This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th May 2001, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

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 ALTON?

This name is well-represented in the Local Directories - there are about 100 entries. This accords with the 1890 Survey which included the name as being special to Derbyshire.

Since there are two places in the Country called "Alton" there is a strong temptation to assert that the name is derived from them. However "Alton" is not unique to Derbyshire. There are about a dozen places in England so-called but after analysing the evidence, it is submitted that "Alton" in Stafford has the strongest claim to be declared the principal source.

For reference, here follows a list. Except for an isolated settlement in Suffolk (Ipswich: 6 miles south) they assemble themselves into three well defined Areas. (1) Derby, Stafford, Leicester. (2) Worcester, Hereford. (3) Wiltshire, Hampshire, Dorset. Note: there is no uniformity in the meaning of the names. Those in Derbyshire mean "The Old Farmstead." That in Stafford, "The farm which is owned by a man called Aella" and that in Dorset "The Village near where the river rises (i.e The River Wey)". In passing note that the "Alton" in Scotland (Ayrshire, 1/2 mile north (of) Galston) is an English import and that there are no Irish counterparts.

Taking each place in turn and starting with our own county, there are two sites. The more prominent lies 1 mile west of Clay Cross but the other place has now merged with Idridgehay and appears as a few scattered habitations adjacent to the B5025 Highway. In Stafford, 8 miles west of Ashbourne in the well-known Visitors' Centre of "Alton Towers". Note that while "Alton" itself can be traced as far back as Domesday (1086) the "Towers" is modern (1814). In Leicester, about a few miles along the A11 near Coalville there is a place called "The Altons" of which "Alton Grange" seems the most well-established. The two places in Worchester (near Bewdley) and Hereford (near Leominster) must be mentioned but they do not seem to have generated any surnames beyond, possibly, the immediate vicinity. In the county of Wiltshire, 4 miles north of Amesbury there is the small village of "Alton" close to the picturesquely named "Alton Barnes" and "Alton Priors". (9 miles east (of) Devizes). In Hampshire there is the well-known market town between Farnham and Winchester and in Dorset we find another "Alton" on the B3413, 8 miles north of Dorchester.

It is significant that in all the relevant Directories, excepting our own the surname "Alton" is missing. This goes a long way to confirm the view that it is one of the Midland sites which generated the surname. It is submitted that if the important centre of "Alton" in Hampshire did not finish any identity, then why should the smaller settlements in Derby and Stafford have been able to do so? Not unless one of them enjoyed some special status causing it to be better known beyond its vicinity. Only "Alton" in Stafford seems to answer. This place, along with Ingestre in the same county, is strongly associated with the Talbot family which was greatly involved in Politics and Administration. Their power and influence throughout the Midland Counties on the Welsh Borders prevailed for several centuries beyond the Conquest. Although what follows cannot be put higher that inspired guess-work, it is submitted that the case for the surname "Alton" being derived largely from the place in Stafford is a least persuasive.

Surnames derived from place-names follow a pattern. The further away a family moved from its native place, the less likely was its origins to be known among its new neighbours and the more likely it would be to acquire a new identity. Single men tended to travel further afield than families and they often attracted generalised location names. There was considerable movement from Derby into the North and surname "Derbyshire" prevails strongly in the West Riding and Merseyside.

In the case of "Alton" it is suggested that the name was sufficiently well-known beyond its vicinity on account of its association with the powerful Talbot family. It would have employed many labourers whom it would have moved to places where it has interests beyond its Stafford centre and it would have dispatched numerous representatives to attend to its interests all over the Midlands. Furthermore it was the custom in the Middle Ages for employees and officials to take on the name of their employers or the place where they reside. It may be significant that all the early examples of the surnames indicate that the bearer is "From" or "Of" (i.e "de" ) a place called "Alton". Furthermore the fact that these examples are not far from the Stafford site reinforces the suggestion that it could be the principal source. The first reference is "Simon de Alton" (1141). It is set in otherwise only 50 miles away. Next comes "John de Alton" (1219) in the adjoining county of Leicester and only slightly further afield, in Nottingham, is "Peter de Alton" (1325). The Normans had considerable links with Scotland which may well account for "Robert de Alton" in Bavelay as early as 1280. The first references to the name in isolation is from Nottingham, 1508 and is to "Thomas Alton".

