This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 9th February 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 HOW?

This is a location-name and variations upon it are among the most frequently encountered in the United Kingdom. It is desirable to call attention to "variations" because nearly twenty have been catalogued. Thus, apart from "How", the following at least are included in the local directories: "Howe", "Howes", "Hoe" and "Hough".

Thus, what is explained in connection with "How" is equally applicable to the rest of them. Of course it is perfectly easy to say what each variation might mean: "how" is "a hill"; "howe" is "by the hill"; "howes" is "the hills"; "hoe" is "towards the hill", while "hough" occurs in Northern dialects as further variation on "how" itself.

But what isn't by any means as easy is to distinguish the particular locations where they were applicable. Unless those interested in the origins of their surnames are prepared to undertake research and pin-point the site from whence their predecessors came, only the most generalised explanations must suffice.

As a starter it can be said that in whatever form the name now appears, it can usually be interpreted as signifying that the original bearers were identified with hills. Unfortunately hills, along with water-courses, are one of the most widespread features of most landscapes and so it is very difficult to avoid straying into describing place-names rather than the surnames which they have generated.

The problem is still further compounded in that out of numerous terms which exist to describe high ground - e.g. peak, mount, edge, fell, ridge, etc - the two with which we are concerned are sometimes impossible to differentiate.

The first of these terms is Old English, It is "hoh" and means literally "a heel". Our ancestors detected a fanciful similarity between that part of the human foot and a sharply projecting piece of land, now referred to geographically as a "spur". the second term is "haugr" and is of more general application. It was applied not only to almost any example of naturally occurring high ground but also to artificial mounds. It is of Scandinavian origin and its affinity with words like "high" and "huge" is obvious.

Taking each in turn, we find "hoh" in use, for example in an early version of the Psalms (1340): "Ye shadow of itt covered howis" (The hills were covered with shadow of it - Psalm LXXX; 10). Its use in place-names does not, however seem to have been consistent. In low- lying regions anything which projected, however slightly, above the horizon was called a "hoh" whereas in really hilly districts, places had generally to achieve over 800 feet to attract attention. Naturally "hoh" has been incorporated in countless place-names of which we have a local instance in "Hoe" - between Brassington and Aldwark.

The other expression is "haugr" and it occurs largely in areas associated with the Scandinavian Invasions. In the original language it certainly referred to natural hills but later it took on an extended meaning in that it was used to describe the artificial mounds the Norsemen constructed to bury their dead - now technically called "barrows" or "tumuli". They are especially noticeable in the Eastern Region where the Danes and the Vikings settled.

So whereas in Westmoreland we find "Hugill" (the cleft in the hill, and in the North Riding "Huby" (the settlement on the hill), the same unit, where it occurs in places further south, and where the Norsemen established many settlements, especially in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk - and there are hundreds of examples - it is invariably identified with a local burial site. Such identification is not always easy, though, since subsequent ploughing and other forms of development have obscured the feature in many cases.

It is very provoking, but in some intermediate locations, it must remain a matter of speculation whether the name signifies "a hill" in the geographical sense or a "mound" according to archaeology! In Derbyshire, "Noon" (which is near Hatton) has been accounted for in both senses and respectable evidence to support either meaning can be presented.

Sometimes the apparent variations in this surname can be traced to quite alien sources. Families living in the Western Counties could just as easily look to the Welsh name "Hew" as the origin of their surname. Furthermore research is impeded because not only can "hoh" and "haugr" often remain indistinguishable, but similar words may also have been superimposed. These include, for example, "heall" (rock), "hals, (ravine) "haga" (enclosure) and "hall" (manor- house).

In fact, the most desirable course of action is to investigate the presumed site of one's ancestry, if known. So, people called "How" who can trace their roots to Cumberland, might usefully investigate the lie of the land at "How" - about 7½ miles east of Carlisle. There the "hoh" or the "heel" or the "spur" is clearly visible and can be made out on even a comparatively small-scale map. The same applies to "Howe Hill" close to Kirkburn in the East Riding. Here the "hill" is a grave-mound or tumulus. It is very prominent and had already provided "Robert atte Hou" with his surname as far back as 1333.

As might very well be expected, burial-mounds would have been a very distinctive feature in the flat areas of the eastern counties and the rolling Midlands. So it was all the more likely that they would have furnished a convenient means of identification for people who lived in their vicinity. In 1121 we find a "William de Ho" in Essex; a "Bendedict de Howe" in Leicester (1211) and a "Herbertus Alahoge" in Norfolk (1240).

Today the form most frequently encountered is "Howe" of which there have been many celebrated bearers. In the case of "How" the most distinguished personage was William How (1833-97). He was a native of Shropshire and became the first (and greatly admired) Bishop of Wakefield.

Here in Bakewell the name is known to us on account of our own Keith How at the Wildlife Bookshop in Rutland Square.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 9th February 1998.

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