This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 28th November 1994, 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 HAWLEY?

This is a location name. Such names were usually bestowed upon people who had moved away from their native settlements. For example, a man locally identified as "the son of John" (or "Johnson") comes to live in a neighbouring village. The inhabitants already have several "sons of John" and so to avoid confusion they call the newcomer, who comes, say, from Bakewell, "Him from Bakewell" - which, in the fullness of time, becomes his surname.

The general rule is that the further away a person moved from his original habitation, the broader became the designation. That would account for names such as "Derby" and "Buxton". Even today, some residents in villages, who came as evacuees in 1940 and have remained ever since, may still be referred to as "the folk from Sheffield" (or wherever). In passing it might be mentioned that surnames are merely a convenient means of identification and have no legal force. You can assume or change or adopt as you please.

So in the case of "Hawley" all that is necessary is to find out exactly where it is and conclude that people of the same name can trace their origins to it.

Unfortunately you can't! It is certainly easy enough to consult the Atlas and discover two places of that name: one in Kent; the other in Hampshire. The first lies just off the M25, 3 miles south of Dartford. The second is about Junction 4 on the M3, near Frimley. Although both spellings are now identical, the records show that the Kent site was originally "Halig-leah" which means "the place of the Sacred Grove." The Hampshire settlement appears as "Heall-leah" and, confusingly, "heall" can mean either "stone" or "manor".

And all of which is certainly interesting but it gets us nowhere! An examination of the Registers for both areas together yield less than a dozen entries. So it has not passed into much use as a surname from either of those sources. On the other hand, and strangely enough, the name is highly concentrated in the region incorporating Derbyshire, the West Riding and Nottingham - as a glance through the local directories will confirm.

But the problem here lies in the fact that there isn't a place called "Hawley" anywhere in our region - other, than, perhaps, a piece of modern development to which the name has been consciously attached, or, perhaps an obscure field-name.

So how is it that there are so many people in this part of the world called "Hawley" yet with no corresponding place-names? A possible solution could point to a process of mass-migration from either of the southern sites, but that really is too far-fetched to be considered seriously. The alternative is that people in the region derive their surname from what is called a "lost site". There are many places in the British Isles where the inhabitants have abandoned their dwellings and which have subsequently fallen into ruin. The materials could have been carted away for building purposes elsewhere, the foundations plowed-up and vestiges of the former settlement could vanish. Some of these sites can still be picked out.

Fanciful explanations are sometimes advanced for the demise of such villages - invariably mis-attributions to all the inhabitants being killed-off by the Plague. (Faxton in Northamptonshire, for instance.) The process is still going on, as visits to some tower block sites and inner cities will verify! However the "lost site" of Hawley is elusive, The most that research can come up with is that it lay somewhere near Sheffield.

A study of the way in which people of the name spelled in the past indicates that it was based on the Old Norse word "haugr" which means "a low hill" or a "mound". The -lea" means "clearing" so altogether it could signify "a small stretch of rising ground from which trees and shrubs have been cleared." The thinking behind the original process was that a settlement could be established on top of a mound and that trees were cut down, partly to provide a protective palisade and partly to create open ground which offered no concealment to a potential attacker.

Perhaps the only merit of the site was just the protection it afforded to our ancestors and in other respects it was inconvenient. As times grew less hazardous, the people moved away to more attractive settlings and left the original "Hawley" to disappear. No doubt they dispersed widely among neighbouring tribes and were known as "the people from Hawley". Hence we are provided with a possible explanation as to the origin of the surname and why it is so widespread in this region.

No celebrity called "Hawley" seems to have originated from this area. There was a southerner (believed to have been born in Portsea) called Henry Hawley (1679-1759). He was a military commander and associated, not at all creditably, with the conflicts between England and Scotland during the Rebellion of 1745. He drafted a highly eccentric Will which is frequently featured in the literature on that topic.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th November 1994.

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