Little London, Chigwell (Durolitum) Roman Settlement

Minor Settlement

The site of a Romano-British Settlement, which may have been known as Durolitum is now Little London, Chigwell in Essex. It is situated on a slight eastern slope above the flood plain of the River Roding.  Much of the site has been destroyed by gravel extraction but was explored in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as being excavated in 1972 and 1981 and 1990. Structural finds include a Roman bath house, hypocaust and timber lined well as well as tessellated pavement, urned cremations, a lead coffin, pots, a bronze figure and coins. The site is located on a Roman Road running from London to Great Dunmow.

There is no evidence of any civilian settlement in the immediate area of Romford until well-into the post-Domesday period, presumably because the iron-age tribe the Trinovantes and their neighbours the Catuvellauni, had been warring over this particular territory possibly for centuries prior to the coming of Rome. The natural boundary between these two tribes was probably the River Lea, only a few miles to the west of Romford which lies then, in Trinovantian territory (but only just).

The Durolito of the Antonine Itinerary

The Antonine Itinerary is a second-century document which lists all of the main road-routes throughout the Roman empire, the section on Britain records fifteen routes, two of which deal with the London to Colchester road (Iter V and Iter IX). Although no posting station is reported between Londinium and Caesaromagus (Chelmsford) on the 28 (Roman) mile stretch at the start of the Fifth itinerary, the end of the Ninth itinerary reads as follows:

Caesaromago xii (Caesaromagus; Chelmsford, Essex) Durolito xvi (? D VROLITVM ; Nr. Romford, Essex ?) Londinio xv (Londinivm; London, Greater London).

In Iter IX the route from Chelmsford to London is punctuated by the addition of another, otherwise unknown posting station named Durolitum. The distance of this station from the Trinovantian civitas capital at Chelmsford (Caesaromagus Trinovantum) is reported as 16 miles, and the distance from the provincial capital to the Durolitum station is listed as 15 miles. As you can see, the Chelmsford – London distance (28 miles) reported in Iter V differs from the total distance along the same route given in Iter IX by 3 whole miles.

The standard long-distance measure used by the Romans was the mile. The English word ‘mile’ itself stems from the Latin mille passuum, which means literally “one-thousand paces”, and this phrase reveals the fatal flaw in Roman surveying methods. It would seem quite likely that the Roman engineer who trudged along the route of Iter IX was possessed of considerably shorter legs than those of his counterpart who surveyed Iter V; being closer to the ground evidently made him more observant because he also recorded the existence of the Durolitum station. There is evidence that the Romans did use some form of pedometer, basically a wheel with a circumference of a standard passus, which was five Roman feet, about 4 ft. 10 ins. imperial measure or about 1.48 m in the metric sytem. It would seem, however, that they may not have been used in a systematic way to compile the distances recorded in the Antonine Itinerary.

When plotted on a map, the distances stated in Iter IX place the posting-station on the A12 (not the A118) between Romford and Brentwood, somewhere near the Harold Wood railway station. Durolitum then, would seem to have been positioned close to the ford over Paines Brook, a tributary of the Ingrebourne River, though it is unknown on which bank of the stream the station was actually constructed.

Possibly the Durcinate of the Ravenna Cosmology

It is possible that this same station is mentioned in a geographical document of the seventh-century known as the The Ravenna Cosmography; the relevant section of which is reproduced below:

“… 97 Londinium Augusti (Londinivm Avgvsta; London, Greater London) 98 Cesaromago (Caesaromagus; Chelmsford, Essex) 99 Manulodulo colonia (Camvlodvnvm Colonia; Colchester, Essex) 100 Durcinate (? D VROLITVM ; Nr. Romford, Essex ?) 101 Duro viguto (
Durolitum ; Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire) …”

It is possible that the Durcinate of the Ravenna Cosmography equates with the Durolito of the Antonine Itinerary, but this is speculative to say the least. We must remember, however, that there was a gap of some five-hundred years between the production of these two documents, so the place-name may have undergone a fair degree of change during the intervening period.

The Meaning of the Roman Place-Name

The Roman name ‘DUROLITUM’ means ‘the fort at the fort’, suggesting there may be an undiscovered fort in the vicinity.

Romford Gtr. London. Romfort 1177. Probably ‘wide or spacious ford’. OE rum + ford. The river-name Rom is a ‘back-formation’ from the place-name.” (Mills)

Romford – The Roman Ford?

The etymology of the modern place-name as shown above, gives no indication of any Roman settlement in the area of Romford. There are certain bodies, however, who maintain that the modern place-name may have been derived from the Old English for ‘Roman ford’, not the ‘roomy ford’ preferred by Mills. Either way, there can be no doubt that one existed here at Romford during ancient times.

Durolitum – The Strong Lodge?

If we accept that the Durolitum station was located somewhere near here, what does the Latin place-name tell us about what was here in Romano-British times? The seventh-century place-name Durcinate, must be discounted even if it does prove to be the same site, as it is most likely a simple corruption of the original name Durolitum; we must therefore, investigate the etymology of this well-attested, second-century place-name:

easily recognisable word (Welsh/Gaelic) meaning ‘strong, strength’.
from a word (Welsh/Gaelic), possibly *lety, meaning ‘lodge, lodging’. Compare Welsh lletya ‘to lodge’.

It would appear then, that the Roman name for Romford, “the strong lodge”, refers to the posting station itself. These stations were known as mutationes, and generally resembled a large, quasi-military coaching-inn where officials on imperial business could obtain fresh horses and refreshment before continuing upon their journey, hence the name, from Latin mutatio ‘exchange, changing’. Most stations provided overnight accommodation and many were also equipped with a small bath-suite; the facilities provided by the Durolitum station are completely unknown.

References for Durolitum – The Strong Lodge

Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford 1998);

Sites near Little London, Chigwell (Durolitum) Roman Settlement