This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th September 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 RIGLEY?

Like most names incorporating the unit "-ley", the name "Rigley" refers to a geographical location. "Ley" is a variant of the old word "lea" and although its meaning is undisputed, how it has been derived is not quite so certain. It is taken to refer to any open space or clearing and particularly land which has been left to lie fallow after cultivation, but exactly why the word "lea" came to be used for this purpose is debatable.

One authority puts forward the idea that it is related to the same rootword which gives is "light". The notion is that sunlight rarely penetrated the foliage of the dense woods and forests which covered most of the country in times past and the brilliancy of daylight was so noticeable in the few open spaces which were to be found as to induce local inhabitants to refer to them in terms indicating that they were "places of light".

Well, this theory is undeniably picturesque but it is not entirely convincing. Rather more persuasive is the suggestion that "lea" is based on those root-words which provide "lie" and "lay"; and this does tie in with the idea of land being left to "lie" uncultivated. Furthermore the idea of such places being levelled finds an echo in the Scots dialect word "laigh" which means "low-lying land".

We may take it, then, that people called "Rigley" have been given their name from being identified with some open space, and, indeed, we can even pin-point the location. It is "Wrigley Head", once lying between Salford and Manchester.

The different spelling does not matter because it is well recognised that surnames, based on a common origin, and even in the same district, appear in different forms. Even Shakespeare wrote his name in several ways! You spelled as the fancy took you in the old days!

As it happens "Rigley" is how the people who made their way down to Nottinghamshire preferred to write it. And it certainly is old enough: records dating from 1327 describe a man called "William de Wriggeley".

Even so: what does the unit "Rig-" actually mean? Was it a personal name? Was there once a man called "Rig" or "Wrig" who dwelt in a clearing to which he gave his name? This is doubtful because no first name appears to correspond. Is it in some way related to the Old English word "wrigian" which means "to bend" or "to twist" or "to turn"? This, too, is doubtful since you can't make much of a connection.

Still more tempting is the proposition that it might be a reversed form of the old dialect word "learig". Such was the name given to the final ridge cut after ploughing. It fell across the grass at the edge of all the furrows and was left uncultivated, and, literally, meant "the fallow ridge". Robert Burns refers to such a thing in one of his verses: "I'd meet thee on the lea-rig, My ain kind Dearie".

The clue to the most convincing explanation lies in the fact that the name has early associations with Salford and that place-name means "the Ford amongst the Willows". Of course willow trees are associated with low-lying and damp areas, of which there are plenty in the Salford area - provide the names such as Chat Moss and Moss Side. As it happens, "Wrig" is an extremely old expression which also means "willow".

That word was, in Anglo-Saxon, "willig" and in some areas this corrupted to "werg" and hence to "wrig". An old chronicle dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth I describes how local inhabitants of a certain place used to make their way to meadows and "take boughs of the wrigs to make stakes". Today Wrigley Head seems to have lost its identity and can be traced merely to a street-name in the Manchester area. Significantly it connects with a "Wicken Way" which reinforces the "Willow" association since "wicken" (hence "wicker") is also a variant of the word "willow".

So we can take it that persons bearing the name "Rigley" and any of its variations could trace their origins to a site, now in Greater Manchester, which was once described as being "a low-lying area in which willow-trees grew". It is obvious that some of their ancestors crossed the Pennines into the Peak District, because the local directory contains over fifty entries.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th September 1993.

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