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A Ordnance Survey map of Purgatory, circa 1919

A Ordnance Survey map of Purgatory, circa 1919

A Farm called Purgatory

17 February 2023

An unusual name jumps out at you while browsing maps of the River Dorn between Steeple Barton and Wootton: Purgatory. What is this hellish-sounding place, and how did it get its name?

Purgatory: a brief history

The name 'Purgatory' appears for this spot on maps dating back to 1797, although the name Dry Grounds is listed for this spot in records dating to the 1730s. By 1851, census records show that Purgatory had become a settlement of eight families. The settlement was abandoned in the early 20th century.

Today the only building still standing on this spot is an agricultural barn, though bumpy areas in the ground nearby indicate where there were once other buildings.

Purgatory. Etching by E. Henne after Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Purgatory. Etching by E. Henne after Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

What's in a name?

There have been a number of suggestions as to how the spot got its rather devilish-sounding name, which have been summarizes by the Barton History Group in documents downloadable from their website.

One evocative theory is that during the middle ages when the village of Steeple Barton was being ravaged by the black death, a number of families uprooted and started this settlement so as to be well away from the dangers of infection. This does chime in nicely with the idea of 'purgatory' as a place where one goes while trying to escape 'hell'.

An Ordnance Survey map of Purgatory, circa 1900.

An Ordnance Survey map from 1900 showing the location of 'Purgatory'

Another suggestion is that the name Purgatory was chosen in contrast to a location further down the track that was nicknamed 'Paradise' and where locals from Steeple Barton would go to pick wild flowers.

The final suggestion is that the name 'purgatory' evolved from the Latin word 'piscatorium' meaning fish or fishing. This would make some sense, given the spots close proximity to the River Dorn.

For more information about this unusual spot, see Christine Edbury's PDF that explores its the history and name.