This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 31st July 2000, 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 DRAPER?

It is difficult to say what our medieval ancestors meant by "draper". It would have been useful to discuss the development of the cloth industry until about the 14th century but space is limited. So, reduced to extremely simplistic language, the marketing of textiles had become a virtual monopoly under the control of the handicraft gilds by as early as the 12th century. From at first involving only the weaving process it had gradually extended to take in all the successive processes. In fact the meaning of "draper" as now understood (i.e. one who deals in fabrics) does not appear until the 16th century. So when we encounter, say "Henry le Draper" in Lancaster for 1332, he could just as easily have been all or one of a weaver, dyer, fuller or whatever.

This lack of precision reveals itself remarkably when surnames are classified under the heading "Occupational". There are about 40 names so derived and "Smith" easily tops the list, followed closely by "Taylor". Yet one has to work one's way down to the very end of the list to find "Draper". This is partly explained in that cloth-making was a widespread domestic industry, carried out alongside other activities. In particular, the records of the West Riding indicate that many households, in addition to working their smallholdings would also produce a piece of cloth every week and sell it at the "Piece Hall". (There is still a "Piece Hall" in Halifax). Naturally such people would already have acquired a surname and that goes also for people who handled textiles on a large scale. They were in the monopolistic Guild of Drapers. They bore identities such as Henry Fitz-Alwyn, the first Mayor of London (1212) and the exploitive Earl Thomas of Lancaster, whose insistence on the payment of the dues relating to the Guild virtually ruined the cloth-trade of Leicester (1322).

Another puzzle involving the surname is its source. At first it is tempting to state that it is from the later Latin word "drappus" which is said to mean "cloth". In fact that name would have been unknown, say, to Caesar, who would have spoken of "textum" (woven material) or "pannus" (a piece of cloth). The form "drappus" was a "back-translation" used by medieval scribes when writing in Latin about contemporary matters involving cloth and were obliged to concoct the word "drappus", based on words they already knew such as "drape" and "draper".

Then, we have to ask ourselves: How did these words originate? It might be thought they could tie in with the expression "trappings" which describes garments and, especially, the garniture of a horse. As it is, linguistically it is identical with "drape" and its variations and leads nowhere. It is true there is an Italian word "drappo" which signifies "cloth" but this also has evolved from a piece of contrived Latin. It appears only in English as "drapet" which is from the Italian "drappetto" which means a "small piece of cloth" and is found no earlier than 1590.

Of all the explanations which have been advanced only one carries much credibility. It is suggested that it is linked with the words "drubb" or "drubbing" which mean "to inflict blows" or "belabour". This usage might then be taken back to the Arabic "darb" which signifies "a thump" or a "clout". This in turn emerges in the German "treffen" which meant "to hit". Now in the manufacturing of cloth, the raw, untreated fabric, taken directly from the loom was held "not comely to wear till it be fulled under Foote or in Stockes". It is acknowledged that "fulling" was the first and most important process in cloth-making, and involved beating and trampling the material to make it fit to wear as a garment or to be introduced to further processes such as drying. It is interesting to note that "drab" was a word which originated from the dull appearance of untreated cloth. Therefore it would seem that a case can be argued to maintain that "drap" particularly attached itself to fabric which had, as you might wish to put it, been "knocked into shape".

Some support for this notion is derived from the fact that coarse, untreated cloth was separately classified as "burel". It was of such poor quality that it was deemed fit only for soldiers' uniforms or handouts to the poor. Some idea of its quality can be gained from the knowledge that it sold for 2p a yard as against 10p for even the cheapest "finished cloth". In the household accounts for Henry III (1265) reference is made to an official designated as "le Bureler". As cloth-making improved, the name died out and, conversely, that of "Draper" gained some hold. Nevertheless early references are scanty and somewhat ambiguous. In Winton (Hampshire) mention is made to "Hugo drapier" and "Walter draper" both 1148. In Lancaster (1181) was found "Robert le Draper". All these could be merely a reference to the bearers' occupation, rather than their surname. The earliest uncontested usage seems to date from 1379 and refers to a man in York called "Johannes Drapour".

Otherwise the surname seems to have established itself in England only. It does not feature as a native Scots name nor in Ireland. It is rather significant that it has provided no place-names. (Draperstown in Londonderry is a late creation: 1818. Draper's Field, a neighbourhood name in Coventry is of similar origin).

The local directory lists about 100 names. Only two personalities have entered the public consciousness and both are American! First there is Henry Draper (1837-1882) a celebrated astronomer who gave his name to the "Draper Catalogue" - a compendium of the intensity and positions of the stars which he began and which is still being added to. Second there is Ruth Draper who specialised in a type of solo performance which is still called "drapering" in theatrical circles. Older readers will recall the late Miss Joyce Grenfell who was unrivalled in this genre.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 31st July 2000.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Draper.shtml
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