This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th June 2000, 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 ELEY?
(Variations: Ely, Ealey, Eeley, Eyley, Hely, Healy)

Our medieval ancestors knew most of the Old Testament personalities by names which had passed from Hebrew into Greek. Hence "Jeremiah" became "Jeremias" and "Zacharias" came out eventually as "Zachary". In the case of Elijah the name was modified into "Elias" and in that form was a very popular name in the Middle Ages. These renderings disappeared after the publication of the authorised version of the Bible in 1611. The translators endeavoured to approximate much more to the original Hebrew spellings of names and, for example, converted "Abdias" into "Obadiah". While many of the new names were certainly conferred in baptism, the old forms still prevailed in surnames. They had been around for so long that they could not be displaced.

As is very often the case, personal names were shortened. This process is called, technically, "hypocorism" and the hypocoristic forms of "Elias" included "Ely", "Elye", "Elie" and even "Hely".

The name itself is a combination of two Hebrew words "Eli-" and "-Jah". The first unit means "great" or "all-powerful". The second is an abbreviation of "Jehovah" which is the name of the Hebrew God. Together they can be interpreted as "Jehovah is God" or "God is Great".

In whatever modification, "Elias" was a very popular name. And not only in England, but in Scotland and Ireland as well. In fact the earliest record of the name relates to Ireland. It is to an "Elias de Ammondevilla" (Hammondville, Waterford). He is believed to have been one of the order of Gilbertines, and is dated about 1155. Another record, this time for Dublin, dated 1282, mentions another "Elys". Care should be taken by those wishing to follow up any Irish connections, that they don't get confused with "Healey" as derived from a Gaelic form. It was discussed in our issue for 20th December, 1999.

In Scotland the earliest references occur around 1180. A grant of land was made to "Helias, son of huctred" (Oughtred) and the charter is interesting in that one of the witnesses is a "Helias of Hadenstanden". In Somerset (1213) we encounter "Philippus filius Helie" and in Lincolnshire (1293) we find "John, son of Elie" and "Reginald, son of Elye". Whether they were related is not known. The repetition of the personal name might be indicative only of its popularity.

An alternative explanation is that Eley is derived from the title of the city, once a county in its own right, but now amalgamated with Cambridgeshire. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735) the site was celebrated for the large number of eels which were caught in the surrounding fenland. Hence it was known as "the place of the eels". He called it "Elge" (730) but in a later transcription of his narrative (890) the scribe bas altered it to "Elig" which modifies the meaning into "Eel Island". In the Domesday Book (1086) it is given its present form, "Ely". (Note: "Eel Pie Island" which lies just opposite Twickenham church, in the River Thames, is a modern designation).

A glance through the local directory for Cambridge reveals only a handful of entries under "Ely" and about a dozen for "Eley". All available records of former bearers of the name centre on Cambridge, Lincoln and Norwich. It is submitted therefore that as a source of the surname in other areas it is extremely doubtful. This pattern is similarly reproduced in Glamorgan (South Wales). There is both a river called the "Ely" and several related place-names, but it seems that they have generated only localised surnames.

The spelling of the name as "Eley" is found to be peculiar to Derbyshire. There are just over 100 entries in the local directories. This fact was noted in a survey carried out in the 1890's where "Eley" was listed as being special to our county.

If it could be established that there was a large influx of immigrants from Ely during the Middle Ages, then the presence of the name could be accounted for and to have borne the meaning, "they folks from Ely". But this is extremely doubtful. It is submitted that the name "Elias" or "Elye" was hugely popular. Thus it could have been a family tradition to pass it on from father to son. Especially so in farming circles where there was a tendency to remain on the land, and to raise large families. To put it succintly, monogenetics rather than immigration accounts for the concentration of the surname in our county. This is somewhat reinforced in that the surname "Elce" is also held to be special to Derbyshire and that too is based upon "Elias". (It is a variation on "Ellis" and that will be discussed at a later date.)

Curiously enough only one local place-name appears to have been involved. It is "Elle Bank" near Hayfield. It appears in records dating from the time of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) as "Elibanke". No personalities are mentioned in the standard references under this name. Still bearers of the surname can reconcile themselves that they are named after a character in the Old Testament who enjoyed the distinction, shared only with the founder of the Christian faith and his mother, of being taken directly up to Heaven - II Kings, Ch.220, v. 11.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th June 2000.

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