This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 21st October 2002, 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 BOWDON?
(Alternatives: Bowden, Bowdin)

A location is useful as a means of identity. For example we use one when we refer to "That lady who lives in the cottage by the church". Similarly in medieval society, members of a community were referred to as "the man who lives by the stream", "those people who have the house in the wood". These eventually became surnames such as Brook and Attwood. But because there were so very many water-courses and plantations, it was found useful to add a qualifying detail. And in the case of a hill, if it was exceptionally round, giving us "Bowden".

But of course, if our ancestors used dialect or antique expressions, these are not now easily recognised. Words such as "eg" and "burn" are not readily understood as "island" or "stream". There were numerous ways of referring to a hill. The most common was "dun" (or "don" or "den") but "low" and "over" might be cited locally - hence Shardlow and Bolsover.

Except in place-names, "dun" has long been supplanted with other words, but survives in "dune" and "downland". In our own region over 20 sites are listed incorporating "don". It might be noted that it is often mistaken for "ton" (a settlement). So Ilkeston is really "Elka's dun".

However there is little confusion over "Bowden". The place itself is situated to the north of Chapel-en-le-Frith ("Frith" means forest). On modern maps it is named "Bowden Head". Here "Head" is based on the Old English "Heafod" meaning "hill" and it was formerly known as "Bowden Edge" which, again, is an Old English term for "hillside". (Note: Breck Edge in the vicinity).

The unit "Bow" comes from the archaic word "boga" which can be interpreted as "curved" and is preserved in rainbow and elbow. It is interesting to observe that "ox-bow" (a pronounced and isolated bend in a river was an American adaptation, first appearing in Vermont, 1797). In the words of the guide book "Bowden" is a "curved and well-rounded hill". Near South Wingfield there is a Boden Farm but this takes its name from a certain John Bowdon who is first mentioned in connection thereof in 1718. Otherwise our earliest record is in the Register of Admissions to Oxford in 1583 and is to Thomas Bowden of Derby. The name is well- represented in the west country (17 sites in Devon alone are quoted). The sites all appear to be simply neighbourhood names and are shown only on very large-scale maps. Nevertheless they all signify "curved hill". The earliest record is found here: John do Boghedon, 1333. A note of caution needs to be entered at this point. There are a considerable number of parks and manor houses etc. bearing the name "Bowden". (Bowden Hall near Gloucester, Bowden House near Tomes, to name only a few). It is known that workers on such estates often adopted the name of the work-place as a surname and continued this identity long after they or their families had ceased to be associated with the site. The practice still persisted until the 1930s. Very often families with aristocratic surnames have only this claim! It may also be significant that in Devon and Cornwall especially, the name "Bowden" has been muddled up with "Baldwin" which as a personal name, stood high with the Norman nobility on account of its distinguished involvement with the Crusades. In Leicester there is both Great and Little Bowden. The oldest records refer to it as "Bugadone" (1208). Research, which is not conclusive, strongly suggests that "Bucge" was an old English feminine personal name and so the place-name signifies "The hill which belongs to Bucge". Nothing further is yet known. Further north, in Cheshire there is yet another "Bowdon" and apparently pronounced "Boo-doon" Notwithstanding this difference the name still signifies "the rounded hill".

Families with Scots associations can claim a connection with Bowden in Roxburghshire. Here however the name is a rendering of the Gaelic expression "both an duin" which means "house on the hill". The name is truly one of location and not ownership because the records indicate that the lands were originally occupied by a monastic order based in Kelso and which sub-let the holdings. The first reference is to Richard de Boulden (1200).

Generally, bearers of the name, however spelled can interpret it as "he who lives on the hill" but a different explanation obtains for those of Irish ancestry. They derive their name from an old Irish name "Baudon" which means "victorious". It is closely related to the ancient British name "Boudicca" better known as "Boadicea" who was the famous queen of the Iceni (Norfolk) and who led a revolt against the Roman occupation in AD 61. The most celebrated bearer of the name came from Derby (1910). He was Vivian Bertram (later Lord) Bowden. He was involved in pioneer work with radar and with computers, which he accurately predicted were to revolutionise post-1950 society. He died only recently in 1989.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st October 2002.

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