This study, previous explanations, literary references

How did this study start?

I started this investigation as part of a study into local placenames here in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, UK, where "Montpellier" was chosen around 1808 as the name for a new development by a speculator, Henry Thompson. He opened a spa there, and it soon became a fashionable area of the town, with a reputation that lasts through till today.

I knew the name had to come ultimately from the French town (founded in the 8th century around a Benedictine abbey), but convincing explanations were hard to find. Meanwhile, I noticed other Montpel(l)iers in other towns and cities, and wondered which came first, and why so many. This led to a round of enquiries and web-searches, resulting in a short account published in the March 1997 issue of the Cheltenham Local History Society Journal.

Today, the French Montpellier, capital of the Herault department, and a city of some 270,000 inhabitants, is perhaps best known abroad for its university. This is a continuation of its early renown as the site of the most famous French medical school outside Paris, founded in 1220. This status, its position on one of the main natural routes through southern routes, its equable climate, and its strong Protestant tradition, all combined to earn it a special standing among English travellers. This happened in the period when travel abroad for general educational reasons first began to become common as western Europe stabilised in the early 1600s - travel that was later to evolve into the more formalised tradition of the "Grand Tour". Though some travellers went there partly for health reasons, Montpellier's early reputation with English speakers rested mainly on learning, and an appreciable colony of foreign students and other enquiring individuals resided there. Many of these are detailed in the Dictionary of National Biography.

The "medical/scholarly" phase of its reputation lasted until about the mid 18th century, but, for the English-speaking world, it became eclipsed by a new dominant association, that of a place with a singularly healthy and attractive setting. So strong was this reputation - its essence summed up in the old-fashioned word salubriousness - that Montpellier became a by-word, an example so well-known that further explanation was unnecessary. Thus Daniel Defoe, in his Tour through the Island of Great Britain (1724-26), was able to observe of the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds that it was "a town fam'd for its pleasant situation and wholesome air, the Montpellier of Suffolk, and perhaps of England".

But plenty more details have turned up since my 1997 article was written, and the search isn't over yet. There are certainly more Montpel(l)iers to be found, and more who/why/when details to unearth.

The first version of this website (now defunct) was launched in 1997 but went off the air in 2003 after spam problems. The 2005 relaunch, very capably hosted by Caz Limited, displays most of the same content, with minor factual updates - and major improvements in presentation and ease of use.

My thanks to all correspondents who have helped in the search so far.

Previous Explanations

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, a standard British reference work, says 'The name is frequently found in English streets, squares, etc, due to the French town Montpelier being a fashionable resort in the 19th century' (14th edition, 1989). As the fuller evidence given here now shows, this is at best only partly true - the reputation of Montpellier was established long before the 19th century, and rests on more than its 'resort' qualities.

Dr Iain Stevenson was nearer the mark when he answered a reader's query in the London Guardian's Notes & Queries feature a few years back. He wrote 'Montpellier, seat of an ancient university and medical school and virtually the only malaria-free cultural centre on the Mediterranean, was a favourite destination for young British aristocrats and their tutors doing the Grand Tour of Europe during the 17th and early 18th centuries. By the early 19th century, when the British streets [of this name] were built, Montpellier was no longer favoured by well-heeled British tourists, who were transferring their affections to Nice and Monte Carlo, but the aristocratic association persisted and the speculative builders and developers who 'ran up' the new terraces and streets for their middle-class clients chose an upmarket name with aristocratic pretensions - much as new housing estates today are given grandiose names redolent of the Victorian country house.

'What is unclear is why invariably the street name is mis-spelt "Montpelier" (one L), unless the builders were trying to save a little on the cast iron of the street signage'.

Just a couple of points of difference with Dr Stevenson's analysis: while I agree fully with the general argument, the naming trend (as the evidence on this page shows) was established in Britain before the 19th century, and was actually an international phenomenon. And two-L spellings can be found as often as one-L ones, sometimes even in the same street.

The Guardian  item wasn't the first time the question had been asked, however. Back in January 1910, a certain H L Hansard of Stantridge, Romsey, Hampshire wrote to the literary/antiquarian periodical Notes & Queries [1 Jan 1910, page 9], asking

Can you tell me the origin of so many streets and squares being named Montpellier (spelt in different ways)? These names appear constantly in towns such as Cheltenham and London, the houses having been built at the beginning of the last century.'

By the 22 January issue, two respondents had put pen to paper.

J Holden MacMichael attributed the frequent occurrence to Montpellier having been celebrated for its extremely healthy air, drawing towards it invalids from all parts of Europe. He refers to the story that Young's Narcissa  was taken to Montpellier in a consumption, but points out the fame of the name must predate this literary reference because of its use for the row of houses, and a chapel, at Twickenham about 1720. MacMichael also notes the Walworth Montpelier gardens as having been in existence by 1803.

The second correspondent, 'W. C. B.', adds a mention of some earlier visitors to the French town - Sir Kenelm Digby [author and diplomatist; in the summer of 1656 Digby was at Toulouse, and in 1658 lectured (according to his own account) at Montpellier on his 'sympathetic powder.'] Sir Thomas Browne [author and physician; graduated 1629; turning his attention to the study of medicine, he practised for some time in Oxfordshire; afterwards, throwing up his practice, he accompanied his stepfather (who held some official position) to Ireland on a visitation of the forts and castles. From Ireland he passed to France and Italy; stayed at Montpellier and Padua, where were flourishing schools of medicine; and on his return through Holland was created doctor of medicine at Leyden circa 1633], Sir Theodore Malverne [not mentioned in Dictionary of National Biography], and Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey [MP; justice of the peace for Westminster; went to Montpellier for his health early in 1678, and returned, after much travel in France, greatly benefited]; and concludes with the reference in an ode of John Oldham laughing at those who "change our English for Montpellier air". In the summer of 1656 Digby was at Toulouse, and in 1658 lectured (according to his own account) at Montpellier on his 'sympathetic powder.'

DNB statistics

The British Dictionary of National Biography  has many mentions of the French Montpellier in its thousands of pages. The references spread over 8 centuries, and give a graphic indication of the evolving attraction of the city for Britons. The more historical references can be grouped as follows.

Study 1200-1299 1300-1399 1400-1499 1500-1599 1600-1699 1700-1799 1800-1899
Medical studies 3 - - 4 17 9 5
Other studies 1 - - 2 3 2 -
Recuperation - - - - 3 2 5
Visit/tour - - - - 5 5 -
Asylum/exile - - - - 3 1 -
Property - - - - - 1 -

The earliest contacts clearly reflect the academic pull of the French university and medical school. This trend is even more evident in the 1600s and 1700s - and then fades quite rapidly. The 'health factor' first blossoms in the 1600s, accompanied by a good number of 'Grand Tourists' in the same period.

Literary and Miscellaneous References

The poet John Oldham (1653-83) in his Paraphrase upon Horace  II xiv, laughs at those who "change our English for Montpellier air". Oldham died young, and this reference must date from around 1680.

Daniel Defoe, in his Tour through the Island of Great Britain (1724-26), observed of the Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds that it was "a town fam'd for its pleasant situation and wholesome air, the Montpellier of Suffolk, and perhaps of England". .

Henry Fielding Fielding's Amelia  (1751) was reportedly 'drawn from the life', based on his first wife who died after 8 years of marriage, in 1743. In Chapter VII, first page, Captain Booth, wounded at a siege of Gibraltar [that of 1726?], recounts:

In this situation, the siege being at an end, the governor gave me leave to attend my wife to Montpelier, the air of which was judged to be most likely to restore her to health.