This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 24th March 2003, 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 POWELL??

In 1895 an eminent authority on surnames stated that probably only half the number of families called Powell had any connection with Wales. This can be confirmed from the Biographical dictionary in which just six of the dozen entries under Powell are clearly shown to be of Welsh extraction. Because this surname is so firmly established in Welsh tradition, this may come as. a surprise to many readers.

In Welsh names the presence of "Ap" corresponds with the Scots "Mac". Both units can be interpreted as "son of-" which in Scots is "mac" and in Welsh, "map". Whereas "Mac" remains a distinctive prefix in hundreds of Scots surnames, "map" at first contracted to "Ap" and then frequently fused with the following name, providing an initial "P-". Hence "the son of Robin" first appears as "ap Robin" then as "Probyn." The surname "Powell" is constructed on a Welsh word which signifies "outstanding" or "excelling" and from which the personal name Howel emerged (Anglicised to Howell). Characteristically it first appears as "Ap Howel" and later as "Powell." This progression can be traced in the records as, for example, Philip ap Howel (1231) then Hugh Apowel (1524). The name Howel stands high amidst the Welsh Community, being the name of an early monarch, designated "Dda" - the Good (916-950). He compiled a celebrated Code of Laws which is now being increasingly studied and admired. Griffith Powel or Powell (1561-1620), Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, is described as "third sonne of John ap Hywel ap John."

Some families who have never been able to establish any Welsh connections whatsoever and may have long been puzzled as to how they have acquired so typical a Cambrian surname, may look to several other sources, the most significant of which is that it is derived from the personal name Paul. From this emerges the curious fact that there are more people bearing a surname derived from "Paul" (e.g. Powell, Poole, Pole, Pawle etc.) than carry it as a first name.

In spite of the status conferred upon this "Apostle of the Nations", this name has never been a firm favourite - certainly not in this island. As far as our medieval ancestors were concerned, this name, while not unknown, was not often conferred in baptism. Even today, in the lists regularly compiled of popular names, it makes few appearances and has been unplaced for the last couple of decades. Why this should be so is not easily explained. Perhaps our Island Mothers, true descendants of Boadicea didn't fancy saddling their baims with the name of a man who bade "women to learn in silence with all subjection". And no doubt our sturdy Saxon forebears didn't approve of a preacher who, appearing to side with the toffs, delivered such admonitions as "the powers that be are of God" and "servants obey your masters. (Perhaps, they thought, that's why the toffs favoured his name for London Cathedral!) Anyway he wasn't one of the original twelve and took the name "Paul" as a piece of opportunist strategy.

When the name did appear it bore various spellings including "Pawle" which eventually modulated into "Paul." The Records for London (1279) name a certain John as both "Powel" and "Paul". In Scotland the surname Paul (Paulin, Paulson) had been long established and it is interesting to note that it was regularly deemed to be of Flemish origin. In East Anglia, Flemish influence was strong and in Flanders the name was apparently more popular than here. An early 13th century chronicle reports that many servants of the Earl of Hereford, brought, presumably from the Welsh Marches, were established in Norwich. The concentration in this region of the names "Howel" and "Powel" is often commented upon and it could well be that the imported names of "Powel" (Welsh) and "Pawel" (Flemish) could have been mixed-up. Spelling is certainly perplexing. Two places in Essex, Wickham St. Pauls and Belchamp St. Pauls used the form "Powel" in the 12th Century - which reveals how frustrating research into this particular name can be. What do we make of a Surrey landowner whose name was John Paul and whose official seal, dated 1296, reads as "Johanis Powel"?

The name can also have been derived from locations. Families who have associations with Cumberland might possibly owe their name to Powhill, a small settlement 7½ miles west of Carlisle. Men leaving the area to seek work in the bigger towns would have identified themselves with the place from whence they had emigrated and which, in Merseyside especially, could have been converted to Powell.

It has also been suggested that families living in the vicinity of pools could have acquired the name accordingly. The spelling of the water feature was often "Powl" ("here be ye bottomlesse powees" - 1301). There are certainly old records to confirm this derivation as in the case of Jordan de Powella (Warwick, 1184), Ralph atte Powel (Huntingdon, 1288) and John de Powel (Oxford, 1339) but unfortunately the records do not provide clues to the exact locations.

Families with Irish connections might note that "Powell" was adopted as an alternative name when native Irish names were prohibited. The original name would have Gilfoyle (Giolla Phoil) and this meant "servant of St. Paul" and "Powell" was an acceptable substitute.

Few personalities have been bearers of the name. No doubt some of our older readers will remember "Sandy Powell" an extremely popular radio comedian before and during the War. His catchphrase, "can you hear me mother?" was calculated to set us all laughing.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 24th March 2003.

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