This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 7th June 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 PITT?

This name has innumerable variations ranging through Pitt, Pitts, Pett, Petts and ultimately to Pitman and Puttman. The reason is not difficult to understand. Water is fundamental to all forms of life and no human settlement could last long without an assured supply of water. Our ancestors no doubt relied at first upon visible springs to supply their needs, but as time went on they discovered that water could be obtained by digging holes in the ground and to which they gave the name "pit".

This word, in various guises appears as many a place-name - although the regular occurrence of the unit "pit" in place-names does not necessarily imply some identification with water-supply: it has several other meanings as well. However, in the case of a personal name, that of "Pitt" or "Pitts" would most certainly have originally referred back to somebody with associations with a water-supply.

The word "pit" is derived from the Latin word for well, that is to say "puteus" - and those of us who remember our French can identify "puits" and recognise even the Spanish "pozo"! The use of the word "pit" (though actually it was "pyt") to describe a hole in the ground from which water could be drawn, dates from even before the time of King Alfred the Great (890) and after that period it began to be used in connection with many other purposes. So it can be said that "Pitt" is a location name - that is to say it would have been employed to describe an individual or a group of people who lived near or who were associated with a source of water.

It naturally follows that some people would have become experts in finding underground supplies of water and skilled at digging wells and one such person would have been described as being a "Pitman". In the case of the name "Pitman" one is not perfectly happy to learn that it also came to mean a "grave-digger" since the word "pit" was sometimes used in that sense. So a person now called "Pitman" might have an ancestor who was either an accomplished well-digger or who was associated with the churchyard!

The earliest record of the name "Pitt" is to be found in Sussex and dates from 1182. The most famous bearer of the name of Pitt was William, the Prime Minister from 1783 to 1804, and of Pitman, Sir Isaac, the inventor of a form of shorthand which, until the introduction of audio-typing, was an indispensable requirement for any girl aspiring to become a proficient office secretary.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 7th June 1993.

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