This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 12nd December 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 HILL?

This name comes directly from the Old English word "hyll" and can be traced ultimately to the Latin word "collis". Like the hills themselves, the name is so extremely widespread that unless one has access to records or to a well-founded family tradition, the particular hill with which one's ancestors were identified can never be known for certain.

The reason for this lies largely in the fact that although "hill" is among the most commonly occurring units in location names, it is not found all that often in the names of major settlements.

Although there is no absolute consistency in the matter, our ancestors drew a distinction between "hills" and merely "high ground", to which they gave the title "dun". Early settlers sought upland sights for protection, but hills weren't suitable. They tended to soar beyond convenient walking range, the tops were pointed, and so apart from feeling exhausted when you scaled the final heights, there wasn't much room on the summit to build many dwellings. Another thing: you don't find a water supply on a hill top. Springs tend to emerge at lower levels.

Hence if the original geography of most "hilltop" sites is examined, it will be found to correspond with those features which our predecessors looked for in "duns", They were really mounds which tended to be lower and flat-topped and more suitable for the establishment of settlements. Even the famous "Seven Hills" on which Ancient Rome was founded are really quite modest elevations, averaging 180 feet. For that reason the word "dun" (with variations) is found in countless place-names. It is so old that it pre-dates the Roman Occupation (55 B.C.) and is one of the few native words which was adopted into Latin.

This is not at all much the case with "hill". Where it appears as a place-name it can usually be identified with some local landmark and is often included as part of what are technically classified as "Field Names". The fact that there are so many people called "Hill" indicates that while there are not many important townships on hills, a considerable number of individuals or groups could have made their own particular homes on them.

Why they originally chose to do so must be a matter of speculation but a fair guess in one case is that some of them took it upon themselves to live aloft to act as permanent look-outs for the rest of their community who dwelt below.

Then as times grew less perilous, no doubt other settlers were emboldened to venture further afield and to provide themselves with separate homes amidst the neighbouring hills. Experience of the local climatic conditions would encourage many of them to erect habitations at the foot of a hill, where there was shelter from the prevailing winds. They would soon have become known as "the folks who lived under the hill" and it may be noted that so specific a location as that has often survived in the name "Underhill".

At first it may be taken that people who dwelt away from the main "Dun" settlement and nearer the hills, would have first been described as, for example, the "man who lived on the hill" or "the person near the hill" but as time went by, words of placement, such as "on", "near", "under" and "by" would have been dropped and only the basic word "hill" remained.

Sometimes such a preposition has survived in a few cases. The old term for "by" or "near" was "atte" and hence "Atte Hill" can still be found in the guise of "Athill".

The pronunciation of the old word "hyll" can be discerned in some renderings. In Yorkshire, the regional dialect tended towards "hyll" being sounded as if written with a middle "-u-" and if one's name is "Hull" or, that characteristic Yorkshire name, "Hullah" one can look to that area for one's roots.

However one must be careful because a similar pronunciation was to be heard in the West Country, whereas in the South, the "-y-" became as "-e-" and names such as "Helle" and "Heller" evolved. A descendant of one called "Hill" appears as "Hills" and one can guess at the meaning of variations such as "Hillman", "Hillam", "Hellier", etc.

However not every "Hill" is geographical in its origin. In some cases it could be a foreshortened version of the personal name "Hilary". He was a Saint who lived round about 350 A.D. He was associated with the French city of Poitiess and for that reason was highly regarded by the French. His name was extremely popular in their country and after the Conquest it gained currency over here.

The surname is widely distributed across the British Isles, It is the Family name of several Titled families: two in Shropshire, two in Ireland, and another in Worcester. In successive registers of surnames compiled since the middle of the last century it is always within the top twenty. There are over 1000 entries altogether in the local directories. The most celebrated bearers of the name are Octavia Hill (1838-1912) a pioneer in the provision of decent houses for the poor, and Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879) the great public servant who developed the Penny Post.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 12nd December 1994.

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