This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th April 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 COOMBES?

This surname (variously spelled) is so familiar a unit in countless place names (eg Ilfracombe) that it is surprising that it has generated comparatively few surnames. In the National Biographical Dictionary only two bearers of the name appear and in the local directory there are listed only nine! And yet, taking the name "Coombe" alone and setting aside all the multifarious compound place names in which it appears, a good gazetteer catalogues nearly 100 sites.

The evolution of the word "Coombe" or "Combe" is certainly interesting but does not entirely account for the difference in numbers. The following statement must be rather brief because attempts at detail would convert this little feature into something akin to the index of a road atlas! Were such an index to be consulted it would reveal that places incorporating "coombe" are most heavily represented in the southern half of our island and over half that number is concentrated in the south-west. But the word is not exclusive to the south. It is familiar in the northern regions and describes a crescent-shaped depression in the side of a hill; whereas in the south it refers to a short valley running into a larger eminence - the Downs for instance.

The imagination of our Old English ancestors detected some resemblance to a cup in the appearance of these depressions, and since their word for "cup" was "cumb" applied it accordingly. It is supposed to be a Celtic word because when the Anglo-Saxons invaded England (c. 500AD) they came from a region where this geographical feature was absent, and having no word for it in their Nordic language, simply adopted an existing Celtic expression which can be traced as far back as 770AD. Since it was some while before they advanced further north, it has been suggested that this is one reason why there is a preponderance of "coombes" in the southern counties. It may be noted that as the invaders advanced further north and into the level areas of the Midlands and East Anglia, they encountered few examples of such "coombes" and the use of the word became less frequent.

But there is a mystery which has yet to be solved. In the north of England where the topography lends itself so much to the presence of "coombes", why then are there so few major place names incorporating the word? Even in the Peak District there are only two (Bakewell; Charlesworth): one in Merseyside (Holcombe) and merely a handful in all Yorkshire. It is suggested, with considerable diffidence, that the rugged terrain of our northern counties lent itself so much to the formation and prevalence of "coombes" that endeavouring to create distinctive names for each one would have been a discouraging project! Were any name to have been given, it could have been little more than a highly localised and rarely listed field-name, which was interpreted only by immediate dwellers.

In the north, rural communities were more isolated than those in the south and intercommunication was less observed. Families which occupied such "coombes" had no trouble in identifying themselves as "the folk who live in the Coombe". But as time went by, members of such families or groups were obliged to move away from what had been their native setting, and to seek a living further afield. Their name would be meaningless to their new neighbours and so they simply adopted (or were given!) a new identity. This suggestion may go some way in accounting for the unit appearing either as a surname or a place name in the north. In the south it was different. Roughly below a line projected from Hereford to Essex, places first described simply as "coombes" were gradually differentiated, forming compound names, which were later to provide surnames: eg Lipscombe, Melcombe, Widdicombe etc.

There are few extensions of the surname: to the basic "Coombe" there is "Coombes" (child of Coombe) and the rare formation "Coomber". For some inexplicable reason it has no definite Scots equivalent. The name MacComb (exported to Ireland) translates as "Son of Thom" and is unrelated to the English name.

In recent times the best-known bearer of the surname is Miss Pat Coombes who acted as a splendid foil to the comic genius of several TV comedians.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th April 2004.

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