This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 22nd May 2000, 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 HOLT?

Although society is beginning to show concern over the destruction of our ancient woodlands, a surprisingly large number are still around. Most date from Anglo-Saxton times. They have altered considerably in appearance. Once they were stocked with deciduous trees and were systematically "coppiced". This was a process whereby the main body of the tree was cut down to a low level and from the stump new shoots would spring and be removed at regular intervals according to the nature of the tree and the purpose for which the shoots would be required.

And these purposes were extensive. Apart from fuel, particularly charcoal, they included the making of furniture, fences, hurdles, poles, gates, ladders, pit-props, handles etc. Bark was taken for tanning and certain forms of undergrowth provided fodder.

Only deciduous trees were generally cultivated. The pines do not lend themselves to coppicing. Neither were standard trees much favoured. Medieval communities needed a continuing source of materials and coppicing ensured fairly quick and steady returns. Communities couldn't wait around for 30 years or more while trees grew to maturity. In fact tall standard specimens were sufficiently uncommon to have provided distinctive landmarks which fact is reflected in place names such as "Monyash" and "Sevenoaks".

Contrary to popular notions, the enormous oak beams to be seen in medieval buildings were rather exceptional. They often originated in older wild forests and, having been sought out, were cut down and then transported over immense distances. Otherwise the timber used in ordinary farm-houses was obtained from smaller and immature trees.

To meet the special demands by the government for ship building, land owners were directed to plant given numbers of standard trees per acre on their property.

Our ancestors would be amazed at the state of woodlands today. In place of low level coppicing and ordered undergrowth they would behold mighty forest trees and tangled shrubbery!

In fact so important were such carefully tended woodlands to our predecessors that they set aside extensive areas which were so carefully fenced to prevent marauding livestock from breaking through to devour the delicious tender new shoots, that even after all these centuries the boundaries are still discernible.

The areas had specific descriptions which varied according to the dialect spoken in the region. There are about half-a-dozen such terms and "bolt" is one of them. It tended to prevail in the counties along the Welsh Borders from Lancashire down to Hampshire and over in East Anglia. It was used particularly for plantations of single-species.

The Romans followed a similar practice and their word was "nemus" so, when Aelfric (c. 1000 AD) compiled his great Latin dictionary he equated it with "bolt".

How exactly the name evolved is uncertain. There are equivalents in Nordic languages such as the German "holz" and the Dutch "bout". The essential feature of a "holt" - that is, to produce shoots, seems to relate with the Greek "klados" which means "shoots" and "twigs". This ties in with the Latin word for a short bladed sword, a "gladius". There could also be a link with the Welsh "llad" - "to cut".

So essential a part of the national rural economy was played by "holts" that they were persisting well into the 19th century. By about 1875 however not only had foreign imported timber taken over much of the market but alternative materials to wood were also being introduced.

After the 1914-18 war the decline of the wealthy land-owning classes and the break-up of their estates led to a wholesale abandonment of coppiced woodlands. Over the last 80 years many have gone from being a carefully managed plantation to little short of a wilderness.

As might be expected, the contribution of the word "holt" has been remarkable. There are at least twelve major sites called "holt" and in the case of neighbourhoods, the number is countless.

As a surname "Holt" could have originated as an occupational name, meaning a person who worked as a wood-man. More frequently it would have been applied to families who occupied dwellings within the plantation. This accounts for such early references as to "Walter in ye Halte" (Somerset: 1286) and "High atte Holte" (Surrey: 1273).

Some of the more important "Holts" seemed to have included small settlements for the convenient housing of workers. Thus "Matilda and Alan de Holtham" (Lincoln: 1200) and "John de Holton" (Dorset: 1211). Otherwise many bearers of the surname would have derived the name from being associated with the numerous places called "Holt". The earliest example of the word itself in writing occurs about 800 AD and of the surname in 1185 (Hugo de Holt: Warwick).

For some reason the name is common in Lancashire even though the number of related place names is of exceptional. There is a curious "double" near Maghull - "Hunt Coppice". Except, as an imported name, it has no counterpart in Scotland or Ireland. In passing it may be noted that "Holtby" is not related.

There are about 100 entries in the local directory under "Holt" together with a few variations.

Probably the best known bearer of the name was Joseph Holt (1756-1826). He is the hero of several Irish ballads and is described in the Standard Biography as "one of the bravest and most humane leaders of the Irish Patriots".

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd May 2000.

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