This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 29th July 1996, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called BARKS?

It is very tempting to associate this name with forms derived from "Barker" . However the presence of the final "-s' suggests that any such con- nection is not very likely. The tagging-on of "-s" is a relic of the Old English way of saying "-of-" by ending a word with "-es", and which is now preserved it ordinary Modern English through the apostrophe "s".

In surnames it indicates descent - that is to say, it is a shortened way of saying "son of -". The name "Barker" is an occupational name and can be traced back as far as the eleventh century and so the "son of Barker" would have emerged as "Barkers". As is is, this form does not seem to be recorded (and it certainly doesn't occur in the local directories), so it is reasonable to assume that people called "Barks" (and variations, such as "Barkes") must look elsewhere than just to "Barker" for clues to their ancestry.

A "Barker" was a person who was involved in the leather industry. Many of the processes in the preparation of skins called for the use of tree bark and men who specialised in selecting and gathering it were designated "barkers". The word was used as an alternative to "Tanner" until about the 1600's and then it began to drop out and by the mid-1800's was obsolete.

In the case of "Barks" there is certainly a link with the work which describes the covering on the trunks of trees and with the surname, but not all that directly with the process of tanning. and not exclusively so either.

As a starter it can be stated to have once been a location name. There are a considerable number of settlements incorporating the unit "Bark" and that unit can be related to the Old English word "beorc" which signifies "birch tree".

The outstanding feature of the birch tree is its notable bark. Not only does it peel away so distinctively, it is also shining and silvery. These characteristics were noted by the Scandinavians - in whose lands of origin, of course, the birch tree is prolific - and they called it, basically, "the tree with the shining bark". In their language it took on various forms such as "bjork" and "birk" - all of which strongly suggest that the terms can be related to "bright", and this ties in with the "bright" and "shining" trunk of the tree.

Possible explanations now present themselves. The name "Barks" could be a location name and have described a community which lived in a birch wood and from which several corresponding surnames have emerged. The most obvious is "Birch" and in the North Country we find "Barks" and "Burk" - but caution! "Burke" has an entirely different origin. It means "Fortress".

Then it is possible that "Bark" was once a nowdiscontinued first name. It has certainly survived in place names such as "Barkisland" in the West Riding (just north of Huddersfield) and which means: "the land cultivated by Bark"; in "Barkby" near Leicester (Bark's Settlement) and Berkswell near Coventry (Bercol's Well). It is reasonable to suggest that the name "Bark" could be related to works meaning "bright" and so have been conferred upon individuals who had a bright and happy disposition. It can still be discerned in "Albert" which means the "shining, illustrious leader".

The association of this surname with the leather industry is slightly roundabout. While the people who collected the bark were called "Barkers" the places where is was stored were called "Bark- houses" and no doubt a person in charge of such a store or who lived in the vicinity would have attracted the name "Bark-house" and which ultimately converted to "Barks", "Barkus", "Barkis", etc. Similar development occurs in the case of names such as "Malthouse" giving "Malthus" and "Lofthouse" becoming "Loftus".

Another interesting possibility lies in that there is an Old English word "berroc" which means "hill". It is easily recognisable in "Berkshire" (i.e. the hilly district), but rather less so in the West Riding town of "Barugh" (which in Domesday appears as "Berch".) No doubt forms of that word appeared as neighbourhood or field names and a family which dwelt on a hill top could have been identified as such and assumed some form of a surname now appearing as "Barks".

People who can trace their origins to coastal areas might like to investigate whether their name has anything to do with "Bark" - an old name for a boat. In this case the word can be traced to an Ancient Irish form "barca" and from which the word "barge" has also been derived. It appears as far back as the fourth century and in print it was first used by Caxton (1475) when referring to Jason's ship, the "Argo".

Mind you - all these romantic notions could quickly be dispelled if it transpired that in some cases "Barks" is simply a misrendering of the surname "Banks"! The handwriting of our ancestors was based on what we call "Gothic" lettering and it cannot be denied that the letter "r" could easily have been confused with the letter "n". However in the absence of any documentary evidence, the attractively simple explanation must remain speculative.

It is not a very common name and most local directories rarely include more than a handful of entries. There is a slight concentration in the Staffordshire Moorlands and down as far as Leicester and up as far as Sheffield. Probably the best known bearer of a form of the name is the character in "David Copperfield" called "Mr. Barkis" whose celebrated indication that he was "willin'" is well known to all students of English Literature. The name is certainly familiar here in Bakewell, on account of our own Alan Barks and his coaches.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th July 1996.

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