Making a Name

Making a Name

There are other New Havens in the world, and at least one of them is even less new than ours.

In his seminal history Three Centuries of New Haven (1953), Rollin G. Osterweis writes that the reasoning behind our city’s name, first codified as “Newhaven” in 1640, “lie buried with those who chose it.” But he offers up some theories. One proposes that the English settlers who came here by way of Massachusetts Bay had adopted that colony’s “double meaning” convention, wherein they would borrow the name of a town in England that also “fitted the location here,” particularly its natural qualities.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

And, indeed, there was—and is—a Newhaven, England. Located 55 miles south of London and just a little farther from the coast of France, the port town once known as Meeching reportedly got its New name sometime after 1579. That year, a major storm was the first in a series of events that would shift the mouth of the River Ouse westward and create a new harbor—a new “haven,” as the term was then used.

At a time when sailing the high seas was about as safe as base jumping, a literal harbor really was a literal haven, and that connection persists as a metaphor in contemporary English. We all know what it means to find safe harbor, and we aren’t even thinking about water. But it’s more than plausible New Haven’s namers were.

Today, I suspect it’s much more common to think about water in Newhaven than it is in New Haven. Unlike our city of 135,000, England’s town of 12,000 remains steeped in river and sea. The town council’s website touts Newhaven’s “real maritime feel, not only because of the daily comings and goings of ships in and out of the harbour, but also because many recent developments have deliberately been built in a style to reflect the town’s maritime origins.” In a photo essay for Metro in 2017, local journalist Lucy Mallows extols Newhaven’s waterside appeal, mentioning the marinas with their riverboats and harbor yachts, the lighthouse at the bowed breakwater’s tip, the rowers’ club and scuba shop, idyllic riverside paths and a fine sandy beach, the historic cannon deck overlooking the sea, the “civilised” ferry to quaint Dieppe, France, and postcard views of the white-faced cliffs known as the Seven Sisters.

Some of Mallows’s Newhaven observations may seem eerily familiar to us New Haveners: great Italian food, a Newhaven Museum and an unfair “bad rap.” Others won’t, like the 16-minute train ride to a top-tier sports stadium and the town’s position within the sweeping South Downs, a 100-mile range of chalk hills draped in wood-, grass- and farmland. In Newhaven, those hills mean “cliffs above the beach” where “wild creatures thrive in the dense bushes,” “a great place for foraging, with blackberries, sloes and wild apple trees—I can make a complete pudding for free!” Mallows also emphasizes a park along the river, which, as dusk approaches, “teems with hundreds of wild bunnies, their white scuts bobbing through the long grass.”

And if that doesn’t make you want to visit our possible namesake across the pond, I don’t know what will.

Written by Dan Mims. Image 1, featuring waves pummeling Newhaven’s lighthouse, photographed by Ian Goodridge. Image 2, featuring a stretch of Newhaven waterfront, photographed by Thomas Dutour. Image 3, featuring Newhaven countryside, photographed by saranya33 (Shutterstock). Image 4, featuring a better view of the Seven Sisters, photographed by David Dennis.

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