This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd November 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 either HAMILTON or HAMBLEDON?
(Part One)

Hamilton is a Scots place-name (Lanarkshire). It is so strongly identified with Scotland that it may be surprising to many readers to learn that it did not originate in that country but from a village about 4 miles north-east of Leicester. Only the site remains today because it was devastated by the Black Death in 1349 and never revived. It seems originally to have been called "Hambelton".

The first associations with Scotland date from 1296 when a "Wauter fiz Gilbert de Hameldone" is listed among the Lairds of Renfrewshire. This inclusion of the name "Gilbert" is significant because the distinguished family of that name is connected with Wigston Maga (Leicester) only six miles from the lost village. The name "Hamilton" was formally adopted in 1378 when "David de Hamilton" (son of the fore-mentioned "Wauter") succeeded to the title. The family had by then established itself in a village called "Cadzow" (still a neighbourhood name in the Clyde Valley). In 1445 they were elevated to being the "Barons of Hamilton" and it was deemed appropriate to replace the Scots name for that of the old Leicester site. In 1548 the place was raised to the status of a "Royal Burgh" under the official name of "Hamilton" and by which is has ever since been known. Some upholders of Scots traditions have shown concern that the Duke of Hamilton (the premier peer of Scotland) should bear a name borrowed from the Sassenachs. They have inquired for sources nearer home but nothing convincing has ever been adduced.

At this point it would be useful to mention that the mutation of "Hambelton" into "Hamilton" illustrates an interesting feature in language development. Many words in which the letter "-b-" is preceded by an "-m-" drop the sound of the "- b-": e.g. climbed, numb, comb. But to make things more complicated an intermediate "-b-" can get shoved for no apparent reason. For example the "-b-" in "thimble" did not appear until the 1400's. The words "slumber" and "timber" also provide illustrations. Numerous place-names, once called "Hambelton" reveal this process: in Cheshire, for example, the place now called "Hommerton" was formerly called "Hummelton", "Hambledon" and "Hamilton". (It is just over the Border - about 8 miles south-west of Buxton, near Allgreave).

So it can be taken that "Hamilton", although well-established in Scotland was derived from that of a village in Leicestershire. Most of the inhabitants were afflicted by the Great Plague of 1348 and were annihilated. A telling piece of evidence is that after 1349 the records of its Chapel suddenly break off and are never resumed. In the Census of 1801 only one household of four persons is listed! It would seem that the few survivors of the Plague fled the site which they would deem accursed and sought to start their lives afresh elsewhere. Among their new neighbours they would probably have been called something like "those poor folk from Hamilton" and, as frequently follows upon such acts of emigration, it became an established surname.

Although the name is derived from a site in the English Midlands, the first mention actually occurs, not so far away, in East Anglia. The Tax Returns for Norfolk and Suffolk (1195) refer to a Richard de Hamelton. In passing it might be noted that the Hamilton family has long been associated with Suffolk and especially with Easton Park in that County. It is certainly interesting that the number of people called "Hamilton" and who are listed in the directories covering the area is perceptibly above average. However it must be left to local historians to pronounce upon the significance of this.

By 1272 the name had travelled to Scotland (Paisley) where was to be encountered Gilbert de Hameldun, but in 1327 the English connections are still apparent in the records for Leicester, which include a "William de Hamilton".

Many families in the East Midlands bearing the name "Hamilton" can certainly look towards the "Plague Village" as the origin of their surname. In the case of families with positive Scots connections and who bear the name, it is beyond dispute that they derive it from the place in Lanarkshire. Many of the early inhabitants who were engaged in the coal-mining and iron-stone workings in the vicinity would have made their way to the larger centres of industry in Glasgow and over the Border down to Tyneside and to the heavy industrial cities of the Midlands. They would have settled in new communities and be known as "the men from Hamilton" and that, in turn, became their new identity. Certainly the directories for both the Newcastle area and for Birmingham list over one hundred names under "Hamilton" - while those for Edinburgh and Glasgow spread across several columns.

For the record it should be noted that there are a few other places called "Hamilton" in England. Two are in the vicinity of Blandford (Dorset) and two near Moreton Hampstead (Devon). However they appear to be more in the way landscape descriptions rather than specific sites. So apart possibly from a few localised examples, they do not seem to have generated many corresponding surnames.

A word of caution to those who seek to claim "kin" with the noble families involved with the name "Hamilton". Workers on their estates and in their households frequently were known under the same name as their employers simply for convenience of identification. This practice was still followed even until the early years of the present century.

To be continued...

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd November 1998.
Are you called either HAMBLEDON or HAMILTON?
(Part Two)

In the previous article it was explained that "Hamilton" is only one of several versions of the surname and also that it did not originate in Scotland.

