This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 18th July 1994, 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 ORTON?

This is a location name - that is to say, people who are called "Orton" might be able to trace their origins to places similarly named. Note that one has to say "might" because there are about a dozen or so places designated "Orton" (or a variation), and, unless one has access to the old records, the actual settlement from which a particular family sprang would be anywhere from Kirkudbright to Sussex. However in the case of people in Derbyshire bearing the name, there is the fact that a crop of "Ortons" is scattered across the coal-mining areas of the Midlands and it might very well have been that in the past miners moved, or were transferred from, say, Leicestershire to this area, bringing their local name with them. This notion gains some credibility in that there is a place called specifically "Cole Orton" (i.e. "coal") just over-the border and about 12 miles south of Derby.

What exactly does "Orton" mean? The unit "Or-" appears in too many place-names and with so many variations that no definitive explanation can be worked out. The best that can be said is that it is related to an extremely old word found written either as "or", "ore" and "oare". The exact meaning can no longer be determined but it seems to be something along the lines of "on the edge", "by the side of or "standing above". There is some reason to believe that "or" could be a contracted form of another equally old word "ofer" or "ufera" which is known to have meant "above". It appears in the form "Over" in many place names and whatever the particular place is "over" is generally self-evident, as, for example, "Over Haddon" which means the place "on the upper part of the heath-covered hill".

Similarly the notion of being "above" or "on the edge" is generally discernible in most place names incorporating forms of "or" or "oare". In Sussex the place called "Ogre" overlooks the Channel; in Kent, the Swale Inlets, while in Wiltshire, it is the Vale of Pewsey.

In the form "Orton" there are several sites distributed across Central England, and possibly the "Key-site" is Orton, near Kettering. In its vicinity there is a water-course flowing through a depression known locally as "The Slade". This is an old dialect word and refers generally to a ravine or a hollow. An adjacent place name, "Drop Short" and a road with a pronounced gradient are certainly pointers to the fact that "Orton" is a place "standing on the edge or above a water-course".

In fact the name seems to have been so common - maybe standing on the edge of a river or high up afforded the protection the early Saxon invaders needed in a hostile community - that quite a few places of the same name actually add some explanatory detail.

There is, for example, "Water Orton" near Birmingham. The "water" in this case is the River Thame. Near Tamworth there is "Orton-on-the-Hill" and west of Carlisle there are two places, standing on high and low ground, and designated "Great" and "Little Orton" respectively. In Westmoreland, half way between Penrith and Kendal, there is a place called "Orton" and round about are sites with significant names such as "Orton Scar" and "Orton Common". One has to be a little bit cautious about the "Ortons" in the far North because some researchers suggest that they are named either after a Nordic chieftain called "Orri" - hence "Orri's Town" giving "Orton" (a similar origin is suggested for "Orby" in Lincolnshire), or, from a Scottish and Northern dialect word "Orr" referring to the blackbird or blackcock. These two explanations are certainly interesting but they are not wholly convincing.

The meaning of the unit "-ton" is "fortified enclosure". The word was introduced into our language by the Saxons. They came as invaders and, having dispossessed the original inhabitants of their land, they were long vulnerable to attack. They assembled themselves into family groups and protected their dwellings within a stockade or took advantage of some natural defence. The name they gave to such settlements, "Tun" can easily be discerned into the modern word "Town".

Hence, the former inhabitants of "Orton" near Kettering would have been identified as "the people who occupy the fortified enclosure which overlooks the ravine". Similar interpretations can be worked out for other places.

The name is fairly widely distributed throughout the country and there are about 100 entries in the local directories. The most famous bearer of the name is undoubtedly Joe Orton (1933-1967), the brilliant, though controversial playwright. He probably took his name from a place in the vicinity of Leicester, in which city he was born.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th July 1994.

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