This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th December 2001, 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 PORTER?

Families bearing this surname are more likely to owe it to a predecessor who was a door-keeper than to one who fetched and carried. While the term "porter" as a door-keeper is recorded in 1290, the corresponding work for a messenger does not appear until a century later. Furthermore the early usages are not flattering. In 1393 "porter" is included in a list of social undesirables such as "harlots, pyke-poketts and quack-doctors" and even as late as 1530 a French/English Dictionary set "porter" alongside "crocheteur" which is still used in modern French for a petty criminal.

The occupation certainly was followed but it is submitted the numbers involved cannot have been large. In regular households small deliveries could be entrusted to identifiable servants and not handed over to dubious outsiders. More to the point, the title "Porter" was already conferred upon gate-keepers and they stood high in the domestic hierarchies and so why the same name should have been shared with what the records suggest were rogues is not easily accounted for. "Porter" was however understood as a "bearer" because functionaries carrying white rods preceded visiting justices and are described as such as far back as 1285 and this might account for a few surnames.

In Scotland the word was adopted to describe a man who carried people and goods across a river i.e. a ferry man but apart from that it is significant that "Porter" in the sense of a "carrier" is not listed among the surnames for that country.

The modern concept of a man who carried burdens within the limits of his own physical strength only began to emerge about the middle of the 16th Century which was some time beyond the establishment of surnames. Of course the widening of the use of the word "porter" as in the case of the 19th century "ticket porters (as in Dickens' "The Chimes") and on the railways ("Oh Mr. Porter!") has no relevance in this matter.

The word "porter" (carrier) is derived from the Latin "portator", based on the verb "to carry" which was "portare". This passed into French as "porteour" and into English as "portour". Since this spelling occurs in the case of "Nicholas le Porter" (Surrey: 1263) and "Andrew Porteour" (Colchester: 1356) we can be certain of this being their occupation.

The context leads to the suggestion that perhaps the expression had some localised understanding.

The corresponding surname (door-keeper) comes from a different source which contributes to problems of interpretation. This source is the Latin "portus" meaning "gate" and upon which had been constructed "portarius". This passed into French as "portier" and to "porter" (1290) in English. Unfortunately it was sometimes written "portour" even as late as 1453 and this contributes to uncertainties in interpreting particular surnames.

Otherwise, being a Porter, especially if connected with major organisations, was really something of consequence. William de Hodeles was elevated to a Freeman of York (1291) and is described as "Portour". No doubt in lesser establishments a porter was required not to do much more than keep an eye on who came in or out and direct visitors. It was, by the way, not exclusive to men: hence Alice le Porters (Colchester - 1330). In royal or Noble households the status of a porter was very high.

In Scotland especially it carried lands and privileges and was so highly regarded that in 1180 "Simon le Porter" was called upon to witness a royal charter and in 1214 one of their number acted as Regent for the young Alexander II. Those at the gates of great monasteries held the responsible job of distributing alms and relieving the poor and destitute who approached them. Naturally not every porter either in England or Scotland enjoyed so much elevated and standing as others but they were, nevertheless, all holders of a recognised and honourable office - as is confirmed from the numbers and the distribution of the surname.

The earliest record is to a Milo Portarius of Winchester (1086) and in 1177 mention is made of Radulfus the Porter at Craigie near Kilmarnock. In Berkshire "Willelmus" is variously described as "Portarius - Janitor" and also as "le Portier".

The surname is widely distributed across the country with about 100 listed in the local directory. Curiously enough it has not provided an element in any island place-name and although some 30 people are given in the Standard Biographies, none is exactly a headliner. On the other hand it has crossed the Atlantic and furnished the State of Indiana with both a county and place-name as well as five sites elsewhere. The country also gave us the composer Cole Porter (1893-1966) whose songs, such as "Begin the Beguine" is still heard as well as the writer William Porter (1862-1910). He is better known as 'O Henry' and his short stories are often included in collections. He originated the saying: "Life is a mixture of tears and cheers and the tears predominate".

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th December 2001.

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