This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 29th September 1997, 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 ISHERWOOD?

Although this is a location-based surname and belongs very much to the North-West, it has never appeared on any map because it vanished without a trace round about the tenth century. A popular explanation for such "lost villages" is that all the inhabitants fell victims to the plague. In fact the list of places which are known to have been totally wiped out is short and "Isherwood" could not have been included otherwise the name would have perished with it. Instead it still survives and is borne by many families in Lancashire. It is especially concentrated in the triangle formed by Blackburn, Oldham and Ormskirk.

The area is strongly associated with the Norsemen and there are many reminders of their way of life and their beliefs. There is, rather significantly, a Druidical Circle, 5 miles north of Bolton, a town which has been mentioned as a possible locating point for Isherwood. The Christian Missionaries encouraged their converts to reject objects of their former Pagan reverence - as, for example, cutting down Oak trees dedicated to Thor.

It is known that the Ash tree was especially sacred to the Norsemen because in their mythology it is recounted that the Gods created the first man out of its trunk. Since "Isherwood" does actually mean the "Ash Wood" or, possibly, "The Ash Grove", it is tempting to fabricate a story that such plantation was deliberately destroyed and the site allowed to pass out of memory as a blow against superstition. However that is a piece of romantic speculation which, while not entirely incredible, should be deferred to something more mundane.

The village most certainly had vanished even before the arrival of the Normans because it is not included in the Domesday Survey (1086). This omission is meaningful when set against the little known historical event known as "The Harrying of the North". (1069-71) This involved the wholesale slaughter and the destruction of settlements throughout the most of northern England by William I to consolidate his very questionable claims to the English crown.

Unlike southern England, which had readily submitted to the invaders, the north stood up for itself and William decided to teach it a lesson. The contemporary chronicler, Orderic Vitalis tells us how, "from York to Durham there was not a single inhabited village as far as the eye could see and nothing moved in the scorched ruins of villages but packs of wolves and wild dogs". He estimated that over 100,000 people perished and a modern historian says that nothing like it, not even during the fearful carnage of the Wars of Religion, was ever to be seen again until the "Holocaust".

No doubt had such a calamity been visited upon the southern half of England we would have never heard the end of it, but because it was merely the north which suffered, it has been conveniently disregarded.

That somewhat extended commentary was needed because such places as had been destroyed were noted in the Domesday Survey (1086) as "Vasta est" - that is, "It has been laid waste". Hence it is reasonable to assume that if the activities of William had extended into this area and that had all the inhabitants been put to the sword during the "Harrying", then there would have been nobody left to carry the name forward.

The conclusion is, then, that site had long been abandoned and that the inhabitants had dispersed to other places continuing its identity in the surnames they were given by their new neighbours.

At this point it is now desirable to correct a widespread misconception as to the nature of Early Mediaeval villages. They were nothing like those or a later date - there was nothing of the "Cranford" or "Ambridge" about them. There were small, occupied by a few dozen people, frequently interrelated, all living in scattered hovels, roughly constructed of tree-loppings and turf.

As the local resources were used up, the entire community would simply shift to the nearest convenient site and built new dwellings, leaving the old ones to fall down. After a while all evidence on the ground of their former habitations would have vanished but modern aerial photography and skilled excavation has brought such movements to light. While traces of former settlements can be picked out this way and be shown to have moved round regularly, others, sadly must have been wholly abandoned, remained concealed and then forgotten for centuries!

Nevertheless, the finding of any "lost village" does not always tell us why or how it came to disappear nor even what its original name might have been. Even if the site of "Isherwood" were to be re-discovered, there is now very little chance that it would be identified as such. Apart from a hazy tradition that it might have been somewhere in the moorlands above Bolton, there is nothing more to go on.

Most significant of all the facts available is that the name has persisted. This must have been brought about from the fact that members of that community emigrated to other places in the vicinity. There were marked out by their new neighbours as having come from "Isherwood" and that ultimately became their surname.

It also suggests that the decline of the village was steady, otherwise there could not have been an identifiable place, still inhabited, as a point of reference to identify the new-comers among their fellow workers. And, since it is usually the young and active who leave their native places, and it is the old and infirm who must remain, one must ask why.

The most likely explanation is that the site, particularly if it really were in the moorlands, was over-farmed, the soils became exhausted, there was little room to move around and it could no longer support its inhabitants.

Although statistics are scanty there is evidence that weather changes were widespread in the decades before the Norman Conquest. Apart from pollen counts taken from material removed from excavated sites, Anglo-Saxon poetry makes telling allusions to the dreadful climate - late frosts, skies perpetually overcast and fierce summer gales. Agriculture was not carried out scientifically and mediaeval peasants pushed the limited resources to their limits and then, if possible, moved to another site.

In restricted locations, and on the moors perhaps, where productive land was to be found only in small pockets, it has been demonstrated that it needed only two successive bad seasons to destroy a community. In the first bad year poor harvests would seriously restrict the reserves needed to sustain livestock through the winter and there was no alternative but to slaughter all but the minimum of future breeding stock and make serious inroads into seed corn. If there was another bad year following, all livestock would have to be slaughtered and all reserves consumed by people in a desperate attempt to stave off starvation.

Probably against such a perilous background younger inhabitants had given up the struggle and taken themselves off to the more favourable settlements leaving the old folk to manage as best they could. Then, during a severe winter, perhaps, half-starved and vulnerable to numerous ailments, the remainder simply perished. Those belonging to them returned only to bury the dead and retrieve what few pathetic possessions might be left and then abandoned the site forever.

The name must have lingered in folk memory for long enough, however, because it arises in the records for Lancashire where mention is made to both a William de Yserwude (1246) and an Adam de Esherwode (1332). The inclusion of "-d-" ("of") is important since it shows that the site, even if lost, was still recollected. Some 200 years later it appears as "Ussherwode" and "Usshewood" (1524) but by the end of the century (1594) it emerges as "Isherwood", and, after a mention of a James Isherwood of Whalley in 1605 the spelling is finalised in its present form.

The name is heavily identified with Lancashire and, within the triangle already mentioned, the local directories muster over 1000 entries. Yet once outside that area the numbers perceptibly drop. There is only a handful in the Peak, in Merseyside and in the entire London Area.

Of the personalities bearing the name, all are northerners - Sir Joseph Isherwood (1870-1937) the shipping engineer, and Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986) the writer. Here in Bakewell the name is known to many of us on account of our own Dr. Isherwood at the Medical Centre.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th September 1997.

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