This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 13rd December 1993, 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 OLDFIELD?

This is a location name and so, if you are called "Oldfield" and there is a place nearby of the same name, the chances are that your ancestors lived there and were called after it.

This formula may not be taken as immutable because the name is widely distributed over the whole of the United Kingdom and the number of sites which locals refer to as the "Old Field" must be extremely numerous. There are at least five places in England under this identity: Oldfield, standing on the A449 from Worcester to Kidderminster; a place in the West Riding, about 2 miles north of Holmfirth; another almost on the Lancashire-Yorkshire boundary, near Howarth, as well as Oldfield Brow near Altrincham.

Finally, there is an Oldfield near Heswall in Cheshire and it has been suggested that this might very well be the "old field" from which many people in the North-West can trace their origins. The majority of places bearing this name are certainly to be found in this corner of England and the directories reveal that the greatest concentration of people called "Oldfield" lie within West Yorkshire.

The name is made up of two units: "old" and "field". Although these two words do not take on exceptional meanings, they are not quite what they seem. Today, when we speak of a "field" we contemplate an area of land, all neatly surrounded with a wall or a hedge or some such fencing. However this landscape feature is comparatively modern and first began to appear on a large scale in the early eighteenth century. Until then farming was carried out under what was called the "open-field" system, where boundaries were virtually non-existent.

In fact flocks of sheep belonging to different owners grazed so closely together and roamed so freely that it was a great temptation and not at all difficult (or uncommon!) for dishonest peasants to shove one or two animals from a neighbour's flock amongst their own and wander off with them. That's why they had such fearsome penalties for sheep-stealing in those days! It was easy to do and rather difficult to detect!

So if the method of farming was called "open-field", it follows that during earlier centuries the word "field" could not have been applied exclusively to the well-defined enclosures such as we think of today. It was, in fact, the word which was used to distinguish "open country" from "wooded country". This notion of expanse and openness is still preserved in expressions such as "field sports" and, of course, the "field of battle."

Such open areas, which generally belonged to everybody in the vicinity "in common" were not always managed scientifically and many tracts became exhausted from being over-cultivated and could no longer be tilled or put to any further useful agricultural use. Not surprisingly then, the local people moved over to new plots and left the old ones idle and referred to them as the "Old Fields". "Old" in this context did not mean exactly "ancient" but rather "supplanted by something else" - in much the same sense as when people refer to a former dwelling as their "old house".

In the records, reference is usually made to a person being "of' an "old field" - as, for example, "John of the Old Field" and, indeed, the earliest mention is of "Philip de la Holdefelde" in the records for Shropshire in 1273. Gradually the "of" would have dropped out and the name ended up simply as "Oldfield". Probably it came about that since the land was not in use and nobody would seem to want it, migrants would settle there and build a dwelling and take their name in that way.

Although the name might not have originated in Derbyshire, there is evidence that families from neighbouring counties could have made their way here, because quite a few distinguished people called "Oldfield" are associated with places round about. Two may be mentioned: John Oldfield (1627-1682) was a celebrated preacher who came from Chesterfield and is associated with Alfreton; and, Sir Maurice Oldfield (1905-1981) who came from Over Haddon and was Head of the Secret service in 1973. Otherwise the local directories lists about 200 names.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 13rd December 1993.

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