This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd September 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.”


The origins of this name are not as easily explained as one might expect given its undoubted familiarity. It is, of course, a location name, but when it comes to answering the question: "Where are these locations?" no satisfactory answer can be given.

Wherever places called "Littlewood" (or "Little Wood") might been situated, all have just about vanished. The most com- prehensive Gazetteer for the United Kingdom lists only one place called "Littlewood" and even that is deemed to be so insignificant as merely to be mentioned and omitted from the maps included with the Gazeteer. Further investigation found only one Atlas where it <-- was drawn in--> appeared and for those who are interested it is in Staffordshire, about two miles south of Cannock. Any individuality it once had seems now to have been absorbed into the urbanisation: of the districts around Great Wyreley. It lies just off Junction 11 (M6).

It is agreed that while the surname may not necessarily have been derived from that or any one particular place, it belongs very much to the West Riding of Yorkshire. Exactly where the "little wood" was to have been found is not certain but it seems to have been within the district of Wooldale, part of Holmfirth. As in the case of the place in Staffordshire, there has been much development (overspill from Huddersfield) and it is now lost in the midst of modern housing and industrial estates. A careful scrutiny of the relevant Ordnance Survey Sheet (No. 110) can quickly pick out Wooldale but no place called "Littlewood" can be detected.

No doubt this pattern of vanished, or at least indeterminate sites, is repeated all over the country.

In the case of our own County of Derbyshire, it has been possible to identify three places called "Littlewood".

The first exists now only as a group of street names in that part of Derbyshire which was lost to Sheffield in 1934 and called "Beauchief". There is a "Lane"; a "Drive", and a "Road" all called "Littlewood" and just off the B6388 (Gleadless Road) and to what extent they can be identified as original "Little Wood" must be a matter for local historians to sort out.

Within the present borders of Derbyshire itself two places can still be positively pin-pointed: one at Shirebrook and the other at Morley. The first is slightly short of two miles to the North-West of Mansfield Woodhouse, standing just this side of the Derby- Nottingham Border, where it crosses the River Meden. It is possible that "Northfield Plantation" exactly on the border some 200 yards south of Littlewood might represent a continuing tradition.

The second is still identifiable as a "little wood". If one travels South-East along the A609 (Belper-Ilkeston) through Smalley and turn right down Common Lane towards Stanley, "Littlewood" lies over to one's right. It is worth noting that since the "-ley" in "Stanley", represents the Old English word "lea" meaning, among other things, "a wood", the name itself - "Smalley" - also means "Small Wood", and it would be interesting to look for connections - if any.

Taking the two units "Little" and "Wood" in turn, the first stands in no need of analysis. The same might also have been thought of in the case of the second, but in fact it is rather less straight- forward than it seems. Basically "wood" describes a collection of trees which has grown naturally thus distinguishing it from a grove, copse or spinney. It differs from a forest in a matter of size but exactly where forest diminishes in size to become a wood is problematical.

"Wood" is really one of the most uninformative units found in English place-names. Where the alternative expressions (grove, copse and spinney) occur in place-names they provide positive evidence of some human involvement, whereas "wood" can mean almost anything from a clump of trees to an extensive plantation. In fact the vast majority of places incorporating "wood" can only come to life if that word is coupled with some descriptive word - e.g. "Brentwood" - the wood destroyed by fire.

In the past, no doubt, the designation "Little" was adequate for static and limited communities when referring to a local feature and it still survives as an extremely common neighbourhood or field name. The name itself tells its own story. Such sites as were called "little wood" have disappeared simply because they weren't big enough to survive. Early settlements might have been established near a "little wood" on account of its being able to provide a handy source of fuel and building material. Then, as the settlement expanded, demand outstripped supply, material was exhausted, it could not quickly be replaced and the wood simply disappeared and survived only as a local field name and eventually vanished beneath development.

So it follows that persons called "Littlewood" may take it that their ancestors dwelt in the vicinity of such a collection of trees and probably had some responsibility for its upkeep. Persuasive evidence for this notion lies in the fact that the earliest reference to the name are Geoffrey de Litelwode (Wakefield, 1275) and Robert atte Lytlewode (Worcester, 1327) ("Atte" means "in the vicinity of-") The "of" and the other term hints that their might have been some active involvement.

People called "Litdewood" living in this area can probably claim their ancestry from a family which might have dwelt in Edensor. Apart from the exceptional number of woods and plantations round there, it is highly significant that both William Littlewood (1831-1886) a miscellaneous writer and John Littlewood (1885-1977) the distinguished mathematician both bore "Edensor" as a middle name.

It is certainly well-represented locally: there are over 100 entries in the directories. It is a household name, particularly in Liverpool on account of it being the Head Office of the well-known organisation. Many people who have been involved with the law have reason to be grateful to Sir Sydney Littlewood (1895-1967) for having brought the Free Legal Aid and Advice Scheme into being.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd September 1996.

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