This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th March 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 BAXTER?

This is an occupational name and describes a woman who made and sold bread. It is inseparably linked with the corresponding surname "Baker" (which will be described in a later feature). Our ancestors distinguished a man who baked bread - a "Baker", from woman, whom they designated as a "Baxter".

Much of the interest in this name lies in the use and the history of the suffix, "-ster". Whenever our ancestors wanted to make a word for describing whoever or whatever it was that "did" something, they tagged on "-er" to the basic expression. Hence out of "farm" they made "farmer" and from "bake" comes "baker". Sometimes the "-er" has modified into "-or" as in "sailor" and awkward words, such as "law" emerge as "lawyer".

If however the person doing the job was a woman, our forefathers tagged on "-ster". We have already encountered it under "Webster" (see "Peak Advertiser" for 4th October 1993). In the case of "Baker" there evolved the corrresponding form "Bakester". This construction can certainly be traced to old Germanic lanuages, but its more remote origins have not been tracked down.

What makes the unit so interesting is that although it provided the means of distinguishing occupations followed between men and women, it soon began to lose this characteristic and become, as it were, neutral.

Exactly why this should have taken place is somethings of a mystery and is best left to the Social Historians to sort out. What can be said for certain is that in the Early Middle Ages, a few trades and professions were deemed to be within the province of women. So - just as ladies today will carry needles and a ball of wool and engage in a spot of knitting when opportunity arises, so also in the Middle Ages nearly every woman carried a distaff and spun thread whenever her hands were free - note that the picturesque spinning-wheel of the Nursery Stories wasn't invented until 1404.

Spinning was so very strongly identified with women that even as early as 1380 "spinster" was the accepted designation for a woman of no particular rank and who followed no trade and who was unmarried. By the time of James I (1603-1625) a lawyer was able to write that it was "a Terme in our Common Law ... added in Writing to the Name of an Unmarried Maide". (1617).

Furthermore, it is not a matter of general knowledge but that during the Mediaeval Period many taverns were managed by women and that practically all the ale that was brewed, was produced by them. Hence the names "Brewster" and "Tapster" are frequently encountered.

However, for no clearly explicable reason, men, especially in the North of England began to involve themselves more and more in trades which once were almost monopolised by women - such as weaving and baking.

They assumed the designations such as "Webster" and "Baxter" or "Bakester" so casually that it was not long that they ceased to be identified as feminine words, In some cases the fact that words constructed on "-ster" already referred to a woman was so far forgotten that as early as 1703 a female singer was being described as a "songstress" - that is "songster" plus the really superfluous appendage of "-ess". There still survive few isolated examples of "Baxtress" as well!

Probably the abandon ment of "-ster" as an acceptable feminine suffix was hastened, partly because an alternative unit, derived from French, in the form of "-ess" took over and part ly because it began to be reworked as a means of creating slightly disparaging expressions such as "youngster" (1589) "trickster" (1712) and "gangster" (U.S.A. 1898).

The earliest record is dated 1093 in Devon for a person called "Bacestre". Because the name was a recognised feminine title it is, at first, rarely found with a woman's first name. In 1260, however, "Anne Bakestre" is found in Cheshire. The "take-over" by men seems to have begun as early as 1307 because we find mention of a "Simon de Bakestere".

The name is fairly evenly distributed across the country and there are no perceptible concentrations. The Local Directories contain about 300 entries. The most celebrated bearer of the name is Richard Baxter (1615-1691). He has a slender link with Derbyshire in that he stayed for a while in Melbourne Hall in 1650 and it was there that he began writing his celebrated religious book "The Saints' Everlasting Rest".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th March 1996.

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