The Importance of a Sheffield Border

by John Clarke


I’ve just been reading a great book of walks around Sheffield, printed for John Thomas in 1844, like you do. He mentions an ancient place called Northe-Towne as an area of Sheffield. I come from near Norton but that’s the south of Sheffield, about as south as you can get. Only when you look at a map from 1810 do you see it refers to its position in Derbyshire. Its high position gives it views down into the neighbouring county of Yorkshire, so it was important, hence the ancient church. Go back even further and we find its northern point in Mercia on the Northumbrian border. Hence Northe-Towne now called Norton. At this point, I looked at the old borders and was amazed by the references to these within the towns’ and rivers’ names, even today. Just by Virgin Active on the River Sheaf you see a water outlet running into the river. It’s the Meers Brook. When you look up the origin of the word, Brook means shallow water, or lake, and Meers means “he who lived near a boundary”, deriving from the Olde English “(ge)moere” meaning “boundary”.The boundary is that of Mercia and Northumbria. The word origin for Sheaf is similar, derived from the river’s protection between the two tribal regions (sceað meaning ‘boundary’ in Old English), i.e., like a sheaf that you put knives in or a natural gap. If you want to see the border as it is today, watch the brilliant Patrick Dickenson YouTube video by looking up “Meersbrook” on YouTube.

If you want to walk from one room into another you walk through a door. It’s the same if you walk from one area to another you walk through a “Dore”. Dore literally means door, in this case, the entrance

into Northumbria from Mercia. It was at this Dore-way that the first overlord of all England, King Egbert, took his role as the first king of England. Anywhere else in England a great church would be built, but it’s Sheffield, so we have a school, many centuries later. The border carried on up to Gleadless and dropped down Shirebrook, again a brook between two Shires, right the way up to the River Rother. This importance was why Sheffield had a castle. You can go back even further and look at the likes of Wincobank Fort, many years before the 9th century. These rivers were also the boundary of the ancient Romano-British Kingdom of Elmet, so our importance goes back many thousands of years into the past. The other thing I love is the names of people. If you came from a small gathering of buildings or an enclosure it was usually named after the person who owned it. Surnames were not generally used so they were first names. So, if your dad was John, the land was John’s ton. If your dad called you Peter then you were Peter from Johns ton. This is now Peter Johnston Kingston is another great example of how towns got their names, as it was the town that Saxon kings were crowned in, i.e., king’s ton. How did Sheffield get its name then? From the river named Sheaf and the Old English word ‘feld’ meaning pasture or open country, referring to the area by the boundary. On my favourite old maps, it’s still called Sheafeld and there is still an old bridge in Sheffield that spans between Mercia and Northumbria, but that’s for you to find?