This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 21st December 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.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called FOX?

A large number of surnames are based upon those of animals and "Fox" is among the most well-represented. There are few variations but none is significant. Spellings such as "Ffox" or "ffox" are best left to the "faux genteel"!

It is quite in order to suggest that it was a nick-name and that it was originally conferred by Medieval communities upon members whose reputation for crafty dealings caused them to be identified with that animal. Even so a qualification should be added. The name must also have been associated with other items which were not necessarily uncomplimentary otherwise the name would not have been so readily assumed and not so widely distributed.

For example one of the oldest references to "Fox" is found in Cornwall - to a Hugo le Fox (1297). Since most names in that region are derived from place-names and nick-names hardly every feature, it is more than possible that the name might have been drawn from another source and then imported from the opposite side of the Channel. It could, in fact be one of the derivatives of a personal name "Fulke" (very popular among the Normans) because there is a slightly earlier record of a - "Fulke Paynel" in Cornwall for 1273. (See further). In Scotland the surname does not appear until 1567 (William Fox: Kelso) and apparently not again until 1631, when another William Fox is associated with Brechin.

However taking the origins in order, the most likely source of most of the surnames would be that it was a nick-name derived from the wild creature with the bushy tail and distinctive red fur. With regard to this latter point (colour) the suggestion that it could have been applied to a man with reddish hair is doubtful. The term "foxy" in the sense of "reddish" does not appear in print until 1783. On the other hand the resourcefulness and cunning of the Fox was already legendary in the ancient world. It is even implied in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament where King Herod is referred to as "that Fox" - Luke, Ch. XIII - v.32.

Our medieval ancestors took pleasure in a compilation of short stories centering on "Reynard the Fox". (It dates from around 1175-1250). The invariable theme tells of how the other animals of the forest such as King Noble the Lion, Bruin the Bear and Sir Tibert the Cat are all regularly duped, cheated and out-witted by that artful knave. In "Old Curiosity Shop", Dickens deemed "Foxey" to be an appropriate name for the father of those scheming lawyers, Sampson and Sally Brass.

In Ireland the same notions prevailed. The Gaelic for "fox" is "sionach" which yielded "Shinnick" and "MacAshinag". These were simply converted into "Fox" when native Irish names were prohibited and then translated back again when Irish nationalism was again emerging.

Because "Fox" was so extensively and firmly established as a surname it is not surprising that other surnames of slightly similar sound became absorbed. This was particularly so with regard to the personal name "Fulke" (of which mention has briefly been made already). It was once hugely admired by our ancestors, especially the Normans, but it is now quite archaic.

It is related to the same source that give us the word "folk" and so as a given name it can very loosely be interpreted as "one of the lads". It is particularly associated with the FitzWarren family (Shropshire). The exploits of "Fulk Fitzwarine" forms a narrative that is a curious mixture of historical fact and romantic fiction - slightly on a par with "Robin Hood".

The personal name "Fulk" passed over to form various surnames, some of which were so elaborately spelled (e.g. Foulques) that the original form was obscured. So it would not be surprising that the more simple and familiar "Fox" would be substituted. Merely in passing it might be interesting to note that the suggestion that the "fox" in "fox-glove" signifies "the folks' glove" - i.e. "folk" in this sense meaning "wee folk" or "the fairies" - is ill-founded. The use of the word "folk" as referring to elves and goblins makes its first appearance at least 400 years later than references to the flower. It has some inexplicable association with the Fox because the same sense appears in other languages, such as Welsh: "Menyg y llwnog" (Fox's gloves) and the Norwegian "revbjelde" (Fox's Bell).

A similar form of substitution by "Fox" or a surname whose origins were less recognisable occurs with names derived from the old French "faucon" meaning "a falcon". Today the most accepted form is "Faulkes" (of which there are about half-a-dozen in the local directories) but an alternative spelling is "Fawkes" - of which Guy Fawkes is the most celebrated representative.

It is generally taken that the name "Fox" however derived - belongs particularly to the northern regions of the country and with some incursions into the Eastern Counties. Indeed the earliest reference is to "Tovey Fox" in, Lincolnshire and it is so early that no precise date can be given except that it falls during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189).

It certainly appears with remarkable frequency in the records for Yorkshire starting with "John Fox" (1273). By 1379 it was so firmly established that to avoid confusion a "Johannes Fox" needed specifically to be designated as "a Smyth", in a tax collector's register.

Given the frequency of the name, it is not surprising that the Standard Biographies list over 50 persons under that heading. It is difficult to pick out personalities but George Fox (1624-1691) deserves mention since he is held to be the founder of the Society of Friends (i.e. the Quakers). In Derby was born Sir Charles Fox (1810-1874) who, together with his son - Francis - (1844-1927) is included amongst the most distinguished Civil Engineers in the world. Even closer to home, the Fox family of Bakewell has long been established, certainly from the Eighteenth Century.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st December 1998.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library