This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th May 1998, 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.”


One of the hazards of foreign travel is that popularly called "Gippy Tummy". It is usually brought about through drinking local water. This is no libel. Travel guides, both at home and abroad, regularly issue warnings in the matter. Here, in the UK, we are blessed with a (usually) reliable supply of wholesome drinking water on tap, as well, as an efficient system of drains and sewers. Even so there can be alarming lapses, as for example the epidemic of typhoid in Croydon in 1937. But before that date and long before Chadwick and Bazalgette appeared on the scene, it was positively dangerous to drink ordinary water unless it was derived from a tried and trusted source.

The perils were well-recognised as far back as the 13th century when the citizens of London incurred the expense of laying a main from the springs of Tyburn to a public fountain at East Cheap. But not for drinking! Oh dear no! It was used largely for cooking by the more affluent who looked down their noses at those who drank from it. The followers of St. Francis of Assisi were absolutely destitute after their arrival in England in 1224, but even they were fearful of partaking of such water and managed as best they could with donations of stale and sour ale which would otherwise have been thrown out.

At that period and for long after, imbibing water was the last resort of those who had sunk to the lowest depths of degradation and poverty. No wonder, too, that being permitted only to drink from the untreated waters which flowed in the gutters was included among the penalties inflicted on those in prison!

But what then did our ancestors drink? Fortunately it had been known, even in the Ancient World, that fermentation as it occurs in the process of brewing, yields a drink that in the ordinary course of events could be drunk with safety. It should be noted that it also had its risks, though less frequent. If the grain used was tainted with ergot, the resulting liquor induced hallucinations. This is a credible explanation for some of the mass spectral viewings such as the celebrated re-enactment of the Civil War battle at Naseby (1645).

Just as today, on the Continent, the wine drunk in place of water is comparatively innocuous, so also was its English counterpart in the form of a mild beverage, called either "small Ale" or "small Beer". Its alcoholic content was extremely low. It crops up repeatedly in old narratives: in a set of accounts (1467) we read - "iii galons of smale ale for 1d". (i.e. 13½ litres for ½p). The army regulations for 1690 direct that every soldier be allowed a quart of small beer a day. The fact that its potency was so minimal is reflected in that it was used as a term of disparagement - "They put on a Puritanical, Fanatical, Small-Beer face on everything" wrote a political commentator in 1682.

If one is not aware of these things, passages in old books read very strangely. There are constant references to beer drinking at Rugby in "Tom Brown" (c.1834). A child in Mrs Ewing's delightful story ("Flatiron" c.1840) describes how his nurse gives him cheese and beer as a treat from her own supper. At dinner the pupils attending Dr Blimber's sedate academy were offered table-beer by a butler who made it taste like wine "he poured it out so superbly". (Dombey: 1845). And centuries before, at Eton, during the summer term, lessons finished at 3.0pm and the scholars assembled for "bevers" - i.e. a drink of beer, which would have been the medieval equivalent of "Afternoon Tea".

Bearing all this in mind then, it follows that if a member of a community in the Middle Ages positively chose to drink water instead of ale, then it suggests that he was incredibly tight- fisted. Of course it is more than likely that even the most miserly persons would not care to run the risks of drinking water and the description was on a par with the modern jibe, "He's that mean he'd pinch the pennies off a dead man's eyes"!

It is certainly a very old name. There is a John Drinkewater in Shropshire (1273) and Thomas Drynkewater in London (1300). One suspects that it was given to inn-keepers in fun - hence "Margery Drynkewater, ye Wyfe of Philip le Taverner" (London 1324). There were so many nick-names for notorious tipplers Drinkwell, Drinkallup, Drinkdregs, for example - that it is hardly likely to have been a sarcastic reference to a chronic boozer!

There is a notion that perhaps "Drinkwater" referred to a diabetic because distressing thirst is a sympton of that malady. This is not likely because thirst, however caused, could have been slaked with other fluids and the explanation, although interesting, is untenable.

Finally it is not a corruption of "Derwentwater". The place name and the surname had established distinct identities well back in the 1200's. So one is obliged to conclude that families who bear the name must have had an ancestor who practised excessive domestic economy. No doubt he bought the cheapest "small ale" - and in the 13th century it was fixed at One Penny a Gallon - and diluted even that! He would have a modern equivalent in the suburban housewife who saves tea bags and uses them again to provide mid-morning tea for her daily cleaner!

[Ed: Au contraire, I can't help wondering whether he was just as likely to be the community's official 'taster' of whether water was 'bad' or not - hehe!]

The most celebrated bearers of the name are John Drinkwater (1762-1844), an army historian from Warrington and John Drinkwater (1882-1937) the poet and playwright from Oxford. The name is still heavily concentrated in both places. It seems to be a Middle Counties and North-Western name and thins out elsewhere. Locally there are about 30 altogether in the local directories.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 4th May 1998.

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