This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 15th July 1996, 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 BARKER?

This in an occupational name and would have been applicable either to a Shepherd or a Tanner. Its similarity with "Barks" is unmistakable and there is certainly a link but in such a round-a-bout way that only a separate feature could do it justice.

It has nothing to do with the noise made by a dog. That sound was extended to the cries of a "Barker" (i.e. a huckster) touting for bids in a mock-auction or soliciting people to buy his cheap and nasty merchandise at street markets. Such a construction dates from about 1480 - long after surnames had become established. It is an interesting side-line worth noting that if he had been hawking medicaments, he wouldn't have been said to "bark" but to "quack" - hence the colloquialism used in that connection.

Sheep-farming has always been an important industry and so it is not surprising that in addition to "Shepherd" as an occupational name, we find also "Barker". This is based on a less familiar Late Latin word for a ram which is "Berbex". ("Aries" is the Classical Latin expression and is better known, largely because of its Astrological connections). However "Berbex" passed into Norman French as "berquier" and emerged in Modern French as "berger". In a list of occupations made in 1363 we come across "vachers, berchers and porchers" - i.e. "keepers of cattle, sheep and pigs". The expression "Bercaria", meaning a "sheep-fold" occurs in an Agricultural Dictionary for 1742.

Because the "-e-" in "Bergen" modified into "-a-" (as it did, for example, in the case of "Clarke" - from the original Latin "clericus") and because there was already the name "Barker" but from a different source, the name has become confused with the form meaning a "Tanner" and so unless people who are called "Barker" have positive information about their family history, it would be impossible now for them to say for certain whether their ancestors were shepherds or tanners.

Directing our attention now to the other meaning given to "Barker" we can say at once that it means exactly what is says: the occupation of barking or gathering bark from trees. It was quite a skilled operation because one did not simply hack great lumps. That would have killed the trees and destroyed a source of raw material which was essential in the process of leather manufacture.

The raw material in this case was "tannin" and although this substance is present in many plant-forms (tea especially!), that derived from English Oak was eminently suited to the process of tanning. A dissertation upon the Leather Industry would be out-of-place here but it is enough to say that from the time a skin is removed from the body of an animal to when a finished hide is laid upon a work-bench a great many processes have to be gone through. Of them tanning is the first.

As in most simple communities, those who were engaged in particular trades carried out every process but as time went on, there were divisions of labour. It may be taken that in the Early Middle Ages, craftsmen concerned with leather would not only gather their own raw materials in the form of bark but transport it to their workshops and continue the process. Gradually it was found more convenient for this work to be performed by a specialist body of workers who called themselves the "Barkers" and to band over the material to others, who extracted the tannin and called themselves the "Tanners".

At first this distinction was regularly observed and the expression "Barkers and Tanners" was as firmly fixed in everybody's vocabulary as, for example, today when we talk of "Carpenters and Joiners" or "Bakers and Confectioners" without really appreciating the distinction.

Gradually, however the separate nature of their work became obscured and eventually the expression "Barker" fell into disuse and "Tanner" remained. For example, in 1339, the famous Cycle of Mystery Plays at Chester makes the distinction clear by listing the "Barkers and Tanners" as staging one of the Plays. Yet exactly 400 years later (1739) we read in a Trade Directory of "ye Degrees of Fineness to which ye Tanners do grind their bark". This shows that the process of Barking was not attributed to the Tanners. Indeed by the time of Queen Victoria the word "Barker" was described in a reference work as an obsolete designation for a Tanner.

The point is attractively illustrated in an old song. The title refers to "The Tanner of Tamworth" yet in the verses he is called a "Barker". In a celebrated conversation between himself and King Edward IV (1461-1483) the King asks, "What is your trade?" The answer is "I'm a Barker, What's your job?" (Freely adapted from the Old English!).

