This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 8th January 2001, 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."

Researchers into individual family histories may wish to consult the web site where David Bowler is collecting information relating to the surname for Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

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

This surname, originally spelled "Boller" is first recorded in 1316 which eliminates any involvement with cricket or bowling greens. The player who acts as the "Bowler" in cricket is first named as such in 1722 and the game can't be taken much further back than the 15th century. The rolling of wooden spheres, ie. "bowls" is described no earlier than 1500.

Merely for completeness it may be mentioned that the form of headgear known as a "Bowler" ("Derby" in the States) simply took its name from its fanciful resemblance to an inverted pudding-basin. Attempts to associate its design and manufacture with persons of the same name are at best coincidental and, all dating from about 1860, have never been convincingly attested.

"Bowler" is an occupational name, describing a man who makes bowls, basins, cups etc. This fact can be better appreciated if it is explained that almost until the 19th century such items were nearly always made of wood. Although the manufacture of bowls was relatively straightforward, it still required a lathe and this was not a common household possession. Consequently the industry tended to settle in the hands of individuals who made it their livelihood. Since demand for new utensils would have been more steady than intensive it is very likely that only a few "bowlers" were needed to meet the wants of quite a wide area. Probably each calculated the likely demand and took what they had already made to outlets by way of markets and fairs. Sometimes work was commissioned as in the case of Queen Eleanor, wife of Edward I (1272-1307) who placed an order for 400 cups and 1,500 other vessels when setting up household, and all "in Beechen Woode".

The word "bowl" comes from the Latin "Bulla", which described an item worn by the children of good family in ancient Rome. It consisted of two shallow hemispheres joined to form a locket and enclosing an amulet. Other meanings included "bladder" and "bubble". The word passed into early English as "boll" and it still survives when describing poppy-heads. (Three poppy-heads or "gules, three poppy bolles on their stalks in fess or" feature on the arms of the Bowler family). For some reason, and this will be seen to be significant, the word was pronounced so as to rhyme with "coal" and not, as might have been expected, with "doll". "Boll" makes its appearance as early as 1000 A.D. but variations followed until about 1400, then the word "boule" made its way, principally to describe spherical objects such as cups. Its spelling indicates that it was a French import and that it followed the French pronunciation. Hence in the north-east "bool" was used to describe a form of road surface, where "cobble" was used elsewhere. It quickly became associated with the pastime "bowls". Now medieval handwriting was notoriously crabbed and it was easy for the "-u-" in "boule" to be misread as a "-w-" and by the end of the 16th century had merged into "bowl". Shakespeare provides an early example in Richard III, "Give me a Bowle of Wine" and even scholars recognised it because the authorised version of the Bible (1611) mentions in Zechariah, IV 2, "A candle-sticke... with a bowie upon the top of it".

Because "Boll" was identifiable with drinking-vessels it provided a nick-name which was directed towards those who were rather too fond of the "drinking-boll" or the "wine-cuppe". In 1320 there is reference to a group of cronies, described as "Boilers of wine and each a good-for-nothing". While in 1570 two residents of the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields were hauled up before the Justices and charged with being "two common Bowlars." Hence families called "Bowler" might possibly owe their surname to a predecessor who couldn't bear to be parted from the wine-bowl! The pattern of development, expressed simply seems that the basis word began as "boll" and yet was irrationally pronounced as "bole". It then ran parallel with a new French import in the form of "boule" and subsequently acquired an intrusive "-u-" which transmogrified into "-w-" and eventually ended up as "Bowler". The change-over is particularly noticeable in the south-eastern counties and it is tentatively suggested that the emergence and prevalence of the game of cricket in that region and the frequent allusions to a "Bowler" might possibly have been an influencing factor.

Certainly the earliest available example of the new spelling is to be found in the Register of Marriages for St. James, Clerkenwell, which is to "Angellet, daughter of William Bowler: 1700".

Otherwise previous records all retain the original forms. The oldest record dates from 1316 and is to a "John le Bouller" of Somerset. In Staffordshire we find "Robert le Bollere" (1332). An interesting example of the occupation being specifically mentioned occurs for York in 1336 - "John Foune, boller". The name does not seem to have a Scots counterpart, but families with Irish connections can look to County Kerry for their origins. The Gaelic equivalent was "Boighleir" which is the exact parallel with "bowler".

Although not apparantly related, the only two inclusions in the Standard Biographies under the name "Bowler" both refer to artistic talent. Thomas William Bowler (born c. 1800-1869) lived much of his life in South Africa where his drawings and sketches were greatly appreciated. He came from Aylesbury. Henry Alexander Bowler came from Kensington. He was born in 1824 and was particularly associated with the teaching and promotion of art. He died in 1903.

The name is well-represented here in Derbyshire with about 150 entries under "Bowler" in the local directory together with a few examples of its variations such as "Bowles", "Boaler" and "Boal".

Because the present feature is the first for the new century, the writer has chosen the name "Bowler" for particular and personal reasons and addresses it in compliment to a certain lady now living in Matlock.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 8th January 2001.

URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library