This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 15th January 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 MATHER?

The details surrounding the significance of "Mather" are somewhat confused. Its basic meaning is "Harvester", and in most parts of the country where it occurs as a surname this can be taken as it stands. However it seems to have become entangled with another name - that of "Madder" which refers to a "Dyer".

In that context it is highly localised. It belongs particularly to our neighbours in South Lancashire, but it has spread not only into Derbyshire but also into Northumberland and Durham. The factors which seem common to Merseyside and Tyneside are the Chemical Industries, especially the Dye-Works and it has been suggested that the name "Mather" is really only a variation of "Madder" which is a comprehensive expression covering the processes involved in dyeing and colouring.

Some credibility is added to this proposition because this development of the name "Mather"took place rather late, in the evolution of surnames and it is perceptibly concentrated in the regions just mentioned. Whereas the Directories for Liverpool and the adjacent areas contain well over 1000 entries (and nearly as many for the North-East) that for Central London lists about 40 and a glance through those covering the South-East and the Midlands reveals there to be hardly a dozen in each.

Taking the two sources in turn, "Mather" where it means "Harvester" is derived from the same sources which give us "mow" and "meadow". Specifically it was used to describe a man engaged to mow down grass. It must be remembered that in the Middle Ages the hay harvests were of considereble importance. Apart from providing winter fodder for livestock, they were needed also for bedding.

Hence the oldest records suggest that being a "mather" was something of a speciality: workers were apparantly called upon to appraise quality, to estimate quantities and to advise on storage.

The work "math" is often encountered in agricultural writings. As early as the year 963 we read of a great land-owner who "called upon craftesmen twyse in a yere to math one side of ye feldes" and one thousand years later a standard reference book on Weights and Measures is still describing a "math" as "ap- proximately 1 Acre, being the amount of land a man can mow in a day".

The word still survives in everyday discourse as "after-math". Once the first crop of grass had been cut down, a second would spring up and provide a second mowing and this was called the "after-math". By extension it has come to describe the situation found after some event - usually unpleasant, as "the Aftermath of the War"

Because farming was once the major activity in these Islands, it is not surprising that the name "Mather", along with many other occupational names associated with agriculture, has emerged as a surname.

The fact that it is not widely distributed lies probably in that it was a seasonal job. Unlike other occupations from which surnames have been derived, as, for example "Shepherd" and "Carter", it was an activity that could not necessarily be followed all the year round, and so the number of men in a community who could have attracted to themselves the distinctive identity of "Mather" must have been limited. Most likely on large and highlyorganised estates.

Turning to the second source of the name, it is believed to be a later variation of "Madder". Exactly how "madder" came to refer to the dyeing industry in uncertain. The dye-plant now known as "madder" is not a native of the British Isles. It originates in the Himalayas and could not possibly have been known to our Medieval Ancestors. The art of dyeing is however very ancient and there is plenty of evidence that it was carried out by our predecessors who used several plants to obtain the characteristic red hue associated with "madder". The origin of the word is unknown.

People who were skilled in preparing dyes from whatever source were dubbed "madders" and from whence the surname evolved. The modification to "Mather" is not exceptional. Many words with "d" in the middle tend to change it to "-th-". It occurs not only during the transition from one language into another - as when the Germanic "bruder" becomes "brother" - but also in homely dialect, when "burden" changes to "burthen" and "murder" to "murther". It is also more than likely that the existence of an already recognised surname in the form of "Mather" exerted a strong influence.

How or why the name "Mather" came to be so heavily concentrated in South Lancashire must remain a matter of speculation. Probably the regions long-established involvement with textiles could have had considerable bearing.

It is certainly well-known to Liverpolitans if for no other reason than that it is the name of a major highway - "Mather Avenue" (B5180). It takes its name from the Mather family which was associated with the district and played a prominent part in early Anglo-American history.

Otherwise the local directory, covering West Derbyshire contains over 100 entries, and no doubt the best-known bearer of the name here in Bakewell is our own Sister Mather at the Medical Centre.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 15th January 1996.

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