Truly the Barkers seem to have been a stroppy lot. We read of John Barker in Mediaeval London who got chucked into jail for insisting on being paid Four-pence a day and "all found". This was against the law which said all workers were to be paid quarterly. The earliest references to a Barker as a Shepherd is for Lincoln in 1273 and for a Leather Worker, for York in 1379.

Although the name is widely distributed - there are over 400 entries in the Local Directories and many worthy people have borne the name, yet only one has really "hit the headlines". It was Sir Herbert Barker (1869-1950) whose controversial skills as a manipulative surgeon came to be highly regarded and who pioneered bone-setting.

To be continued...

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 15th July 1996.

Are you called BARKER or TANNER?
(Part Two)

In the development of surnames, these names are inseparable. They are both occupational and refer to the same trade: the manufacture of leather. For several centuries "Barker" and "Tanner" were synonymous. In 1339 the list of sponsors for the Chester Mystery Plays was headed "Barkers and Tanners". In addition to hides, the stock-in-trade of either named occupation was relatively simple: oak bark and vats. The process of leather-making required a decoction of oak-bark in which hides were then immersed.

The separation of these two occupational names was apparantly related to which activity an individual leather-worker was largely identified. So, if he was perceived more in his capacity as a rover in the forest stripping bark from oaks then he was called "Barker". Otherwise he was a "Tanne".[Ed:sic] The earliest reference to the former is for John le Barker of Cambridge (1260). For the other we find Ansketill le Tanur of Westmoreland, 1189. Here let it be noted that "Barker" can only too easily be confused with a similar name - of which more later.

Strange to say, although surnames occur earlier, the job- description itself appears late (1402). Even the word "bark" is found in writing rarely before 1300. This is a curiosity which is not easily explained. It may have been that the process of tanning was more predominant and "barker" was simply absorbed. Another explanation (which the present writer diffidently advances) is that the making of leather was a very old occupation, long practised in even before the Roman occupation in the islands. Wheras the work "bark" had been introduced by Teutonic and Norse invaders (cf. Swedish - borkr) the Celtic "tan" may still have rested in folk memory. In Old Cornish the Evergreen Oak is 'glad-tannen' and in Breton it was 'tan'. It is certainly significant that the word "tanner" itself appears as early as 975 (Royal Charter), and continued in use while "barker" steadily advanced towards obsolenscence: and declared as such in the 19th century.

Apart from these things there was not much escaping the impact of a tannery on the surrounding neighbourhood! The tanning liquid was exceptionally smelly and needed constant replenishment with fresh water. The records of the Middle Ages describe numerous disputes between townsfolk and tanners on account of the fouling of the water supplies with the waste products and dirty water when the vats were emptied. In 1306 the tanners were prosecuted for obstructing the fleet.

At this point it should be noted that, contrary to what might thus have been expected, the surname "Barker" was far more frequently encountered than "Tanner". In our local directory "Barker" extends over three columns against a small grouping of nine "Tanners". Even the Standard Biographical Dictionary includes only four Tanners to thirty Barkers!

It is an amusing speculation to think that "tanners" were rather reluctant to bear a surname that identified them with such a smelly and filthy occupation that they took every opportunity to adopt one that was less invidious! The more credible explanation is that the name became confused with the Anglo-Norman French word for "shepherd" - namely "bercher" (compare modern French "berger"). It was derived from the Latin "berbex". Hence Ralph Berker of York (1185) Richart le Berkier of Tyningham (1296). This variation reveals the tendency in the development of English for the combination of "-er-" to convert to "-ar-" as in the case of clericus - clerk - Clark and in Sergeant - Sargent. So families called "Barker" must decide as best they can whether they are descended from a leather-worker or a shepherd.

Of the personalities called "Barker" mention must be made of Sir Herbert Barker (1869-1950) a pioneer in manipulative surgery. Of "Tanner" - well! there is an unattested story that the old sixpenny piece was named after John Tanner the engraver at the Royal Mint for about 50 years and who designed the silver coinage for 1743 onwards.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th June 2004.

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