FISHER

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 22nd February 1999, 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 FISHER?

The Latin for "Fishes" is "Pisces" - a fact known to all those who study their daily horoscopes. It is easy to follow the Latin through into the Italian "pesce" (fish) and the French "pecher" (to fish). Furthermore, when it is pointed out that many Latin words which start with "p-" emerge as English ones beginning with "f-" a link between "Pisces" and "Fish" is revealed. Similar development occurs. for example, in "pedes" (feet) and "pater" (father). In the study of languages this process is called "the Progression of Mutes".

Some of the classical spelling seems to have persisted in early forms of the word "fish" as, for example, "fisc" and "filch". In the year 825 an Old English translation of the Bible gives Psalm VIII. verse 8 as: "Fuglas heofenes & fiscal saes". (The birds of the air and the fishes of the sea). Regarding surnames, all this information is useful since it accounts for such variations on "Fisher" such as "Fischer", "Fisk" and "Fissker".

Another interesting feature in the development of the surname "Fisher" is that it was not originally restricted to the occupation of those "who went down to the sea in ships". In fact. the expression "fishermen" does not appear in our language with this meaning much before 1526. There is an isolated reference to a "William Fisserman" in Northamptonshire for 1203 but it is submitted that it relates to his occupation as one who used an implement called a "fisher" in the process of tanning. The first appearance in print occurs in 1526: "The fishermen were wasshynge their nettes" (Tindale: Translation of Luke V, verse 2) Note how the old meaning lies behind the remark: "I will make you fishers of men".

Until about the times of Henry VIII the only word available was "fisher" and it had to do the work of several later words. This is only to be expected because the surname "Fisher" is so very widely distributed. Had it been restricted simply to describing a man who went to sea in a boat to catch fish, then it would have been limited to coastal districts. As it is, the name can be traced far inland and that signifies that it must have borne a meaning somewhat beyond that of simply sea- fishing. The explanation is that in the Middle Ages fish was an extremely important item of everybody's diet. The injunctions of the Catholic Church prohibited the eating of meat during Lent, on all Fast Days and on every Friday throughout the year. Hence, apart from drawing upon the resources of the sea, inland fisheries either based on existing rivers and streams or upon specially constructed lakes and ponds were developed. Inland fresh- water fish from the carp down to the minnow were eaten and in 1300 a writer listed whale-meat along with sturgeon as suitable for anyone's bill of fare. Sturgeon is a Royal fish but it didn't become so until the reign of Edward II a little later on! Herrings were always in great demand - whether fresh. salted or smoked.

Obviously, then, in districts far removed from the sea, fresh-water fisheries were well- established and ensured a readily available food supply. Many place-names bear this out: "Fishlake" in the West Riding and "Fiskerton" near Nottingham for example. Men employed in connection with them would have been designated "fishers" as much as those who worked off-shore. By further extension a man who sold fish, now termed a "fishmonger" was also described as a "fisher". The word "Fishmonger" did not enter the language until some 200 years after surnames had begun to evolve. In 1399 a directive was issued regulating the activities of "every ffysshyre & pulter" (i.e. fish and poultry dealer).

To sum up then: during the Middle Ages a person called "Fisher" (or any of its considerable variations) could have been either sea-going, a fish-farmer or a salesman.

Unless very old records are available or a particular family has long been connected with a coastal settlement, it is rarely possible to determine what exactly was the original standing of the ancestor who first bore the surname. If there are qualifying words in old references it might he reasonable to make some informed guesses. Hence Ralph de Fisshar and "Martin atte Fisshere" (Sussex: 1296) seem, from the inclusion of those words ('de' and 'atte') to have lived and worked in enclosures for catching fish, whereas "Richard le Fisher" (Essex: 1263) was simply a "fisherman". Some of the old versions are quite curious. "Robert le Fyscer (1273: Bucks). "Hugo Fysseher" (York: 1379). Sometimes a translation is provided as in the case of "Willelmus Drory, piscator" and "Walter Fisshere, fysher" both in the West Riding for 1379.

The name is consistently distributed across the country with no special areas of concentration. The Standard Biographies give about 40 personalities called "Fisher" but none is exactly a "head-liner". The Local Directories muster some 600 entries between them. Here in Bakewell the name is known to many of us on account Of our own Edward Leonard Fisher. who, under his initials "ELF" may be identified as the craftsman at the Mineral Shop in King Street. He is acknowledged by experts to be one of today's most accomplished workers in Blue John.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd February 1999.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Fisher.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library