This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 9th August 1999, 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.”


Our medieval ancestors knew little about dietetics. To them, words like proteins, carbohydrates, cellulose and vitamins would have been incomprehensible. But one thing they did know was that nuts were among the most nutritious forms of foodstuffs then available. It was for later generations to identify the elements which made them so nourishing.

The word "nut" is one of the oldest words in the language. In an English Latin dictionary compiled about 875 AD the word "nut" (or as it was then spelled "hnutu") is set against its Latin counterpart, "Avellana" - now identified as the hazel-nut or the filbert. It is one of the original words used by the earliest inhabitants of Britain because it occurs in both Gaelic and Irish as "cnu" and in Welsh as "cneuen". Our middle age ancestors must have attached considerable importance to the gathering of nuts for food because in an early translation of the gospels, circa 975 ad, the text, "Do men gather figs from thistles", (Matt. VII-16) it seems that the translators were concerned that the reference to figs would not be perfectly understood. (The first reference to "figs" is dated 1225). So the scribes took the precaution of expanding the phrase so as to read: "figs, that is to say, nuts" and by so doing trusting that the full significance of the warning would be rendered more intelligible to the peasantry.

The importance of nut-bearing trees is demonstrated in the enormous number of major place-names which incorporate them. There are well over 50 sites based on hazel, about 40 on the beech, while in the case of the oak, the names occupy five columns in the Gazetteer. The list of neighbourhood and field-names is immeasurable. Rather fewer are the places designated simply with the unit "nut". An example occurs in our own county by way of "Nut Brook". It means exactly what it says: "The brook alongside which grow nut-trees". It is a tributary of the River Erewash, flowing to the south of Ilkeston.

Looking at some of the trees individually, the hazel was not only esteemed as a food plant but its wood not only lent itself to the manufacturer of charcoal but it was also credited with properties approaching the paranormal (of which the Old Testament prophet Hosea expressed disapproval:- Hosea: IV- 12). All over Europe swine were driven into the Forests to devour hazel-nuts and acorns which had fallen to the ground. Although acorns were known to be edible, they were less widely consumed in Britain than abroad - see "Don Quixote", Book II: Ch3. Apart from eating beechnuts, it is understood that oil was extracted from them as an illuminant. The Romans had long ago known of the value of the Chestnut and had introduced it here. As for "pig-nuts" for long they were hunted out by children and avidly eaten as "in-betweens" until sweet shops proved more enticing!

Although some members of medieval communities might have made the gathering of nuts a minor speciality, it seems that, like the gathering of blackberries today, it was largely a matter of individual enterprise. It might be noted that in some areas (Kendal is especially mentioned) the first Monday in August was a local holiday, given over to organised excursions for the purpose of gathering nuts. It was known as "Nut Monday".

For these reasons it seems that no occupational surnames have evolved in respect of the gathering or selling of nuts. In fact, the first allusion to a "nut-monger" occurs in 1648, which is some 300 years beyond the establishment of surnames. Modern research is of the opinion that the apparantly related names of "Nutt", "Nutman", "Nutter" have quite a different origin. They will be discussed in a subsequent issue of the "Advertiser".

A reader living in Mattock has asked particularly about "Nuttall". This is identical with "Nuthall". Because "Nuttall" is well represented in this area (there are about 30 entries in the local directory), bearers of the name may look to "Nuttall" in Lancashire for their origins. Elsewhere it could have been "Nuthall" in Nottingham. People who live in the vicinity of either of the two places would have been identified as "The folk who dwell where the nuts grow", or if they moved away as "The folk from Nuttall". In both cases the final unit is based on the Old English "halh" which in our part of the world came to mean the level land lying alongside a water course. This is clearly the case with "Nuttall". It is now a district to the north of Bury and the river in question is the Irwell. The presence of neighbourhood names such as "Beechacre" and "Hazelhurst" may be significant. In the case of "Nuthall" near Nottingham (by the M1, junction 26) no readily discernible water course can be traced on the map, but local names such as "Spring Lane", "The Lake" and "Ox Watering" lead to speculation.

It is noticeable that of the half-dozen or so personalities listed in the Standard Biographies, most originate from Lancashire. The exception is George Nuttall (1862-1937) having been born in San Francisco, although of Irish parentage. He was a distinguished pioneer in the treatment of infectious diseases. The records for "Nuttall" are scanty. In 1375 the tax lists for Yorkshire mention a "Peter Nuthill" and in Chester the names "John Nuthall" (1579) and "Richard Nuttall of Nuttall, Gentleman" (1616) point to some relationships. Most of the very early references are to be found for Nottingham: "Richard de Nutehal" (1201) is the oldest.

The name is well-known in this region on account of the waste disposal and scrap merchants of the same name. The vehicles displaying the sign "D.A. Nuttall" are frequently seen travelling the roads around Mattock and Bakewell.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 9th August 1999.

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