River Cam or Rhee? Some notes on the naming

If we take as our starting point the Ordnance Survey maps (Explorer 208-9) we see the tributary rising from springs at Ashwell in Herts, described as the ‘River Rhee’. When it crosses the county boundary it is called the ‘River Cam or Rhee’ repeatedly until after the Hauxton junction with the Granta, whereafter it is named the Cam.

In his earlier article on the name of the river (1 – see end notes) Cecil Chapman argued that there was little evidence for Rhee as a proper name for the Cam before 1800 and that he was not sure why it was used later by the Ordnance Survey. Chapman referred to the fact that the records of the original unpublished survey maps compiled between 1799-1811 by the military surveyors were destroyed by fire in the Second World War, leaving their sources undiscovered.

However there is a good deal of cartographic and topographical evidence for the use of Rhee as a name, which would have been available to the surveyors and would have informed the naming of the river in the first published OS map of 1836.

According to authorities on English place names the word Rhee derives from an old English word (ea, rea or rhee) meaning water course or river, which first came into use no later than the 13th cent. Ekwall gives examples of Ree or Rhee as alternative names for the Ashwell tributory of the Cam for the 16-17th centuries (2).

Chapman can find only one early map, that of Philip Lea in 1869 which refers to the Ashwell tributory of the Cam as the Rhee. However Sir Henry Chauncey in his topographical survey of ”The Historical Antiquities of Hertfordshire’, first published in 1700, contains a map by H. Moll of the county naming the river at Ashwell the Rhee. Perhaps Lea is Moll’s source?

Chauncey describes the river rising at Ashwell thus: ‘The Rhee (a Saxon term that signifies a water course or river) comes from a source of springs, which spin from small veins out of rock or stone, joining together at a space of two furlongs, making a torrent that drives a mill, one for wheat the other for mault; and on the sudden swells to a fair river falling away by Arrington bridge crosses the road called Ermine Street and overtaking the Cam (Granta?) leads to Cambridge’, (3rd edn.,vol.1, p.3a).

A set of ‘New and Corrected Maps of England and Wales’ published by Moll in 1724 shows the ‘Rhea River’ rising at Ashwell on the Herts. map and named the ‘Cam River’ from Shingay on the Cambs. map. J. Ellis’s ‘English Atlas’ of 1773, Laurie and Whittle’s ‘New and Improved English Atlas’ of 1808, John Cary’s ‘New and Correct English Atlas’, of 1807 and the ‘New British Atlas’ of 1832 all show the ‘Rhea’ or ‘Rhee’ river rising at Ashwell on the Herts. map and ‘Cam river’ on the Cambs. map, from Wendy or lower down at Barrington. (Map collection, Cambridge University Library).

It is also interesting to note that these later maps generally refer to the spring source of the river at Ashwell as Rhea or Rhee ‘Head’. The surveyor and map maker, John Oliver published a map of Herts. in 1695, based on his previous survey notes and sketches of twenty years before, which describes the ‘Rhee river’  flowing from Ashwell. John Warburton’s later map of 1749 shows Rhee ‘head’ as well as river. (Four County Maps of Herts., with an introduction by D. Hodson, 1985).

Salmon’s ‘History of Hertfordshire’ (1728) notes Ashwell as standing ‘upon the source of the River Rhee, which breaks out of the rock in this village to form many springs, with such force as to form a stream’. Again J.E. Cussans’ later ‘History of Hertfordshire’ (1869) describes ‘the river Rhee, a tributory of the Cam,’ (vol. 1, p. 23) taking its rise from the springs at Ashwell.

So there is much evidence from maps and other sources to show a stronger association beween the Rhee and its Hertfordshire origins. Across the county boundary the naming of the river is more closely associated with the city of Cambridge. The name being a ‘back formation’ from the town name. The OS maps merely reflect this distinction between the two counties. One can therefore imagine the surveyors looking at the available sources and hedging their bets.

The names of rivers often change over time and the Rhee or Cam is a case in point. It is interesting to note that current practice in the valley, for example in terms of the names of local business’s, is to use the appellation ‘Rhee’ rather than ‘Cam’; although geographical sources have generally referred to the ‘upper Cam valley’ when describing the area through which the Ashwell tributory runs.

An interesting postcript to this blog is provided by a piece in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (PCAS, see note 3) by Stephen Yeates – ‘Senuna, Goddess of the River Rhee or Henney’. This concerns the 2002 discovery of a hoard of Romano British gold, jewellery and silver figurines dedicated to the Dea Senuna, located near the bank of the River Rhee about 1.5km from the spring at Ashwell. Yeates suggests that the Ashwell tributory would originally have born the name of this river goddess and discusses the linguistical route by which it ended up being called the Rhee. To summarise his article: Senuna was shortened to Senna, which in turn becomes Henna – Henney, ey, eg or ea being associated in Old English with water and then re, rea or rhee in Middle English. See also my later blogs: The River Rhee – an ancient sacred river and Romano-British villas/cemetaries and shrine complexes in the wider region.

