This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 12nd January 1998, 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 MUSE?

This spelling has been chosen because it occurs locally. Otherwise there are innumerable variations such as Mew, Mews, Meuse, Mews and Maw. The most usual form is "Mew" a name familiar to many Solicitors until about 1940 on account of the Thirty Volumes of a Legal Encyclopedia compiled by John Mew.

The name has three sources: an occupational name, a location name or a nick-name. Families bearing surnames based upon any of the multifarious variations need to be able to pin-point the district associated with their ancestry and to have access to relevant documents to lay claim to any positive identification.

As an occupational name, it would have described a man who was responsible for the care and breeding of Hawks. Hunting with these birds was an important aspect of Social Life in the Middle Ages. Special Cages were designed for their confinement, especially when moulting. It is with this natural shedding of plumage that the name "Mew" is related. In Latin the word "to moult" or "to change" was "mutare" (c.f. mutant, commuter) and this evolved in French as "muer". The expression was then extended to the cages wherein the moulting birds were tended and took the form "mue" which passed into English as "Mew". By further extension, the Household Officer responsible for all that was involved took on the title "Mew" or "Mewer" or "Mewman".

In passing it might be noted that the premises given over to this occupations gradually expanded to include stabling, etc. and then to incorporate living-quarters for grooms and stable-hands. The word is now most frequently heard in connection with converted accommodation i.e. "Mews Flats".

The earliest records of the name in this context seem largely to have been centered in Eastern England. In Essex there is Alan de Muer (1195), in Lincoln, William Mewman (1199) and in Norfolk, Geoffrey Muwe (1275). Another form of spelling is "Muse" and this is most certainly an artificial construction which was devised under the influence of the learned word which describes the Nine Mythological Ladies associated with the Arts and Sciences. It did not appear in writing until 1384, quite some 200 years following the development of surnames.

No record of anybody called "Muse" can be traced to any earlier date. It is very much a Yorkshire Name, however, and working backwards from "Muse" and at least a dozen permutations thereon, it can be tracked down to a place-name in the East Riding, now called "Meaux".

Strangely enough this is a contrived name concocted through some tenuous association with a place in Northern France of the same description. The original location was called "Melse" and is mentioned as such in the Domesday Book (1086). It can be interpreted as "the lake with the sandy shores". Since the 13th Century the Area has been subject to invasions by the Sea and the appearance of much of the landscape has altered considerably. According to the local Telephone Directory, "Meaux" seems only to be a sort of neighbourhood name: there is no entry such as "Meaux Garage" or "Meaux Stores".

Otherwise the site as indicated in the Maps and Guides available to the "Peak Advertiser" is about 3 miles east of Beverley. In the year 1151 the inhabitants of the original settlement of "Melse" were ruthlessly evicted by the Church Authorities based on Foundations Abbey in order to provide a site for "development". Melse was not alone in this respect. Over 60 other small communities were uprooted to "maximise efficiency". Briefly the enterprise didn't prove "economically viable" or "cost effective". Even for a time, the standard of hygiene was poor and in 1349 the Abbot and 32 out of its 50 residents died.

Flooding later devastated the Region and it is significant that the Chronicle of the Events notes that while the Peasants strove to maintain their own flood-banks, they flatly refused to help the Monks with theirs! It seems, also, that when Henry VIII set about the process called the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Meaux Abbey was one of the first to go - and, so it is recorded, not much regretted by the Locals!

The original inhabitants of "Melse" or "Meaux" appear to have drifted outwards in several directions and even today, there is a slight concentration on Humberside. The earliest mention occurs, however, in York (1196) and refers to a John de Mehus. Almost contemporary in Leicester (1201) there is Hugo de Mues and by 1282 the name, in the way of William de Meaw, is found in Essex.

Finally, the name could also have originated as a nick-name, being based on "Maw", which is a dialect term for the sea-gull. - Our Mediaeval Ancestors had created a considerable body of mystical lore on the qualities and attributes of birds, much of which is now lost. Hence in the case of nick-names derived from the names of birds, it is difficult in some cases to discover what it was in the personality of a member of a community to cause his fellows to saddle him with a nick-name based on bird-life! It is certainly, a very old designation. In 1016 mention is made of an Algarus filius Meawes (unlocated) but in 1275 it is found in Worcester as Robert Meu and in 1312 William le Meaw is given for Sussex.

The spelling "Muse" is certainly unusually and apart from a fairly noticeable convergence on Humberside, there are only three in the entire London Area. There is a slight prevalence of "Mawson" on Tees-side and of "Maw" in the East Riding. Otherwise no consistent patterns of distribution can be made out.

The name - however spelt - has not been borne by any well-known personalities although Peter Mews (1619-1706) was a distinguished Bishop of Winchester and Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) wrote much miscellaneous literature which was greatly admired in its day. A baronetage under the name "Meux" was created in 1831 but it appears to have died out. Locally we have our friends Emma and Gary Muse who live in the Terrace alongside the Bakewell Workingmen's Club.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 12nd January 1998.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library