This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 17th July 2000, 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 NAYLOR?
(Variations: Nayler, Nailer)

There is a considerable number of variations on this surname, but whatever they are, it is readily identified as referring to a person whose job it was to make nails. What is rather curious, though, is that while the manufacture of nails can be traced as far back as even Roman times, this name is not as widespread as might have been imagined. Indeed in the list of the forty most common surnames based upon occupations (Smith comes first!), "Naylor" (or any of its variations) is not included. In fact the first reference to the activity is dated long after surnames had become established (1440) which suggests that as a specialised occupation it evolved rather late. It is submitted that this could be explained in that the manufacture of nails was generally in the hands of the regular village blacksmith and that he was already known as "Smith". However it is possible that blacksmiths in larger settlements could have allocated different tasks amongst themselves or their assistants and that those responsible for the making of nails could have acquired something of a specialised status and subsequently be designated as "the Nailer".

It is spelled identically with the word which describes the nails on one's fingers. To trace the history and development of the word from its original root would be too involved, but a few brief notes might be of interest. It can be taken that in the very beginning, the sharpness of a finger nail or the claws of wild creatures could be compared with a metal spike. In Latin, a nail (metal) was called "clavus" from which evolved our word "claw". It has its counterpart in modern Spanish as "clavo" and French as "clou". The word "nail" has also had a curiously involved transition from its primitive origins to modern English. Still it must suffice to say that it can be traced to an ancient language spoken some 5000 years ago in a region somewhere to the north of India (Sanskrit). The form it took was "nakha". Making its way westward it passed into Old English as either "nayle" or "naille". By the 15th century it had settled on "nail". Modern speakers of English might find it difficult to recognise "neglas" (nails) as used by King Alfred in 893 but they would understand Caxton's reference to "nayles of silver" without much effort. This dates from 1483.

It is interesting to note that the earliest reference to a "nailer" (1440) employs the regular English suffix "-er" which indicates an agent or a doer. However some words of similar significance and which have been derived more or less directly from Latin or French take their endings in "-or". Even today it is still confusing to decide whether a particular word ends in "-er" or "-or". Our medieval ancestors certainly encountered the problem and so it is not surprising that a few early examples of the word are spelled as "nailor" (1538) and indeed this spelling was still current as late as 1831 - even in technical literature! Whether a comparison with "sailor" influenced this incorrect spelling is not certain but it is known that the surname came under the influence of "Taylor" and that the form "Naylor" gained currency and is strongly represented in the north of England.

So it may be taken that families who bear the name "Nailer" or any of its variations can take it that they had an ancestor who was occupied in the manufacture of nails. An extended meaning lies in that a "nailer" was a worker whose speciality was to drive in nails somewhat akin to the modern "riveter". However the term seems to have been restricted to the use of suitable fastenings for the copper-sheathing on the base of Royal Navy vessels and doesn't appear until about 1800.

People who hope that the source of their name might lie in its having been a nick-name to denote somebody of skill and excellence (e.g. "Stanley Matthews was a nailer at the dribble" 1938) must be informed, sadly, that such usage dates from about 1800. And as a slang expression for a policeman, it is Victorian and dates from around 1863.

Curiously enough there does not seem to be a Scottish surname under this heading. Probably it was overtaken by developments from "Nailsmith" which now appear as "Naysmith" etc. In Ireland it was imported during the 17th century.

Otherwise the earliest reference is to "Stephen le Nailer" (London, 1231), then "James le naylor" (York, 1273). In Northumberland we find a "John le Naylere" dated 1282.

The spelling "Nayler" seems largely to have prevailed until about 1850 but after this time, "Naylor" seems to be the favoured choice. There are nearly 200 entries in this form in the local directories.

The only personality mentioned in the standard reference is James Naylor or Nayler (1617-1660). He was a Yorkshireman, with some passing association with Derbyshire (Chesterfield). He was a preacher in the Quaker community and enjoyed a tremendous popularity among the poor and disadvantaged but fell foul of the authorities whose treatment of him is a monument to religious bigotry.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 17th July 2000.

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