The Upnor Elephant

How do villages get their names?

As far as Upnor and Lower Upnor are concerned, it’s a simple process of translating where they were situated. From ‘at the bank’ in Old English, it became ‘atten ore‘ in Middle English before being established at ‘Atte Nore’ in 1292.

The forever mind-changing English though, deciding it was actually ‘upon the bank’ or ‘uppan ore’ and so, by 1374, it was settled as ‘Upnore’. There’s no information as to when we lost the ‘e’.

Upnor Village pic

But that’s a little bit on the boring side, isn’t it?

What if there was an altogether much more interesting (and funnier) story of how Upnor got it’s name? Wouldn’t you tell everyone that instead?

So here it is: The wish-it-was-true story of how Upnor got its name.

A long, long time ago, it is said, an elephant – disembarking from a boat (because elephants are such a common sight around here) – got stuck in the mud. No really, stick with it (the elephant did). Feel free to groan.

The villagers and rivermen all rallied around to help pull her (or him) out. The elephant was called Nor. And the rescuers were all shouting “Up, Nor! UP Nor! UP!”

I didn’t say it was a long story, did I?


Ok, there is more – which kind of lends credence to that story being true – just a long, long time before we’d invented boats, or place names …

Picture, if you will, the Royal Engineers (oi, uniform fans, not like that) picture them toiling away, digging practice trenches on the banks of the Medway. They’re on a large hill, known as Tower Hill. Legend has it that the hill is made of sand – ballast, taken from empty, moored ships of old. It’s 1911 so you should be picturing in black and white.

Large bones were uncovered, including a tusk. But being engineers and not archaeologists, they managed to destroy some of them, leaving the rest where they were. They did at least suspend operations on the site, although no investigation was made.

x (1)
Image courtesy of the MOD Defence Infrastructure Organisation at Shorncliffe, Folkestone. I added the red cross to mark Tower Hill.

Subsequently, a scavenging local, Mr S. Turner, on the hunt for flints, picked up some of the bone fragments and promptly sent the pieces to the British Museum for identification.

It turned out to be an extraordinary find, being the carpal bone of a Straight Tusked Elephant, a beast related to the modern Asian elephant and which inhabited Europe some 115,000 years earlier. It gravitated to Britain from continental Europe during warmer periods before moving further south and becoming extinct here. Below, Tower Hill as is it now, seen from the A289.

Tower Hill now 1Tower Hill now 2

Under the supervision of a Mr. L.E. Parsons, the site was carefully examined and many more bones were found. Tangled and choked by tree roots, the bones were given protection by having canvas casts made, which were dipped in plaster of paris and secured around the bones to lift them out. At the museum and free of the casts, the bones were hardened with shellac.

Archaeologists say it’s the biggest and most important skeleton ever found in an English field and proved that elephants were indeed roaming freely in Kent in prehistoric times.

Finally,  with the bone fragments having all been pieced together, the skeleton came in at just under 13 feet. It went on display at the Natural History Museum in 1926.

© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
© The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Nor didn’t let the mud inhibit her subsequent visits to the beach though …

Nor 2


Elephant pic courtesy of Pixabay