Who put the ‘Bees’ in Beeston?
People travelling into Beeston by tram are greeted at the intersection of Lower Road and Queens Road by a large sign depicting a beehive and the words ‘Welcome to Beeston’.
The bee is a familiar sight around Beeston; there is the statue of a beehive in the high street, bees appeared on the coat of arms for Beeston and Stapleford, and beehive reliefs even adorn the frontispiece of our beleaguered town hall. It would be reasonable to guess that the ‘Bee’ in ‘Beeston’ is derived from some historical connection of bees with the town, much in the way that the city of Bath is named for its famous Roman baths.
The antiquarian A.E. Lawson Lowe claimed just that when he examined the etymology of the name Beeston in 1888. Lawson Lowe argued that the name Beeston derived from the combination of the Old English words bēo, meaning bee, and tun, meaning town or settlement, and suggested the source of the name might be due to some great abundance of beehives in the area. If this were the case it is curious that, despite the bee iconography that decorates the town, there remains little evidence of great beekeeping activity in the area. Why is it that one can buy honey made in Wollaton, but no unique brand of Beeston-made heritage honey?
There have been various attempts over the years to explain this apparent discrepancy. During the industrial revolution it was suggested that the bees in the name referred to Beeston becoming a ‘hive of activity’. The Survey of English Place Names, produced by The English Place-Name Society in collaboration with the University of Nottingham, has suggested an alternative origin for our town’s name. They argue that the ‘bees’ in Beeston stems from the Old English bēos, meaning bent rye grass or reeds, rather than from bēo, meaning bee, and that ‘Beeston’ means a settlement notable for its grassland, not its bees. There is certainly a case for this. The Old English plural of bees is bēon, and if the town were named for bees it would have incorporated the ‘n’ in bēon, resulting in the name ‘Beenton’ (bēon + tun). Historical references to Beeston support this claim. In the Domesday Book of 1086 the settlement is referred to as Bestune, and in a 1610 map of The Countie of Nottingham held in Beeston library the town is referred to as Beston.
The modern visitor to Beeston, travelling into Beeston by tram and seeing the ‘Welcome to Beeston’ sign, might be surprised to learn that our seemingly developed town was once notable for its sweeping grasslands. Yet this connection between Beeston and grasslands has survived further into modernity than one might first assume. Margaret Cooper recorded in her 1996 book The Beeston Story how older folk could still remember wild rye growing on the Trent Road. In his 1955 description of The River Trent J.H. Ingram describes Beeston as being surrounded by a ‘wide … plain’. The fact that the part of town south of the railway is called Rylands further testifies to this enduring connection with rye grass. This supposed Old English origin of Beeston’s name is perhaps more relevant to Beeston’s recent history than the modern visitor might first assume.
For further reading on the history of Beeston’s name see the following texts available at Beeston Library:
Cooper, M. (1996) The Beeston Story (Nottingham)
Earp, F. E. & Earp, J. (2017) Secret Beeston (Gloucester).