Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Godmanchester Huntingdonshire Begersbusshe 1576

This is the best known Beggars Bush site, though for the wrong reason, and through unusual  sources. The site was on Ermine Street, which was the main northern road west of the fens. John Walker’s The Universal Gazetteer (London 1798) lists two Beggars Bushes, including this one and another in Middlesex at Enfield.

It is now the site of the Wood Green Animal Refuge, at King’s Bush Farm.

It is on a summit standing at 138ft above sea level in an area where the average height of the surrounding country is closer to 50ft. From London it is the last of a series of rises, and in both directions the trees on the summit stand out against the skyline. It would be widely visible, not only from the Great North Road, (A1198) but from the roads to Stevenage & London (A1) and the road to Cambridge (A14). It would be passed by travellers from London to the north of England.

Although widely cited as being a rendezvous for beggars there is no local story of this. The exposed geography of the site is similar to that of several other Beggars Bush sites where the name clearly designates poor land – the beggars were the owners or those who were foolish to farm it. Compared with the more secret and sheltered valleys nearby it offered an unattractive place for vagrant and vagabonds.

The place name is first recorded on Christopher Saxton’s Five Counties Map of Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, & Rutland (1576). Reproductions and copies have been a major route for the distribution of the name. See the Huntingdonshire sheet of John Speed’s proof map Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1611/12). The location is shown as a small single hill with a single tree on top. 1” O.S. Survey shows shows a single tree within the margin of the road, though the area is a quite extensive plateau used as a car park with a clump of trees near the road.

The site, and probably the name, would have come to the notice of map readers from a wide area. However, by the mid 18th century Beggar’s Bush had become King’s Bush, that name being recorded for the first time in 1706. Local Maps of 1754 & 1768 show King’s Bush only, while a map of 1749, based on survey information from 1730-31 calls is “Kings Bush vul: Beggars Bush”. The influence of this location as a type example survived long after the use of the name ceased locally. It is also notable that there are not many Beggars Bush place names nearby, which suggests the influence of the site was through other printed sources of word of mouth.

John Taylor, The Water Poet, in the dedication to his The Praise, Antiquity and Commodity of Beggary, Beggars & begging, etc. (1621) referred to “Beggars Bush, neere Andever, or to his Hawthorne brother within a mile of Huntingdon”. Although he passed the site on his travels he does not mention doing so. Given that Taylor delighted in the curious this suggests that there was nothing on the site to be worth writing about, which suggests that Taylor’s knowledge of the site was primarily from a map.

Saxton’s map shows a single tree a symbol not a representation. Taylor says both were hawthorn, but whether they were trees or just hawthorn scrub cannot be known. Ordnance Survey maps showed a single tree on the verge of the road, and there is now a stand of tall trees within the farmland, which is now a car park.

Thomas Fuller in his The History of the Worthies of England (1662) refers to the phrase in the  standard literary usage linked to this site

This is at least 25 years after the first record, and is not a naming story. There must be doubts about the veracity of the anecdote and it was later mangled until it produced the inaccurate entry in Brewer’s Dictionary.

While there are records of a visit by King James in 1603 there is no record of a visit while Bacon was Chancellor between 1617-21. There is a record of the local husbandmen meeting passing monarchs with up to 70 ploughs, and James granted a Royal Charter to Godmanchester in 1604. A local website says that there is local tradition that this took place at King’s Bush, which would then have been Beggars Bush. The site is suitable, adjoining the highway, being prominent, open and flat. In the 17th century Godmanchester was described as ‘a very great county Toune, and of as great name for tillage; situate in an open ground, of a light mould, and bending to ye sun.

Fuller was widely read and quoted in other local histories and his wording was adopted by anthologists of proverbs. E. Cobham Brewer, in his famous Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1895) says: “Beggar’s Bush is the name of a tree which once stood on the left hand of the London road from Huntingdon to Caxton; so called because it was a noted rendezvous for beggars.”.  Analysis of the earlier anthologies, show how Halliwell conflated their entries, based on Fuller, with a different source which implied, without evidence, the use of the phrase as a rendezvous for beggars, but not directly associated with this site, which was then adopted by Brewer.

Another proof that the phrase was used locally in proverbial not literal form is that in an article in 1891 on Fenland Proverbs and Quaint Saying Charles Dack, a local historian, wrote: “He is on his way to Beggars bush,” in Huntingdonshire, applied to a spendthrift. The tree called “Beggar’s bush” is near Godmanchester.”


Philip Saunders, Beggars Bush to King’s Bush Records of Huntingdonshire, Vol.3 No.2 (1993) pp.13-15

Neil Howlett, Beggars Bush Revisited in Vol.4 No.3 (2014) p.32-37

A History of the County of Huntingdonshire: Volume 2 (1932), pp. 286-96)

C. Dack,  ‘Fenland Proverbs and Quaint Saying’, (p.92) in Saunders, W. H. B (ed.) Fenland notes & queries. A quarterly antiquarian journal for the fenland, in the counties of Huntingdon, Cambridge, Lincoln, Northampton, Norfolk, and Suffolk (1891), Vol. I. (April 1st 1889 to Oct 1st 1891) : G. C. Caster, Peterborough


Philip Saunders and Alan Akeroyd Cambridgeshire RO,

The late Sir Angus Fraser

David Baxendale Genmaps;

Steve Roberts The Old Map Company

Richard Coates

Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, Saxton, Map, John Taylor, Andover, print, Thomas Fuller, Brewer, anthologies, proverbs

Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Filed under: Places | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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