This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 10th February 1997, 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 RUMBELOW?

In the well-known comic opera "The Mikado" one of the characters introduces a song: of the sort associated with the sea and sailors. A chorus is provided made up of a hotch-potch of nautical expressions; including "Yeo heave ho and a rumbelow".

The latter is a bit of jargon which has long been part of maritime vocabulary but attempts to give it an intelligible meaning have never succeeded and it is now accepted that it is just a few syllables strung together for no other purpose originally than to provide the means of synchronising the movements of sailors as they plied their oars. In that context it is found as early as the 1300's - "They rowed harde and sung ye rumbeloo".

Because of this well-attested fact, for a long while it was held that the surname "Rumbelow" (with slight spelling variations which are not significant) must be derived from a nick-name conferred upon men who had some association with the sea. Had this really been the case, though, then it would have been reasonable to suppose that the name would have tended to prevail in sea-faring communities, whereas in fact the earliest references occur in the counties of Warwick and Stafford - where you couldn't get much further inland!

Doubts as to the sailor connection began to grow when the circumstances surrounding the first records of the name were looked at more critically. They refer to a Stephen Romylow who was the Constable of Nottingham Castle in 1347. He was living at a time when surnames were evolving and it is highly unlikely that a man of his standing in Mediaeval Society would have been identified through a nick-name which was applicable to a lowly mariner. In fact people of the class from which Constables and Sherrifs were recruited were usually given names which linked them to specific places - possibly their Manorial Estates.

Bearing this in mind, it was then noticed that there are about a dozen references to this Stephen in contemporary documents, and yet only one of them was spelled with a "-b-" (Rombylou, 1351). Not only that, but the references before and after that date refer to him as being "of somewhere". This went a long way to reinforcing the probability that "Rumbelow" was a location name and not a facetious reference to the occupation of a sailor. Otherwise how is it possible to account for references, for example, to "Stephen de Romylo" (1346) and "Stephen de Romylou" (1367)?

By comparison with corresponding names, it was reasonable to deduce that the final unit, "-lo" and "-lou" were derived from the Old English word "hlaw" which signified "mound". This is an element which occurs most frequently in neighbourhood names. Very rarely does it form the basis of a principal settlement - in fact "Lewes" in Sussex is about the only easily recollected example. Hence in the case of smaller individual sites, detailed knowledge of local history and traditions as well as of the general lie of the land is called for to determine whether the "mounds" in question are a prehistoric grave, and old fort or a natural elevation - and indeed, if they are still discernible or have vanished beneath later development.

Fortunately the location of the "low" in Rumbelow can be narrowed down to a district in the vicinity of Birmingham. An earlier version of the names already listed can be produced: it is by reference to a Richard De Thrimelowe, date 1334. The successive changes in spelling of that name can all be followed through and by 1461 it emerges as "Rumbelowe".

Furthermore it is positively identified with a district in Aston described as "The Rumbelow" and also with that former division of the County of Warwick called the "Tremelau Hundred". Reassurance that this transformation is feasible lies in that a similar development occurs with a corresponding place-name near Wednesfield (Staffordshire) It began as Thromelowe in 1339 and ended up as Romylowe by 1420. None of the maps or gazeteers available gives any clue as to the exact whereabouts of these places, so those who are interested are advised to make their own investigations.

Such clues as to the whereabouts of the places and their meanings must be related to the initial units "-Thri-", "-Thro-" and "-Tri-" and it is not difficult to detect that they signify "Three". Exactly how the original expressions from which the names have all been derived were written is not easily reproduced in modern lettering but a fair approximation would be "threom-hlawum". The stages through which this expression, which means "in the vicinity of the three mounds" - from "Thromelowe" in 1339 to "Rombilow" in 1524 - are too involved and cannot easily be discussed within the limited space allowed to this little feature.

So, far from inheriting a fanciful nick-name, persons called "Rumbelow" can lay claim to an ancestor who lived in the Midlands and took his name as signifying: "He who dwells in the neighbourhood of the three hills".

The name is fairly evenly distributed across the United Kingdom and there do not seem to be any areas of especial concentration. For many years it was identified with a High Street trader which has now merged with another concern. It is familiar to many of us in Bakewell on account of our own Michael Rumbelow at the Builder's Yard in Bath Street.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 10th February 1997.

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