This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 30th August 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 LATHOM?

A reader living in Derby has asked about this name. The spelling given was "Lathom" but there are many variations such as "Latham", "Letham", "Leathem" etc. They do not influence the meaning.

The first unit is "Lath-" and as a word in its own right survives only in dialect but formerly was an accepted designation for a granary or a barn. It is of Scandinavian origin and still appears in modern swedish as "lada" and in Danish as "lade". Readers who admire "Wuthering Heights" will recall the "vinegar-faced Joseph" and how he ordered poor Mr Lockwood to "go round by th'end o' to laith" if he wished to meet up with Heathcliff. The exact origin of the word is not absolutely established but it is believed to have been linked with the verb "to lade" which today is replaced by "to load". The participle "laden" (now more frequently replaced by "loaded") occurs in a few contexts such as "heavy-laden". So the sense behind "lathe" or "laith" is that it was the place for "loading up" - that is to say, "storage", which is what barns or granaries are designed for.

The second unit, "-om" is purely grammatical. It is a feature of old languages to tag on different endings to nouns in contexts where modern languages make more use of prepositions. For example, in Old English "of" was rarely used and instead the unit "-es" was added. This usage has all but disappeared, but it still remains in the form we call the "apostrophe s". Now "Lathom" is Old Danish in origin and owes its presence in Britain because of the Scandinavian invasions which took place around the 10th century. In their language, when the Danes wanted, as it were, to say "of" they added the word "-or". Hence, for example, "the valley of man called Borg" was rendered as "Borg-ordale", now appearing as "Borrowdale". In the present case ("Lathom") the addition of "-om" was used to indicate position in the sense of "near" or "among". So, putting the two units together "Lathom" would have signified "the place up by the barns".

There are several places taking this name. Starting in the north, in Scotland, we first encounter "Letham" which is in the county of Angus. It is a small town situated between the A932 and B9128 some 4½ miles south-west of Forfar. It is mentioned in connection with a John de Letham in 1210. Next there was "Letham" in Berwick. It was renamed "Leitholm" but by 1296 it appears as "Letheham", converting to "Leithame" in 1507. because of the Scandinavian invasions which took place around

Coming south there was a "Latham" in the West Riding. It lies some 8 miles west of market Weighton. The preferred spelling today is "Laytham" but the records in York for 1204 refer to a "Henry de Latham". Next, some 7½ miles north-east of Huddersfield was a very small hamlet. It can no longer be identified as such on even a large-scale map (3½" to the mile) since it seems to have been swallowed up in urban sprawl. The sole evidence that it might have been there is a track called "Lathom Lane" and a couple of modern street names, incorporating the name.

Finally there is "Lathom" in Lancashire. It is now only a neighbourhood or district name about 2 miles north of Skelmersdale. During the Civil War (1642-1646) the former "Lathom House" withstood a celebrated attack by the Parliamentary forces (1644), the defender being the Countess of Derby. This location is certainly the source of most of the surnames, whether "Lathom" or otherwise. The earliest mention however dates only from 1563 and is to a Robert Lathom.

Place-names are generally adopted as surnames if they can readily be identified. The further away a man travelled from his native place, the less likely he would have been to assume its name and would take on another - possibly a nick name or something general. A man moving, say, to Ormskirk or Preston and possibly, even as far afield as Manchester could easily be called "Lathom" since it was very well-known in the region of west Lancashire, especially as it was one of the residences of Earls of Derby (Stanley). The fact that workers on big estates and in great households often assumed the names of their employers would have helped to establish the surname even more firmly. It is not surprising therefore that the name is heavily concentrated in the north-west. There are well over 100 entries in the Manchester directory and about 70 in that for Ormskirk. In Northern Ireland (particularly around Armagh) there are some 80 entries, but principally under "Leathem". On the other hand beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the Yorkshire names, the name would not have been easily recognised and this probably accounts for the fact that it did not carry far. There are only 9 in the directory for Huddersfield and only 6 for York.

There are no outstanding personalities bearing the name nor any of its variations - but it does seem to have made its way into France. It was borne by an aviator, Hubert Latham (1883-1912) who deserves a mention on account of having been the first airman to try to fly across the Channel though, sadly, only missing success by a margin.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 30th August 1999.

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