there.

However, Volume 19 of ‘The Friend’, a religious and literary journal, published in 1846 and edited by Robert Smith indicates that these adders [incidentally among the ten most venomous in the world!] were initially called Deaf-adders and there are references to them in aboriginal paintings. (more on this below)

Deaf Smith County in Texas was named in honour of Erastus ‘Deaf’ Smith, [1787 – 1837], an American frontiersman, Texas Revolution hero, Republic of Texas soldier and leader of the Texas Rangers.

Originally from New York state, he moved to Texas in 1821 for health reasons. Smith recovered but was left partially deaf which led to the nickname ‘Deaf Smith’ (pronounced ‘Deef,’ as is the town). There have been at least eight films and television movies about Smith including ‘Los Amigos’ released in 1972 with Smith portrayed by the actor, Anthony Quinn.

Smith’s name was used for a brand of peanut butter called ‘Deaf Smith’ in the 1960s, some 120 years after his death, Many schools in Texas called their schools after heroes of the Texas Revolution and Smith’s name was given to many including Lamar’s CSID’s Deaf Smith Elementary in Richmond, Texas.

Probably more famous than Deaf Smith County, is Martha’s Vineyard located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, USA. It was home to one of the earliest known deaf communities in the United States and developed its own sign language known as ‘MVSL’. Do check out ‘Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language’ by Nora Ellen Groce which also includes how in stark contrast to many of our experiences, everyone who was hearing and living in this predominantly deaf community ‘spoke’ sign language and made for a truly integrated society with no differentiation between ‘deaf or ‘hearing’ people and no need for ‘labels’ or even the sense of being ‘disabled’.

However, Martha’s Vineyard does not contain the word ‘Deaf’ in its name. That makes it the same as the Irish place name ‘bodhar/bothered/bower’ referred to above. Are there other place names which are, to borrow a phrase, ‘lost in translation’? Is there a bit of Deaf history in the place names in your area?

So what of Deaf Head Wood? Deaf Head Wood is next to the junction of ‘Mewith Lane’. Hmmm, is that pronounced ‘mew-ith’ or ‘Me-With’? The vision of ‘Me – With – [insert name of person or their sign-name]’ is lovely to imagine too!

Alas the locals in the area and at the farm I was at knew nothing about the origins of the name. There are other names of other woods nearby which seem to be named after people and activities such as ‘Simon’s Wood’ ‘Tom Ingham Wood’ ‘Horse Shoe Wood’ and the rather unfortunately named ‘Flashers Wood’.

Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Not unsurprising really. Deaf people have their place in the world and are bound to be identified via place names. So, what ‘Deaf’ place names are there near you? And what are their roots? Tell us below!

Linda Richards is Deaf + pays council tax in Surrey but is rarely there. She is also a consultant, trainer, interpreter and translator + specialises in media + trustee of BSLBT + company secretary and volunteer for Gerry Hughes Quest III, a Deaf man’s solo circumnavigation of the world.

(more on ‘Deaf Adders:

The snake in question is some two and a half feet long, thick in body and dangerous at both ends for in addition to its bite, it has a sting in the tail like a scorpion’s.
The book ‘Venomous Snakes of the World’ by Mark O’Shea states that the name death adder is likely to be a derivation of the colonial name ‘deaf adder’.  This is a reference to the fact that while other Australian snakes fled when approached, this small squat snake stayed where it was and was presumed to be deaf. 
I delved deeper and other searches [this is really fascinating stuff…!] highlighted a number of biblical and literary references.  One such book, ‘A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature’ included examples such as ‘like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear’ with Rabbi Solomon suggesting the interpretation of this is the feature of the viper ‘putting its ear to the ground to hear approaching prey and stopping the other with its tail’. 
There’s Dickens who writes in ‘Nicholas Nickerby’ of  someone being as ‘deaf as an adder’ and Nellie in Willa Cather’s ‘My Mortal Enemy’ is warned not to approach her potential antagonist with the words, “She’d turn a deaf ear to you. You know the Bible says the deaf are wicked like the adder.  And Nellie, she has the wrinkled, white throat of an adder and the hard eyes of one.  Don’t go near her!”.’)
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