Is Stratford’s Maryland an American plant on the Newham map?
- Credit: Archant
Many American cities are named after places in England – Boston, Richmond, Springfield.
But Newham has an example that’s the other way round. Local legend says the Stratford district of Maryland is an American place-name planted on the map of east London.
Not so, says Ged Martin, a retired professor interested in local history.
Maryland was called Maryland Point until 1940. Prof Martin thinks the “Point” was dropped to emphasis kinship with the USA at a dangerous moment in the War when Britain desperately needed American support.
At first just a handful of houses, Maryland Point first appears on a map in 1696. In 1725, Daniel Defoe – the author of Robinson Crusoe, who lived locally – said the cluster was a recent development.
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In 1768, Essex historian the Reverend Philip Morant introduced the tale that the first houses were built by a merchant who’d made his fortune in Maryland.
“Morant was great with old parchments,” says Prof Martin, “but he was a credulous gossip when somebody spun him a good story.”
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He argues that a rich merchant who was a property developer should surely have been remembered by name.
There have been attempts to associate Maryland Point with a tobacco planter called Richard Lee, who lived at Stratford (when he wasn’t in America) between 1658 and 1663.
He was a fifth generation ancestor of Robert E Lee, the famous Southern general in the American Civil War.
Prof Martin isn’t persuaded.
“Richard Lee was around for a very short time, and he’s 25 years too early. The only property we know he owned was in Stratford High Street.
“He had some investments in the American Maryland, but his wealth came from Virginia. As a colonial politician, he didn’t always agree with the Marylanders.
“Saying that he named the area Maryland is like expecting a Spurs fan to call his house Arsenal because he’d attended a few away matches at the Emirates.”
Prof Martin believes the name originated in an Old English word for a boundary. Maryland is close to West Ham’s parish boundary with Wanstead.
“The Anglo-Saxons had two words for a boundary, maere and mearc.
“The first gives us Mare Street in Hackney, the second Markhouse Road in Walthamstow. The difference between them isn’t clear, but mearc may refer to a boundary district (as in Denmark) and meare to a line.
“A two-syllable word, Meare could easily become Mary-. In some places, it survives as Merry-.”
Essex had other Marylands.
“Kelvedon beyond Chelmsford had a Marylands Farm, right on the parish boundary.
“There’s still a Marylands Wood near Hockley Station, beside the Shenfield to Southend railway. It’s also on a parish boundary.
“The name was recorded in 1736, but ecology proves this is ancient woodland.
“There’s a Marylands interchange on the A12 near Brentwood.”
England doesn’t have many documents from before the Normans arrived in 1066, but a copy survives of a charter of 958, describing the boundaries of Newham.
“The northern side of West Ham was called ‘byrc maere’”, Prof Martin points out. “Experts say it means ‘birch-tree boundary’.”
He thinks the name went underground for hundreds of years – as he says, “we don’t have a lot of medieval written records for the Stratford area” – but remained in use locally, giving its venerable name to the houses built around 1690.
The American state has its own anthem. Sung to the tune of the Red Flag, its opening line is “O Maryland, my Maryland”.
Prof Martin believes that Newham’s Maryland has a thousand-year history.
“We should reject the idea of a backwash from the USA, and sing,’ O Maryland, OUR Maryland’”, he says.
Ged Martin’s research essay, “Maryland: an American place-name in east London?”, is available on the martinalia section of www.gedmartin.net: https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/320-maryland-an-american-place-namein-east-london.