This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 15th June 1998, 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 SWIFT?

The problem here is not the word "Swift" itself. It is readily understood as "being able to move quickly". The difficulty is: How did it become a surname? Superficially it would be easy to state that it is an example of a nickname and was originally bestowed upon somebody who was nifty on his feet. But that still leaves open the question: Under what circumstances would such fleetness of movement be sufficient to form an identification? It can't have been in connection with Sports Events. In the Middle Ages "race" meant simply "to run fast" and the earliest written reference to a competitive fixture dates only from 1663. Since running involves the use of the human foot, the combination of "foot" and "man" springs to mind and that leads to the next question: What exactly was a footman? The popular image of gorgeously over-dressed flunkeys is misleading. The original footmen of the Early Middle Ages and until the times of the Stewarts were very different. They were employed by persons of rank to run alongside them as they journeyed on horseback or in carriages - hence "footmen" to distinguish them from the "horsemen", who also rode in such entourages. The idea was that these runners could speed ahead to advise on the state of the track and to give advance notice of their masters' pending arrival. Roads were in such a poor state that the average rate of travel was seldom in excess of 5 miles an hour, so the occupation was not such a hardship as it might at first appear. The duties also included the carrying of messages for the employer. When communications were put on a more regular basis during the reign of the Tudors, couriers on horseback galloped from established "posts". Originally letters were left at these "posts" to be collected but by the end of Elizabeth I's rule (1603) men were engaged to carry items to specific addresses and were called "foot-postmen". As highway construction and maintainance improved and after the introduction of railways, those sort of "footmen" who really "ran" messages disappeared and the expression became almost synonymous with "man-servant" many of whom were engaged largely as a status symbol for the wealthy.

It should be noted that it was definitely looked upon as a man's job. The term "foot-woman" cannot be traced at all. Our Medieval Ancestors assumed (rightly or wrongly?) that a man is better adapted physically for running greater distances than a woman. Furthermore a lone woman racing through wild and thinly populated landscape was especially vulnerable. And of course, the nature of the task required the runner to be as lightly clad as was consistent with decency! Most decidedly the elaborate velvet and gold-braided uniforms of later "foot-men" would have been useless to their Medieval predecessors. To reduce bulk by way of pockets and packs, they carried only a staff which was fitted with a receptacle on top, in which could be stored a hard-boiled egg or a small flask of white wine to provide refreshment on route. This item still survives in the form of the ornamental canes carried by certain officials on Public Occasions.

The special advantage enjoyed by foot-messengers was that they could take short cuts and be better able to avoid hazards created by floods or subsidence. Their stamina was remarkable. It is said that when off-duty some made a practice of wearing shoes lined with lead so as to exercise and strengthen their leg muscles. Apparently they developed the ability to move with comparative ease when so encumbered and when despatched on a commission and running bare-footed or shod as the case might have been, they flew like the wind!

Numerous anecdotes have survived which illustrates this proficiency: One footman, during the time of the first Elizabeth was urgently despatched to London from Callowdon (the seat of the Earl of Berkeley) to bring back a bottle of particular medicine for the Countess. It was a course of 148 miles, which allowing for a short rest at the Apothecary's shop, was carried out, on foot, in less than 42 hours. Another instance tells how a footman was directed late one evening to race over from Hume Castle (Berwick) to Edinburgh some 36 miles away, which he carried out, returned immediately and was available for work the following morning!

All great Medieval Establishments retained several runners or "footmen" and there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that it was the practice to give them formalised names suggestive of their prowess. Not only was one of them "Swift", there was also "Speed", "Golightly" and "Lightfoot" - a name now belonging particularly to Merseyside. At first the most favoured nick-name however was "Purchas" - i.e. "to chase after eagerly" but being French, seemed to drop out. We can be certain that these examples were used as personal names. In Norfolk (1166) "Swift" appears as a single name while a similar mention for Suffolk (1222) occurs as "Nicholas, ye sonne of Swyfte". In the Household Books of Edward III (1327-1377) there is an entry which might be significant: "Ralph Swift, Courier to the King".

So families today called "Swift" can take it that they are descended from some ancestor who served as a messenger for some Medieval Dignitary.

The most celebrated bearer of the name was Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) the author of "Gulliver's Travels."

There are over 200 entries in the Local Directories but here in Bakewell the name is well-known to all the little Brownies on account of our own Angela Swift who is their "Brown Owl".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 15th June 1998.

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