Who Was Bugsby?
E.W.Green From Port of London. April 1948
WHEN I find that the antiquarians of London’s River have failed to find Mr. Bugsby I am encouraged to expound my views on the origin of the name “Bugsby.” It might be conjectured that Mr. Bugsby should be sought for in the title deeds of the landowners of the district still called in Bartholomew’s Atlas of London “Bugsby Marshes, Greenwich, S.E.10.” That is where the name originated. But I do not think they will find Mr. Bugsby there.
I once asked the late A. G. Linney who Bugsby was, and he gave me the seemingly obvious answer that he was a man, but I do not think he was right. I see that on p. 62 of “The Lure and Lore of London’s River “he suggests that he was a market gardener. I do not think that is right, either.” His marsh would be the poorest place for market gardening, and it is not shown as such on any map.
But let us get back to ancient history. I give a table of the names of the reaches in 1588 set against those of the present day. You will notice that several reaches have changed their names and Bugsby’s was then Podd’s Elmes. Podd’s Elms were a group of trees to the west of Woolwich; as they must have been well grown in 1588 they could not have lasted much longer, and it is unlikely that they survived the great storm of 1703.
I wonder if people in the 18th century used to ask ‘Who was Mr. Podd and where are his elms? “Now Bugsby’s Marshes is the land to the south of Blackwall Point where executed criminals were formerly hung in chains. I am going to suggest that this marsh was once called “Bugs Marsh.” This is a pure guess on my part but might be confirmed by more extensive records than I possess. This word ” bug ” is a good British (ancient Welsh) word and, therefore, a word of the common people; it is used by Shakespeare two or three times—even by a queen in one of his plays. It meant “spook”. It is the origin of “bogey” and “boggart” and is still preserved in the compound “bugbear.” Coverdale uses it in his Bible Psalm XCI-5 “eny bugge by night,” where the authorised version has “the terror by night.” The funny old litany ” From all ghostliest and bogles and things that go whoof in the night, Good Lord deliver us,” may be a forgery, but its sentiment is very real. The bogle is a diminutive of our “bug.”
The common people of the 16th century lived in a holy terror of bugs, i.e., spooks, and where were they more likely to meet them than on that bleak marsh fringed around with corpses on Blackwall Point? Therefore, I think they called it “Bugs Marsh,” but they were illiterate and were unable to write it. In the 17th century a new bug made its appearance. It originally meant beetle, and still exists with that meaning m the compound maybug, cockchafer. It had quite a different origin than the bug meaning spook; it is generally supposed to be derived from an Anglo-Saxon word. It was used by entomologists for various insects and their larva, and nearly found its Waterloo when it was adopted as a euphemism for louse. It was banned by polite society, but those being less so continued.
In the early years of the 19th century people, other than the sailor folk and the tough fellows going to the Colonies to seek their fortune were using the lower reaches. There were ladies going to join their husbands in India and many were going only as far as the Kent Coast to spend a summer holiday. These people would naturally be interested in the history and names of places they passed on their journey. As proof of this we have guide books and a panorama that were published at the time. I have a small sketch of Blackwall Point published in one of these guide books in 1831. The corpses have gone, but not very long since; for the gibbets are still there- and they would not last long in that sodden ground. The gibbets would naturally excite the Interest of these passengers. The map-makers were the first to realise that they could not call the marsh ‘Bugs Marsh’ so they made it into a surname by adding “by”. There are plenty of surnames which end in “by” many of them originally nicknames. I used to think that Mrs Humby, who challenged Theodore Hook to find a rhyme to her name and lost her bet, was an invention, but I found three “Humbys” in the directory. Saxby is a genuine place name. “By” was a Scandinavian farm. There are plenty of English ‘bys’ – Darby, Nobby, Libby, Bugby – all these from the directory, and many more. So why not Bugsby? Bugsby’s Marsh first appears on any map I have from 1822. In the guide book of 1831 previously mentioned it makes its first appearance on the River as Bugsby’s Hole. Linney seems to think that Bugsby’s Hole and Bugsby’s Reach were two different things; but they were not – thev were the same. Bugsby’s Reach does not appear before 1815. Raife Walker’s Map of 1796 makes the reach an extension of Woolwich Reach and: several other undated maps do the same. But why Hole? I have done my full share of guessing. I leave this riddle to someone else.
NAMES OF REACHES
IN 1558 PRESENT DAY
The poole The Pool
Ratcliffe Reache Lower Pool
Limehouse Reache Limehouse Reach
Greenwich Reache Greenwich Reach
Blackwall Reache Blackwall Reach
(Cockpull Reache is only the very short stretch of the River past Blackwall Point).
Podd’s Elmes Reache Bugsbys Reach
Woolwich Reache Woolwich Reach
Gallion Reache Gallions Reach
Tripcott Reache Barking Reach
Cross Nesse Reache Halfway Reach
Erithe Reache Erith Reach
Longe Reache Long Reach
St. Clement Reache St. Clement Reach
Northfeete Hope Northfleet Hope
Gravesend Reache Gravesend Reach
Tilbury Hope Lower Hope
• From the map of ihe Thames by Robert Adams, 1588
Return to Bugsby’s Hole some background