The name has gone overseas. There are two in Canada, three in the States and one in Australia. It is interesting to note that "Alton" in Iowa (USA) is surrounded by a "Matlock", "Sheldon" and "Chatsworth.

As given name "Alton" is best-known through Charles Kingsley's novel in which the hero is name is "Alton Locke". Otherwise the name cannot be traced in any of the Standard Biographies.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th May 2001.

(Part Two)

This surname is something of an enigma. It is described as being special to Derbyshire; yet the local directory contains only some 100 entries which is not a particularly exceptional number. Furthermore, although there are two sites in the county called "Alton", all the evidence tends to suggest that the principal source of the name is to be found elsewhere.

There are, in fact, several places distributed across the country but only one seems to have generated our county surname. A place in Worcestershire lying some 5 miles west of Bewdley is really too small to have given rise to anything but a highly localised name: and the same goes for Alton in Wiltshire (4 miles north of Amesbury on A345 highway). In Hampshire there is the established place called "Alton" about half-way between Southampton and London and which should most certainly have influenced the development of the corresponding surname, yet all the early records are to be found for counties much further north.

Scotland provides an interesting example. There is a site of the name but it is very unlikely that it generated any surname, but for the benefit of families who think they might be involved, the place can be located alongside the A719 highway, about 1½ miles north of Galston in Ayrshire. But caution is advised. The Scots themselves think that as a surname "Alton" is almost certainly derived from an English place-name. In fact only one record exists: it is for Robert de Alton, dated 1280. Mention is made of him in a legal context in Midlothian. Inspired guess-work (it is put no higher) might bring him into association with the Royal House of Scotland and in the capacity of some sort of emissary for the influential English family of Talbot, established in Alton in Staffordshire. This is, at least, a plausible explanation for him being described "of" that place.

Directing attention now to possible locations in Derbyshire, it is rather disappointing to discover that there are only two contenders, and neither is really of any significance as positively to pin-point its being the source of the surname. In the evolution of surnames, it is frequently the case that location-names are problematical. If they are related to small or isolated settlements, that would constitute a surname which would be meaningless to people living beyond a certain distance. If a man were to leave such a place and go further afield in search of work his new neighbours would provide a new identity - often based on a personal characteristic or perhaps an occupational name. In the present instance the place called "Alton" in north-east Derbyshire, which is about 4½ miles south of Chesterfield, would have stood a better chance of being the basis of a surname in some of the larger settlements round about, but, sadly, there are no contemporary records to support this. The name signifies "The Old Farm" but this nomenclature is repeated in countless other places and does nothing to help. It is first recorded in 1298. The source of the surname can also be assumed from the neighbourhood name extending south of Wirksworth: there are some half-dozen habitations incorporating the name but no specific location seems to prevail over the others. Even with the aid of a large-scale map nothing corresponding to even a hamlet can be made out with certainty. There must, however, have been something to merit its being mentioned in a Charter dated 1298, where it is given as "Altone".

Following upon all the fore-going, it would seem that the most persuasive case rests with Alton in Staffordshire. Its being situated in another area is not an impediment. It is only a short distance from the border and Ashbourne is barely 8 miles away to the east: In the Middle Ages Ashbourne was a place of consequence would have a attracted people from Alton who would have been readily identified as being "that guy from Alton" and the name itself is mentioned in Domesday (1086). The earliest records can be interpreted as "The Settlement of Aelfa". Who this "Aelfa" was is not certain. This personal name occurs elsewhere and suggests that it was a favoured name.

The earliest records of the name are intriguing: though outside Derbyshire a pattern can be discerned in the adjacent counties. It is just possible that servants or agents of the powerful and influential Talbot family who lived at Alton, would have been employed as messengers: hence John de Alton in Lincoln (1219) and Peter de Alton in Nottingham (1235). Family historians might be able to follow up this suggestion. Otherwise it is greatly to be regretted that references are extremely scanty. Sadly, also, the name reveals no entries in the standard biographies. But the name has travelled across the Atlantic: there are 14 places called Alton in the United States.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 1st December 2003.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library