This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th August 1996, 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 LEE?

This is a location-name, and, except for a few exceptions; it has emerged from an Old English word "Leah". This term was first restricted to a patch of open-land in the midst of a forest and which we would now call a "glade" or a "clearing." Later, as these open spaces became more extensive and the woodlands diminished, the meaning shifted to that of "field" or "pasture-land".

Until about 500 years ago most of the country was covered in dense forest. So, when our earlier ancestors were seeking places in which to settle, they tended to move into such open spaces as had developed through natural causes, but, as time went by, they undertook the process of clearing more vegetation away in order to make room for their expanding populations. So much so, in fact, that most of the country has been opened-up to the extent that any significance originally attaching itself to the word "leah" has disappeared.

The use of the word "leah" is recorded as far back as the year 748 A.D. and at the time it was used in the sense of a "clearing" but by the 14th Century it had taken on spellings such as "Lee" and "Lea" and signified "meadow-land".

Our ancestors, long accustomed to groping beneath the shade of dense forests appreciated the sight of a clear sky and an uninterrupted view across an open space. What struck them forcibly was the light and the brightness afforded in such places and so, not surprisingly, they called them "bright spots". That is, in fact, the literal mean ing of "leah". It is associated with the Old English word "leoht" which means "light" Its relationship with the Latin word "lux" also meaning "light" is obvious.

It would require rather an involved explanation as to how "leah" eventually took on so many forms such as Lee, Lea, Ley, Leigh, Legh, Lees, Leece etc. All that need be emphasised is that variations in spelling make no difference to the meaning of a particular surname - except possibly in two cases.

The first is that people who originate in Bedfordshire and down towards London may very well have taken their surname from being identified, in some way, with the River Lea (sometimes referred to in the alternative as "Lee"). It rises near Houghton Regis, near Dunstable, and flows south to join the Thames at Blackwell. There is patently no association with a "glade", or a "clearing" and unfortunately, its exact meaning is obscure. An inspired guess is that the name might be based upon that of some River God, and a possible candidate is "Lug" who was a character in Celtic Mythology.

The second exception applies to those who have Irish connections. During the time when the English were in control of Ireland, the, use of native Gaelic names was prohibited. One name, "O'Laoighigh" was thus transmogrified into "Lee" simply because that, was nearest thing the Irish bearers of the name could get to it phonetically. It is derived from a personal name, "Loaidheach", who was some misty historical personage and who might have been a Poet or a Minstrel. Hence. the full meaning of the name can be rendered something along the lines: "One who is a descendant of the Poet."

When about the turn of this Century the Irish became more aware of their culture and began to restore their original names, forms such as "O'Lee" and "O'Leigh" were concocted. Otherwise, however spelled, the meaning of any of the forms of "Leah" can be taken to signify: "The dwellers in the clearing" or "Those who inhabit the glade.

The unit is probably one of the most frequently occurrring in English place-names. Its frequency, in fact, is such that unless a particular family has access to specific records it would be well- nigh impossible to identify the exact source of their surname. The number of locations is so huge that no comprehensive list has yet been compiled. In Derbyshire alone there are about 150 sites in which this unit is involved. Forty-odd are larger settlements and the remainder local neighbourhood or field names.

In location-names, the unit "Leah" has invariably modified into "- ley" wherever it forms the final syllable. Names in this case tend to be of a later date since there had to be a "Leah" in the first instance in order to attract some special identity as, for example "barley" - which means "the glades where the deer are to be found. Otherwise, where "Leah" stands alone, it has taken on various forms of spelling.

There are at least seven settlements called "Lea" of which there is one in Derbyshire, 3 miles south-east of Matlock. Places called "Leigh" number nine or more, and there are four called "Lee". It might be noted that people living here in and around the Peak and who are called "Leigh" might very well be able to look towards the town of that name standing half way between Liverpool and Manchester.

The name is fairly evenly distributed across the country although there seem to be concentrations of certain forms as, around here, where the local directory list nearly 500 names under "Lee" but fewer under other spellings.

It is certainly well-established in the United States where probably its most celebrated bearer lived - the distinguished Civil War General from Virginia, Robert E. Lee (1807-1870). The name has recently developed into a boy's first name. This follows from a practice, long observed in the States, of giving children their Mothers' maiden-name as a middle first name. Gradually such names became names in their own right. Examples as well as "Lee" include "Scott" and "Dale". The name does not appear in the popularity charts until the mid-1960's but it is now a firm favourite. It is familiar to visitors to the builders' yard on the corner of Bath Street here in Bakewell on account of "Lee" being the first name of one of those pleasing and helpful personalities we meet there.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th August 1996.

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