This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 31st July 1995, 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 DUNFORD?

This is a location-name and there is no difficulty in identifying it as a crossing-place on a river. In this case it is the River Don, of which "Dun" is one of the many permutations on the word. The unit "dun" is so very frequently encountered in place-names and signifying "hill" that it is easy to overlook the fact that it also means "river". This is a much older word and sometimes it is not always apparent in a river-name owing to the numerous variations to which it has been subject.

The forms "Don" and "Dun" occur mainly in the North of England and there are listed at least five other water-courses of much the same name as well as the seventy mile stream from which both Dunford and Doncaster take their titles. Even in the north of Scotland it appears in the name "Aberdeen" while elsewhere, because the initial "D-" has modified into "T-" we get "Tyne", "Tees", "Team" (Gateshead), "Tean" (Uttoxeter), "Tamar", "Thame" and "Thames".

The inhabitants of early settlements had very little need to give distinctive and differing names to local features. They didn't move around all that much and so it was quite sufficient to refer to a local height as "the hill" and a local stream as simply "the river".

Specific and particularised place-names came much later. Even so it is interesting to investigate why our ancestors selected "don" or "dun" to signify a "river". All over Europe our predecessors were probably impressed not only by the noise made by the rushing waters but also by the force they could often exert. Hence it is possible that they identified a river as being "the noisy place" and this has been preserved today in numerous place-names and also in the word "din" which means "uproar".

This word can be traced through versions such as "dinn" and "dyn" in old Nordic languages and appears as "tunen" in Germanic forms and all of them lead back to an ancient word "dhuni" which described things such as "noise", "torrent", and "rapid movement".

Going back a little further there is the Sanskrit word "danu" which signifies "rain" or "moisture". It is not difficult to discern its ultimate emergence in the names of British rivers but is is surprising also to learn that possibly the River Don in Russia and certainly the celebrated Danube are also related. This is truly a remarkable history.

However did the same word for a noisy, turbulent stream make its way from the Himalayas to the Pennines? The river with which "Dunford" is associated, then, is the River Don and the site of the "ford" can be located where the river flows down from Grains Moss irto the valley below. The roads from Holmefirth, Penistone and Glossop all converge at this point. It was here, too, that the celebrated Woodhead Tunnel led the railway line beneath the hills from the West Riding into Lancashire.

The construction of modern dams and reservoirs has undoubtedly obscured the old geographical significance of the crossing-place. The name itself means "the ford on the River Don" - but taking it as far back as possible, it could very well have signified: "The crossing-place over the noisy turbulent waters".

An alternative source of the name is also to be found in the West Riding. Near Methley, which is on the A639 highway, a few miles beyond Castleford, there are records of an estate originally described as "Dunn's Ford". However the "Dunn" in this case would have been a personal name and signified "the dark-haired man" or "he with the swarthy complexion". Later chronicles refer to a "Dunford House" but whether it survives is uncertain. It is not featured in any available guide book nor is it marked on any general map and so whatever information might still be available must be sought locally.

Curiously enough, although both surnames can be traced to the West Riding, the greatest concentration is in the county of Dorset. It is tentatively suggested that the Dorset names might very well stem from the Methley connection. Medieval workers were very often compelled by their Overlords to move away and work on other estates which might come into their ownership. It is possible that some were forced to migrate south under these conditions and once settled in, they would have been described by their new neighbours as "that lot from Dunford" - and that became their eventual surname.

This is mere speculation, of course, and very intensive research would have to be undertaken to support it. Otherwise it can be taken that locally, those bearing the "Dunford" name - or one of its variations - can lay claim to an ancestor from Thurlstone Moors.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 31st July 1995.

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