The next point to take up: What exactly does the name mean? And also since there are several places called "Hambleton" (or similar) What other forms of surnames are related to them?

The name "Hambledon" or "Hambleton" as a place-name is very widespread. The tendency is that the form which relates to the place being on a hill (-don) prevails in the South whereas that which marks out a settlement (-ton) seems to be found more in the North.

Because the unit "-don" signifies "hill" or "high ground" the interpretation of this in place-names can invariably be verified simply by looking at the geography of the sites. In fact the form is duplicated in "Hambledon Hill" (Shaftsbury, Dorset/Wilts Border). The problems incurred when "-don" has been exchanged for "-ton" are revealed in the case of "Upper Hambleton" (Rutland) which not only can be seen to stand on an eminence but was once actually called "Hamelduna" (1067).

Here in Derbyshire the muddle is demonstrated in "Hammerton Hill" near Litton. It was "Homelton" in 1347, then "Hommuldon" in 1375 and still as late as 1764, was described a "Hambendon". In the case of places incorporating the unit "-ton" there are fewer problems. The word referred to a sort of palisade erected to provide a form of defence. (Note: Modern German "Zaun" meaning "fence"). These barriers became more elaborate as time went on, ending-up as walls and battlements and giving us the word "Town". In the case of "Hamilton" in Leicestershire, the village stood on level ground, drained by a stream eventually joining the Soar. There is no evidence of any hill, whereas on even a comparatively small-scale map (3 miles to the inch) the outlines of its former fencings are clearly discernible.

On the other hand, "Hambleton" in the West Riding has long been a "-ton" (Hameltun: 1087) but actually takes its name from what the guide books now describe as "a richly wooded hill called Hambleton Hough". The first unit, "Hambel" or "Hammel" is derived from an Old English word "hamall" which means "crippled". In the hazardous conditions of Medieval Society accidents were frequent and were not as easily remedied as later. In most communities there were members with physical handicaps which generated nick-names, of which "Hamela" - "the Cripple" was included. No doubt such sufferers contrived to struggle by and to run little settlements which were known locally as "the cripple's field" or "Hamela's Tun".

A similar-sounding word was "hamol" which meant "pock-marked" or "scar-face". (Until vaccination was introduced in 1796, disfigurement through small-pox was common-place).

Hence an area covered in randomly scattered rocks and boulders would have borne a fanciful resemblance to a pock- marked face. This is usually applied to hilly sites because nobody would have wished to make a settlement (i.e. a "Tun") out of a boulder-strewn slope. This interpretation certainly holds in respect of "Hammerton" at Litton. But even so, the distinction isn't always so clear. "Hamson Hill" (Thorpe) was originally called "Hamelston" and opinion is equally divided as to which is the correct meaning. Hence it is perfectly possible for two neighbouring families, one to be called "Hamilton" and the other, "Hambledon" (or a similar variation) and both actually to have originated from the same place.

Surnames didn't much matter to our ancestors though. So, when a man might be called upon to give his name, he would simply say he was "John from Hamelston" or "Wilfred of Homelton". In writing it down the Medieval scribe interpreted what he said in any way that seemed appropriate and possibly some similarity with a local place-name with which he was familiar led him to attribute it to the person involved. Or even some recollection of there being an aristocratic name spelled "Hamilton" might have influenced his choice.

In passing "Hambleton Fold" (Mellor) is not a true location- name but is taken from the existing surname of William Hambleton of Derby (1670). Moving outside our Area, of the dozen or so places listed in the Gazeteers and from which the name might be derived, the two most likely sites for our own people could be either "Hambleton" (West Riding: 4 miles west of Selby) or "Hambleton" (Lancashire: 4½ miles south east of Fleetwood). The Yorkshire site has more going for it. Men leaving the place to seek work elsewhere could have drifted south to Doncaster and Sheffield and amidst their new neighbours be identified as "those guys from Hambleton". Since men from Lanarkshire could also have moved into the region for much the same reasons, the Yorkshire name could easily have blended with the Scots "Hamilton". The Lancashire site is first mentioned in Domesday (1086) as "Hamelstoe", a century later as "Hamilton" and finally as "Hambleton". As a point of interest, "Ashton Hall" (15 miles north) was one of the seats of the dukes of Hamilton but whether it influenced the formation of surnames in the region is inconclusive.

The Reference Works consulted do not mention any outstanding persons of the name of "Hambleton" where under "Hamilton" selectiveness must be made among the 120 persons included. There was of course Lady Hamilton, (Nelson). Then Patrick Hamilton the playwright whose drama "Gaslight" still holds the stage. Charles Hamilton was the assumed name of Frank Richards who entertained several generations of young readers with tales of Billy Bunter and Greyfriars School. Football Fans will be familiar with Hamilton Academicals, one of the oldest teams in the country (1873).

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 7th December 1998.

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