This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 27th March 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 NICHOLLS?

Nicholls is based on the personal name "Nicholas" which can also stand alone (with various spellings) as a surname. The usual developments are: "son of Nicholas" - Nicholson, Nixon; "child of Nicholas" - Nicholls. So, even allowing for foreign versions, "Nicholas" has generated some 50 variations. Fortunately they are fairly easy to identify, even the Gaelic "MacNeacail".

Nicholas has been a standard name in western Europe although its popularity fluctuates and at present it is undergoing a decline.

The name is a Greek compound. The first unit is "nike" which means "victory" and the second is "laos" which signifies "people". It can be rendered as "People Power". The correct spelling, it should be noted, is "Nicolas" and the intrusive "-h-" comes about because some of our ancestors thought that the "-k-" sound related to a similar sound in the Greek alphabet which was written as "-ch-" as in "choir" and "echo".

Contrary to a popular belief it is not exclusively a Christian invention. It existed in the ancient world, as, for example, Nicolaus Damascenus. He was a scholar and was patronised by the Emperor Augustus and Herod, King of the Jews.

Otherwise it is a New Testament name which can be found in Acts, Chapter 6, verse 5. What is said there is all that is known of the bearer. He was from Antioch, had been a Heathen, converted to Judaism, then to Christianity and was chosen to be among the Seven Deacons appointed to look after the poor.

The name seems to have been favoured in both the Catholic and Orthodox communities. The most celebrated bearer is St. Nicholas of Myra (modern Finike in Turkey). His date is 6th December, 1032. A great number of attractive legends are told about him. How, for example, he is supposed to have helped 3 impoverished gentlewomen to secure advantageous marriages by throwing 3 bags of money through their window, thus providing them each with a marriage dowry. These purses are represented in art as golden spheres and were adopted by pawnbrokers as their symbol. Some versions of the story make out that he dropped the gifts down the chimney. This accounts for why he is also associated with giving children presents at Christmas, as also for the name "Santa Claus" which is the Germanic equivalent of his name.

Another legend describes how he saved a ship's crew from drowning in the Aegean Sea. He commanded the winds and waves to be still and brought the vessel safely to land. Hence he is sometimes represented in art with an anchor and is the patron saint of sailors. (But this is sometimes confused with another saint - St. Nicholas of Tolentino).

A homely short-form of "Nicholas" is "Nick". Although "Old Nick" is sometimes used in regard to the Devil, this usage first appears in about 1640 and never involved the boy's name. The "Peak Advertiser" suggests that it might have been a sly allusion to Sir Edward Nicholas (1593-1669) whose involvement with the affairs of Charles I was rather ambiguous.

An unusual spelling is "Nickel". In Germanic folk-lore there is featured a sort of mischievous goblin called a "nickel". Expressed briefly, it was used by miners when they encountered a certain mineral which looked as if might yield valuable copper but it didn't. Hence they called it a "cheat" or "nickel". Its application to the recognised element dates from 1750. So it can have no bearing on surnames of that spelling. In fact an example is recorded in Scotland much earlier for 1650 in respect of James Nickle of Auchterhouse.

An alternative source has been suggested for some families called "Nicholls". Apparently the French-speaking Normans had difficulty in pronouncing "Lincoln" and reversed it to "Nicol". Some confirming evidence can be adduced by referring to a charter in which a certain "Richard de Lincoln" (1190) gave land to the Abbey of Kelso. In a later Charter, confirming the gift, he is described as "Richard de Nicol" (1270). Other examples include "Alured do Nicol" (1270) and "Thomas de Nichole" (1273). So families bearing this surname and with associations in East Anglia might very well have derived their name from this source.

The name was so widespread in the Middle Ages and there are so many entries in the various registers that it is pointless trying to give more than a few examples. The earliest mention of "Nicolaus" as a surname occurs in the Domesday Book (1086) but it is a long while before any written record of "Nicholls" appears. It is in Middlesex for 1575. The prevalence of names based on "Nicholas" can be estimated from the fact that the standard biography lists over 150 personalities in the English-speaking world alone. Of that number there are about a dozen "Nicholls" beginning with Degory Nicholls (c. 1591) and closing with Frederick Nicholls (1889-1974). The latter played an important part during the second world war by way of overseeing secret communications and the breaking of the enemy-codes.

The name is well represented locally. There are nearly 100 entries in the local directory.- Football fans who follow the fortunes of Ambergate Football Club will identify Andrew Nicholls as one of the players and many householders will have called upon his service as an accomplished joiner at Over Haddon.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 27th March 2000.

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