This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th October 1999, 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 HUNT or HUNTER?

At the time when surnames were evolving (c. 12th century), hunting and hawking were among the chief recreations of the Norman nobility. So much so, that strict laws were enacted against poaching and severe penalties were visited upon transgressors. Since the members of that nobility would already have acquired surnames appropriate to their condition, it is suggested that however skilled they might have been as sportsmen, it is not very likely that many would have been so strongly identified as "the Hunter" as to generate a corresponding surname.

There is on the other hand evidence that in great households the servant who was in charge of the kennels was designated "the Hunt" and that this title passed into becoming a personal name. Several locations provide persuasive confirmation in support. In the West Riding, for example, there is "Huntwick" (5 miles s.w. Pontefract) which is believed to signify "the place where Hunt carries out his work". Also there is "Huntroyde" (half way between Whalley and Burnley), interpreted as "the clearing where Hunt dwells". It is significant that both places seem to be associated with great estates and on which people would be employed to deal with birds and animals.

Hence "Hunt" and "Hunter" and their few variations relate to occupational names and embrace many activities. Indeed, in a list of such names, "Hunt" comes third - preceded only by "Clerk" and "Cook". Birds wreaked damage upon crops, and numerous people, both servants and "freelance" occupied themselves in capturing them. Every neighbourhood also had its rat-catcher to summon when necessary and a lucrative trade was conducted by those who trapped moles, rabbits, badgers, ferrets, stoats and weasels. Apparently it was not exclusively a man's province. In Oxford (1273) there is reference to an Alice le Hunte. The fact that many were independent operators is revealed in an old rhyme which says that some Hunts were paid a half-penny a day.

Because our medieval ancestors shared our own fondness for animals, it may readily be assumed that while some people called "Hunt" could have been in charge of kennels or engaged in putting down troublesome wild-life, others could also have undertaken to ensnare and breed pets from them. There seem to have been plenty of customers. The celebrated "Portrait of a Lady" by Holbein (c. 1527) derives much of its charm from the bird perched beside her and the squirrel nestling in her arms. Indeed the Bishop of Winchester had been complaining some 200 years previously that those who presented themselves at Church, even Nuns, brought with them "birds, rabbits, hounds and such-like frivolous things whereunto they do give more heed than to the Order of the Service". Larks and nightingales were especially favoured as cage-birds and magpies were popular on account of their ability to mimic human speech. Curiously enough, cats were not liked and simply tolerated in households because they caught mice. They became petted only much later.

But what of foxes? By the time of Elizabeth I the management of deer parks and other hunting venues was proving not only too expensive but it was also appreciated as being more profitable to turn them over to cattle rearing in order to meet an ever-increasing demand for meat. Otherwise they could be planted as woodlands and the timber subsequently marketed. So foxes, which until then had been disregarded as vermin became the object of the sort of "hunts" such as we know today. So far from being directed to eliminate the creature as in previous centuries, game-keepers were called upon to rear fox cubs in special coverts. In fact there was such a shortage of cubs by the end of the 19th century, that they had especially to be imported from Germany. (Daily Telegraph 30th August, 1897).

Although the name "Hunt" was related to a man who was in charge of kennels, it may be noted that it is not a corruption of "hound". And, of course, while many called "Hunt" or "Hunter" followed a lawful occupation, no doubt there were a great many more members of medieval communities who were facetiously dubbed "Hunt" by their neighbours as a sly and no doubt admiring allusion to their courage and ability at being able to cock a snook at the local gentry by doing a spot of poaching.

The antiquity of the name is revealed in that many early records give names in Latin and "Venator" often appears. Later, the two run side by side as in "Johannes Venator le Hunte" (Chester; 1085). The first mention in England to the name alone is to "Humphrey le Hunte" (York; 1203) and then to "Ralphe le Hunte" (Sussex; 1219). The inclusion of "le" is clear evidence that an occupational name is involved. The name also occurs in Scotland and the oldest family of "Hunts" originates in Ayrshire. In Ireland, when native names were prohibited during the English occupation it was inaccurately translated from various names more or less resembling "Feeny" (i.e. O'Fiachna) which apparently meant "raven". It is quite evenly distributed across the country and the only areas of noticeable concentration are the big cities. The name occupies the space of three columns in the local directory.

Probably the most familiar bearer of the name is Holman Hunt (1827-1910), the artist whose painting "The Light of the World" is among the most popular examples of religious art ever produced. Younger readers should have their attention drawn to the humorous character called "Professor Branestamm" whose "Incredible Adventures" are so entertainingly set forth by his creator, Norman Hunter (1899-1995).

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th October 1999.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library