From Beamfleote to Benfleet
Local place-name origins
The English language is to a great degree the legacy of the Anglo-Saxons, for it was Alfred the Great who insisted on events being recorded in written form and it is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that we first find mention of Beamfleote.
However, literacy took a while to take hold and it was not until 1855, with the arrival of the railways that consistency became important and the current spelling was agreed on. In the intervening years it became Benfleota, Bienflet, Beanflota, Bemflet, Bamflet, Beniflet, Baunflet and Bewinflete.
Beam meaning wooded and Fleot meaning creek gives us a tree-lined creek. This makes perfect sense as we know that timber was exported from Benfleet Creek to London and it is the derivation that P.H. Reaney endorses in his standard work on Essex place-names published in 1935.
However another author of a book on Essex place-names, James Kemble, offers the possibility that Beam can be interpreted as timbers and hence refers to a bridge over the creek. My first thought was that, without doing our Anglo-Saxon ancestors a disservice, it was another 1000 years before a bridge appeared. At the time there would have been no economic or military advantage to warrant a bridge.
Kemble believes that it would have been near the current bridge and for good measure includes a recent photo of the bridge in question in the distance. Again I remained sceptic for his photo showed the A130 bridge and not the Benfleet one.
However on rechecking Reaney’s book I find in a different section a list of elements with “beam” shown as meaning bridge and in support of Kemble’s belief that the bridge would have been in the vicinity of the A130 bridge, Harold Priestley, the eminent local historian, belived that the Romans built a road from Chelmsford to Canvey that bridged the creek to Canvey from the north-west.
At the end of the day would you name a settlement after a bridge some distance away ? While not discounting the bridge theory, I tend towards the tree-lined creek interpretation.
Apart from naming places after geographical features, several local place-names derive from their owner’s name, for example Jarvis Hall from Gervis de Benefete, Kersey Marsh from Sampson de Kerseye, Boyce Hill from William Boyce, Poynetts from John Poynaunt and Reeds Hill from William le Rede. So, some explanations, but still no definitive answer to the origins of Bread and Cheese Hill.
Reference sources :
Reaney, P. H. – The Place-names of Essex, Cambridge University Press 1935
Kemble, James – Essex place-names, Historical Publications 2007
Priestley H.E. – A History of Benfleet : early days