This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 29th January 1996, 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 SHERRIF?

A lady - a native of Bakewell - recently asked the "Peak Advertiser" if she could be given any information on "Sherrif , which, as she explained, had been her maiden-name. The spelling here is given in its traditional form and although there are variations such as "Shirrif", "Sherriffe" and "Shireff" they make no difference. It is such an old and widely-distributed name that it would be difficult to recognise "Shirrs" and "Shrives" as belonging to it.

Before embarking upon our usual analysis, it might interest Readers to learn a few selective details concerning surnames. The lady had mentioned that "Sherrif" had been her name before marriage and it may come as a surprise to discover that there is no rule of law which requires a married woman to take her husband's name. It is little more than a convenient social convention. Of course we all know that most wives prefer to be known by their married-name, but let it be recalled that many of them in "Show Biz", for instance, or running businesses on their own account still prefer to be spoken of as "Miss So-and So". If a couple get married or simply cohabit, they can set up house in either of their names or even adopt a new one. The elaborate ritual of "Changing Name by Deed- Poll" - unless there are exceptional circumstances - is really a superfluous expense.

The point is that surnames were conferred originally as a convenient means of identification and if a person gives out that he or she will answer to a certain name and honour contracts, etc. which they have entered into under that name, it doesn't matter how that name has been created.

In passing it should be emphasised that since first-names are officially registered and (sometimes) ceremoniously conferred in Baptism or Confirmation, they can't easily be changed (if at all). They may, of course, be added to, quietly displaced or simply modified (e.g Anthony becomes Tony) and the party concerned acquire a valid identity, but the names, as they appeared first on record, must stand.

In the case of children, it is usual for them to bear their father's name because, by so doing, the father is able to acknowledge them as his. This applies until they are sixteen. After then, they are free to assume any surname they wish. Sadly in divorce situations, there can be problems over names and in the bitterness of the dispute it is forgotten that the kids are the victims of the split-up and not parties to it.

However, returning to the name "Sherrif" it is self-evident that it is an occupational name and would have been originally applicable to the holder of the Office of "Sherrif which is a contracted form of the expression "Shire Reeve"

In the Middle Ages many officials were called "Reeves" although the name tended to settle on those who managed Estates. Other instances may be quoted: a man appointed to maintain flood defences was called a "Dyke Reeve" and one called upon to manage docks and harbours was a "Port Reeve". The name was still in use in the Coal Mining industry and referred to what in other contents would have been the "Foreman".

The origin of the word is lost in the mists of time and its use can be traced to some 500 years before the Norman Conquest (1066). Attempts to connect it with similar Continental expressions such as the Germanic "(land)-grave" cannot be credited.

Selecting a person for the office of "Reeve" was largely left to individual choice, but in cases which involved the keeping of law and order and superintending to collection of taxes, these were carried through by Royal Authority, Such "Reeves" were put in charge of an administrative region called a "Shire".

How it got that name, nobody knows for certain. The most plausible suggestion is that in its original form it was written "skira" or "scira" and so there might just be some link with the Latin word "cura" which can basically be interpreted as "to be taken care of - "counties" as we later got to know them. As far back as the days of Alfred the Great, the expression "shire" was certainly used but it was little more than a haphazard grouping of units whose picturesque names, such as "Hundreds" and "wapentakes" still dwell in folk memory.

William the Conqueror continued the office of "Shire Reeve" and applied it to the new counties he organised. Much of our old system, suitably modified, of course, and updated was carried across the Atlantic to the Americas - so the Sherrif of Nottingham and the Sherrif of Dead Man's Gulch share a common ancestry, including the silver star and "posse"!

In the United States the Sherrif is still an important figure but in England the Office is available only to those "who have sufficient land in the county to answer the Queen" and the duties are largely ceremonial. The Queen chooses them by jabbing a pin in a list.

Its use as a surname could certainly be related back to an ancestor who held the office of Sherrif, but it may also have been a nick- name for a predecessor who liked to throw his weight about. "He isn't the Sherrif but he thinks he is", might have been said of some subordinate in a Sherrif's household and the name stuck. Equally so it could have attached itself to a man who was called upon regularly to take the part of the Sherrif of Nottingham in the old Robin Hood pageants, so popular in the Middle Ages.

Although the name is widespread, there are no concentrations, not even in the Sherwood Region. Only one entry appears in the Standard Biographies. It is Laurence Sherrif (c1500-1567) who founded Rugby School.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th January 1996.

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