This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd August 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 CAPPER?

Information concerning this surname has come over our border from Staffordshire. The name is well-represented in its local directories - particularly that covering the "Moorlands". It is what is called technically an "occupational name", that is to say, it first attached itself to a person and later to the descendants of one who followed the trade of making forms of headgear collectively known as "caps". It is closely identified with "Hatter" - a surname which will be discussed in a later feature.

While the word "hat" first is recorded about 725 and bore much the same meaning as today (a form of covering for the head, usually of stiffened material and with a brim), "cap" evolved later and seems first to have been noted in 998. A cap, by the way, was early differentiated from a hat in that it is made from softer materials and lacks a brim. Curiously enough, no historical material expounding this difference has yet come to light.

It is acknowledged that "hat" is closely related with north European languages, such as German (hut) and Norwegian (hatt) and is associated from their words for "head" and "hood".

However the origin of "cap" is extremely obscure. Nothing really satisfactory is yet available. For the removal of any doubt, the seductive suggestion that it is from the Latin "caput" meaning "head" is etymologically ruled out! The following attempt to provide a source is admittedly simplistic and lacking in detail - but space is limited! The earliest application of the term (except for a woman's head-dress) was to a long cloak with a hood attached. This was often associated with a garment worn by a priest. With the passage of time and going through a development not easily explained, the meaning of "cap" became confined only to the hood and the inclusion of the "clak" was discontinued. In order to provide a descriptive word for the enveloping robe worn as part of his ecclesiastical attire, the word "cope" seems to have been contrived. Note that the alteration of the internal vowel is not easily accounted for but it also occurs in words such as "Papa" (Spanish / Italian) and "Pape" (French) and "Papst" (German) yielding "Pope" in English.

The name was quite widely found in the mainland. The earliest registered bearer of the name is Symon le Cappere of Oxford (1273), and Nicholas le Capyere of Worcester (1275). A William Kapman of Northampton is named without a date. The name is found in Scotland, but it is probably an import from over the border since the first references occur late, as for example John Cappar of Brechin (1511).

Accustomed as we are today to wander around with our head uncovered it is difficult to appreciate the importance placed upon the wearing of caps by our medieval ancestors. The earliest reference occurs in 1430 and says: 'When thou comest before a Lord, Hatt or Cappe do thou not faile to doff'. The trade was represented in many important guild festivals and pageants, especially in York, Chester and Norwich. To prevent them exploiting the convention King Henry VII in 1498 forbade cappers from charging any more than 20 pence for making one and they were certainly on to a "good thing" because later on a law made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I made the wearing of caps compulsory!

The standard National Biography includes several personalities of this name but none are exactly a "headliner". Still, people living in Staffordshire might possibly be descendants of the family of that name who came from Cheshire, of which Joseph Capper (1727-1804) was a noted eccentric.

The "flat cap" as it came to be called was the characteristic headgear of men of the working-class, which accounts for the choice of name for the popular cartoon character in the "Daily Mirror" and who was created by Reg Smythe in 1957.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd August 2004.

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