This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 1st July 2002, 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 HOLMES?
Variations: Holme, Hume, Home, etc.

In establishing settlements our early British ancestors sought places which were easily defensible. Islands offered that protection. The name for such places was borrowed from word introduced by the Norse Invaders well before the Conquest - namely "Holm". It was rapidly absorbed into our native language and became almost synonymous with "habitation" or "settlement". It should be noted, though, that it is in no way related to the word "home" nor to "ham". The similarities are coincidental.

Except in the Orkneys and Shetlands, the number of Holm's is limited. There is Priestholme (Anglesea) and Steepholm (Severn Estuary). One might then be tempted to wonder that if there were few such places, how the surname came to be so widely distributed. The reason is that from first describing a small island, the expression was applied successively to an island promontory, then to raised ground amidst marshland and then to any inhabitable stretch of ground alongside a water-course. It is now one of the commonest elements in our island place-names. There are well over 150 places called Holm or Holme. Many carry a supplementary name to provide a particular identity, such as Holme St Cuthbert near Silloth in Cumberland, which distinguishes it from several other places similarly named.

A comprehensive list would be impossible here.

In Derbyshire alone there are about 70 sites incorporating the unit and of which The Holmes alongside the Derwent in the vicinity of the "Cock Pitt" in Derby city may be noted, (first recorded as Holm in 1236).

Sometimes a modern version of a name obscures the origin, as in the case of Durham, which is derived from "Dun" meaning hill, and the "ham" is a corrupted form of holm; together they signify "The island with a hill." The city is almost encircled by the Wear, which winds round the rocky mount on which it was established.

Of course such spectacular settings as at Durham are rarely repeated and frequently Holm merely marked out raised areas amidst marshes, as Axholme in Lincolnshire. Still more often a Holm was used for sites which were nothing more than water-meadows. They were small and isolated and are not even shown on any but large-scale maps.

Being restricted in area, many Holms were unable to support large communities and there was frequent movement to new places where work was available. The emigrants would have been known to their new neighbours as "The folk from the holm", which in the fullness of time modified into Holme, or corresponding variations.

Without documentary evidence or established family traditions it is not easy to pinpoint the particular Holm from which bearers of the surname (or any of its variations) would have originated. For example, where the Derbyshire, Lancashire and West Riding county boundaries converge, there is a place called Holme as well as sites described as Holme Edge and Holme Clough. (The place can be located on the A6024). Families there could have emigrated to any one of the adjacent counties, taking the name with them.

One of the earliest records of the name is to Urkell de Holmes 1219 (York Assizes). Hazarding a guess, he could have owed his name to a site outside Rotherham. It is on low-lying land across which the River Don meanders and where the Sheffield-Keadby Canal is cut. Furthermore, the presence of Blackburn Meadow Nature Reserve in the vicinity supports the name. To add to the problems of interpretation, in some cases Holm became confused with forms of the word describing the Holly tree. It still survives in dialect (Scotland especially) and it later (1597) influenced the naming of the Holm Oak (imported from Italy) because of its similarity with the foliage of the Holly. Place names in Dorset, such as Holne and East and West Holme are cited in this respect. In the West Riding, Holmfirth can loosely be interpreted as "the group of Holly trees".

In Scotland the name is recorded for Johannes Holmes; who was a priest in a chapel in Ayr. He is persuasively said to have derived his name from Holmes, just outside Kilmarnock (1460). Home, pronounced to rhyme with "fume" is a Scot's equivalent. It is taken from Hume, 3 miles south of Greenlaw in Berwickshire. (Note that the pronunciation of this surname is a matter of considerable dispute).

The name is widely distributed across the country and about 20 personalities are entered in the standard biography: beginning with Randle Holme (1571-1655) of Chester, a forthright supporter of the Parliamentary Cause during the time of the Civil War and concluding (to date) with Sir Gordon Holmes (1876-1965) who made outstanding contributions to the study of the workings of the human brain.

The name (including variations) is well-represented locally with over 500 entries in the directory. No doubt the best-known bearer of the surname is the character created by Conan Doyle - Sherlock Holmes.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 1st July 2002.

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