End Notes:

1. C. Chapman, ‘The Name of the River’, chapter 1, ‘Cam or Rhee’, Barrington Local Conservation Society, 1973. (Available at Cambridge Central Library local history collection).

2.Elbert Ekwall, English River Names, Oxford, 1928, pp. 336-7; Glover, Mower and Stanton, The Place Names of Hertfordshire; P.Reaney, Place Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, CUP, 1943.

3. PCAS, XCVII, 2009, pp. 65-8.


About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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5 Responses to River Cam or Rhee? Some notes on the naming

  1. elisabethgoodman says:

    Thank you Jonathan, this is a very helpful reference for the many people I meet who are interested in the origins of my company name: RiverRhee Consulting (http://www.riverrhee.com)

  2. Rob M says:

    Another very interesting summary of what I expect is masses of literature and map searching. Thanks (nothing more to add on this one, but having re-read the “Shepreth, a watery parish” will send another question direct to you)

  3. Hi Rob
    For anyone interested, the Map Room at Cambridge University Library is an excellent place to start looking for maps of the area. Also the Local History Room at the Central Library in Cambridge. Then of course there is the County Record Office at Castle Hill. The Royston Town Library has a good local history collection, including a set of the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society – which has masses of archeaological and historical information.

  4. Further to this “blog” and the foregoing comments, there is an interesting comparison to be made with the river and stream names ‘Rea’ in Shropshire. In the south east of the county, the river Rea runs into the river Teme. It flows past Neen Savage, Neen Sollars and Neenton; formerly the river has been known as the Neen, a name held to be pre-English. In the west of the county, a separate water-flow, the Rea Brook (pronounced Ree Brook) flows into the River Severn. In its lower reaches, it was named the Meole – it flows past Cruckmeole and Meole Brace. These are further instances of the Old English “Rea” being a generic name for a flow of water, and we see too, that there is a river named Ray in Oxfordshire.

    “Cam” may be a pre-Saxon generic name. Further to the River Cam in Cambridgeshire, there is a river Cam in Gloucestershire, which runs into the river Severn, and we have another place named “Cambridge” to accompany it; then again in the county of Somerset another “Cam” is a tributary of the river Yeo.

    In Wales there are three water-courses bearing the name “Cam-“, one of which has given its name to the battle of’ “Camddwr”, of the year 1075. Dŵr is the Welsh word for water, whilst Cam means winding, hence winding or crooked water-course. Further, the word camas (pl. camais) means bend or loop (in a river, inlet or bay), whilst camlas means ditch, mill race, channel, creek, canal, river bank, meadow near river. And, for comparison with the construction of the word camdwr, Gwenddwr (a Welsh place-name) may be translated as white-water, where gwen means “white”.

    Of the three Welsh Camddwr water-flows, one runs into Llyn Brianne (Soar y Mynydd is beside the Camddwr stream, and the outflow from Llyn Brianne runs into the river Tywi), one is a tributary of the river Ithon which it joins at Abercamddwr, and another rises west of Bronnant to join the river Teifi north of Tregaron.

    It seems that Cam (as for Rea) is a generic name for a flow of water, whether it be stream, brook or river, Cam pre-dating Rea. Another example of the application of a generic name is the (river) Llugwy, which we find in Snowdonia – a tributary of the river Conwy – and again the river Lugg = Afon Llugwy which rises near Llangynllo and flows through Presteigne. Yet again we find the source of a stream some ½ km. west of Cwm Lygwa Wood, in the English / Welsh borderland, quite distinct from the source of the Afon (river) Llugwy, which rises about 13½ km. to the south.
    A writer from earlier days [William Camden (Britannia 1695)] gives Llugwy as, “clear water, from llug which signifies light” (compare with llugyn, a beam of light or brightness); the suffix -wy is not infrequently applied in river names, as in Afon Gwy (river Wye), see Owen and Morgan’s Dictionary of the Place-Names of Wales p. 498. Other instances of the suffix -wy include Conwy, Banwy and Dyfrdwy (river Dee).

    Note: There is one river name we do not consider further in this comment, namely the Camlad, which is the only river to rise in England and flow into Wales. In A Study of Montgomeryshire Place-Names Richard Morgan writes “The OS map’s Camlad is a relatively recent form, probably created by misassociation …” so we are left without a satisfactory explanation of the origin of its name.

    We note that the name Yale (University) stems from the Welsh habitation name Iâl (dweller at the fertile upland) and in the name Cam, Cambridge too has a Brythonic origin.

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