This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th September 1994, 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 "MOORBY"?

In geographical terms "Moors" are familiar enough: from the "Blasted Heath" in "Macbeth" to those in Hardy's Wessex. They furnish innumerable location names and are the basis of many surnames such as "Moorby", "Morton", "Moore", "Moorcroft", "More", "Moreley", "Moorhouse" etc. Even so one must not be over enthusiastic in linking them because there are some unexpected deviations.

Today, when moorlands are carefully fostered in National Parks, it comes as a surprise to many people to learn that the picturesque fields and hedges which we think to be traditional English landscape evolved only in the 18th century. Previously the greater part of the realm had remained as dense forests or wild uplands. As far as the people living in those remote centuries were concerned such vast open spaces were simply the solid counterpart of the great expanses of water which they called "the Sea". In fact the comparisons were so forcible that all over Western Europe the Latin word for "Sea" - which is "Mare" - was adopted and emerges both in English and German as 'moor", in Danish as "moer", in Norwegian as "myr" and even, indirectly, in French as "Marais".

A glance through any atlas will confirm that the number of places incorporating the unit "moor" or one of its many variations are countless. In the case of "Moorby", that is in Lincolnshire, about 4 miles south of Horncastle. "But", some of you might object, "where are the rolling moorlands in that flat, marshy region?" The answer is that early settlers, contemplating the acres of water-logged terrain, once more compared it with the boundless ocean and, taking the same Latin word ("mare") reconstructed and modified it to form the word "marsh". The two words, "moor" and "marsh" were more or less interchangeable and whether the presence of "moor" (or a variation) in a place-name refers to open-country or to marsh or fen-land can only be verified by reference to local records. For example, in our own county, investigation reveals that "Morley" (on the A608, just north of Derby) means "the wooded meadows among the marshes".

Research into "Moorby" leads one to deduce that in the turbulent times when our ancestors were struggling to survive, it was deemed a good idea to establish settlements amidst the comparative safety of the marshes, reached by hidden paths, known only to the locals. They would have established a settlement, known as a "By" - which in Northern European languages signifies a "farm" or "village" and survives in hundreds of place-names, including "Moorby". Hence the inhabitants of that site would have been identified as "the dwellers in the location amidst the marshes".

Accustomed as we are to visualising a "moor" in terms of Bronte-inspired vistas of crags and heather, it really is curious to discover that in the days of Shakespeare a man described frogs "in habitting ye moiste moores".

At the beginning of this feature, mention was made of "unexpected deviations" and one of them is in Cornwall. There the expression "moor" is applicable not only to areas where tin is mined but also to the ore itself. Thus the name "Moorhouse" could very well refer to a building where miners would assemble to change their clothes and store their equipment. Since it is more than likely that there was some movement of miners between the South-West and Derbyshire, this throws up an interesting line of research for those who bear the name: it could mean either "the people who live in the dwelling on the moors" or "the people who are associated with the mines". Where records are available, it has been ascertained that sometimes the unit "moor" is actually a corrupt rendering of the name "Maurice" which was popular among the Normans, and gives rise to names such as "Maurice's Town" - i.e. "Moresby" which is in Cumberland. And of course it must be very agreeable to be told that in some cases "moor" is connected with the same source that gives us "merry" but rather less when told that it might also belong to the same root-word that appears in "murder"!

Just on the other side of Matlock is Morton - on the way to Tibshelf. Like all place-names ending in "-ton" it signifies a fortified settlement. Hence people called "Moreton" might be able to identify themselves as once being "settlers who dwell in the fortress on the Moor". It is certainly an old Derbyshire name since it appears in the local records for 1273 where mention is made of a "Robert de Morton".

Where the word "-land" appears in combination with "moor" or "mor" or other variations, it should be noted that "land" is not used as in opposition to water but refers to sites from which most of the timber has been cleared - hence "grove" or "open-space". (It is related to the word "lawn" and note its special use in France with reference to the district known as "Les Landes"). People called "Moreland" would thus identify themselves as "the people who inhabited the groves near the moors".

The snares lying in wait for those tempted into detecting links between names incorporating various forms of "mor" is illustrated by reference to "Westmorland" and the place "Morecambe". While a connection cannot be entirely ruled out, it seems the two "mors" could be separated. There is no certainty that "Westmorland" means "the land of the people who dwell in the Moors lying to the West" because the old records refer to that county as "West Moringas". The unit "-ing" (which occurs in many place-names) means "tribe" or "people" and so it could very well signify "the Western Territory where dwell the tribe of Mor". Who or what were the "Mor" is now shrouded in obscurity. Strange as it may seem, the Ancient Greek Geographer, Ptolomy (c. 150 A.D.) drew a passable map of Britain and identified the Lune estuary as "Morecambe". Exactly how this name was suggested to him is far from certain. But it is interesting to reflect that one of the best known bearers of a "Mor-" name was Eric Morecambe, the celebrated comedian. He was born in Morecambe in 1926 and his real name was Eric Bartholomew. He borrowed "Morecambe" as a stage-name in 1947. It seems quite in tune with his comic genius that as a place-name "Morecambe" is a fake! It was invented in 1771, when the site was being developed as a sea-side resort. It is a garbled rendering of the old Greek name!

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th September 1994.

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