This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th October 2004, 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 BIGGIN?
Variations: Bigging, Biggins.

This name is listed as being special to Derbyshire which is rather surprising since there are only 17 entries in the Local Directory. And why it should be deemed special to our County is curious since it is based on a location name of which there are numerous examples found elsewhere. Most of them are minor settlements and not mentioned in the Standard Gazeteer: but those which are (presumably) major settlements add up to 9. Numbers are confusing in that while the Gazetteer includes 2 sites in Derbyshire, the Guide for our County adds a further 11.

This apparent inconsistency would seem to arise from the fact that the word "biggin" (Old English for a building or a cluster of them) is one of those general terms such as "church, chapel, castle, kirk etc" which have been adopted as surnames: in settled early Medieval Communities to identify a person and, later a family, according to their association or proximity to such prominent establishments was a custom widely followed. As time went by and people moved away from their native places such surnames lost their specific association with their place of origin and their surnames became a convenient form of identification.

"Biggin" is a Northern dialect word and is related to "big" (or "bigg") which in this context means "dwelling-place" and, by extension, "to build" or "to construct". It is suggested that it is strongly identified with the verb "to be" in the sense that where a person dwelt, there also he had his "Being". (Note how Mrs. Gummidge describes a home as a "Beein" - David Copperfield, Ch. 32) The word can be traced to the Old Norse as "Byggia" and made its way into Old English as "byggen" and "bygge".

Its earliest appearance dates around 1197 and reads: "Where dwellest thou?" (Whaere biggest tu?). In 1300 a contemporary translation of Psalm 69 V.5 which says "God... will build the cities of Judah" appears as: God... sal bigge ye cites of Jude". Remarkably the expression was still in use in the 19th Century. A Guide to the Dialects of Lancashire (1869) gives: They bigged yon new barn. Later in 1884 an Agricultural Journal refers to "bigging a dyke".

A Builder, especially in the North, was described as a "biggand" (or "Bigger"). Hence the well-known quotation from Psalm 118 V. 22 - "The stone which the builders rejected" appears as "Ye stone whilk biggand forsake" (1297).

Literature dating from as early as 1290 confirms. that "Biggin" not only meant "dwelling", but - and this is very significant when we come to relate it to surnames - it also described a cluster of out-buildings. It is interesting to realise that the term was still understood in the Northern Counties when Charlotte Bronte was writing. She refers to a person being overcome by "the heat of the biggin" (Shirley: C.30 -1849).

From the foregoing extracts, it can fairly be deduced that "biggin" would have described a cluster of out-buildings and (an) acceptable modern term might be "Complex"(?). It may be significant to note that in the Middle Ages the Church was among the great land-owners and would very likely have been able to provide accommodation for its lay-employees. In the case of "Biggin" near Selby (West Riding) neighbourhood names such as Bishop Wood and Bishop Dike would suggest this connection. It is also significant that the name occurs frequently in association with the presence of Landed Estates, as, perhaps, at Hartington in our own County. Students of County Histories are better equipped to amplify this notion. So other sites include "Biggin" near Belper; Kirkby Lonsdale; Northamptonshire (near Oundle); Warwick (near Thurlaston) and in Kent (near Lenham).

Occupiers of such named sites would probably have been identified as "them from the Biggin" and this eventually provided a surname. A similar evolution occurs in the case of "Harbottle" (see "Advertiser" 25:4:'94). The name is very well-known in connection with the Air Field at Biggin Hill, south of Bromley in Kent, which played so significant a part during the Second World War. It is a curious coincidence that a certain Mr. Biggin was associated with early Balloon Navigation (1786).

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 4th October 2004.

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