This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th April 2000, 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 BACON?

Before modern methods of refrigeration were established, fresh-tasting beef or mutton was a rare luxury enjoyed only by affluent households, whereas a pig's carcass could be cut up and preserved as food for several months, especially in the winter. In her portrayal of rural life ("Lark Rise") Flora Thompson reminiscences over the importance of pig-rearing to every cottage dweller. Although she describes the circumstances prevailing in her childhood (c.1880-1890) they would have been applicable for any period since the Roman occupation (55 B.C.-49 A.D) and even earlier. In Rome itself bacon was distributed to the poorer citizens during five months of the year.

In passing it may seem curious that the pig should have stood so high in the rural economy considering the absolute prohibition against eating its flesh which is set out in the Bible (Leviticus: XI). It is understood that this particular restriction was imposed because of a misconception among some ancient peoples that persons who indulged in pork were peculiarly liable to leprosy. Actually not only the Hebrews but many Eastern Mediterranean tribes also published catalogues of forbidden foods for which they too claimed a supernatural provenance. In the case of Syria, for example, fish were off the menu! Even so, notwithstanding the veneration in which the Bible was held by the Christian communities of Western Europe, they tended to be rather selective in their observances of scriptural admonitions and it remains a fact that in the case of the inhabitants of the British Isles, they went along with the rest of the continent in rearing swine for food.

The carcass of a pig was so very much in evidence in nearly every medieval household that it needed no other designation than by a word which signified "the body". The particular expression was "bacon" to which "back" is closely related. "Back" is sometimes still used to refer to the human body and particularly in established phrases such as "the clothes on one's back".

An extensive vocabulary attaches itself to the beast of which "swine" is the earliest on record (725 A.D). Like many of the names of animals in Old English, it is the same both singular and plural (c.f. Deer, sheep).

"Pig" makes its first appearance in 1225. It is only later that a distinction between fresh meat (pork) and the preserved variety (bacon) appears. Pork in 1290 and Bacon in 1330. Incidentally "ham" is first recorded in 1637.

This certainly indicates that "bacon" was so firmly established in everyday language that in spite of the well-known distinction in naming meat in the farm-yard from the same as it appeared on the table - e.g. sheep/mutton, the term "bacon" was not readily displaced. As late as 1380 a set of household accounts states that "in ye stores are to be founde motoun and bef and bakouns".

This point is even more strongly emphasised in that "Bacon" appears as a surname several centuries before it is mentioned independently as food.

It probably had by then taken on several meanings. Most frequently it would have been associated with people who were called in as specialists in killing pigs for their flesh. Since it shared with "pork" the significance of "pig's meat" no doubt it was extended to a person who dealt as a "pork butcher". Hence in Lincoln we find mentioned both William and Richard Bacon for 1150 - some 200 years before the word "bacon" had been written down! In Stafford there is a Nicholas Bachun in 1226 and Geoffrey Bacon for Sussex, 1296. Suggestions that slaughtering pigs was not necessarily a "man's job" is indicated by an allusion to Cecilia Bacun in Norwich for 1273.

Alternatively, for those readers who feel that they deserve more elevated ancestry than medieval pig-dealing, it is worth mentioning that they might care to lay claim to a French predecessor. Among the Normans the personal name "Bacus" was favoured on account of its being derived from a Germanic word meaning "to fight" (It survives in modern France-Talk as "bagarre" meaning "a scuffle"). The grammatical structure of Old French caused the name "Bacus" to modify into "Bacon". There are some examples in the vicinity of Uttoxeter. Naturally it is a matter for individual bearers of the name to decide the matter for themselves.

The surname does not seem to have established itself in either Scotland or Ireland, but otherwise it is fairly evenly distributed across the country with no special areas of concentration. There are over 200 entries in the local directories. The celebrated bearer of the name is the 17th-century statesman and philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). His reputation as a scholar stands very high and there are some whimsical folk who maintain he also wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare.

Their lines of argument are very persuasive but if followed could just as easily be adapted to show that Gladstone wrote the works of Dickens!

In Matlock the name is known to many of us on account of Alastair Bacon at the Tourist Office in Crown Square whose friendly guidance is much appreciated by visitors.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th April 2000.

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