This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 22nd December 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 SLACK?

This is either a location-name ("He who lives in the valley") or a nick-name ("Good-for-nothing"). In the case of the former, it is derived from the Old Norse work "slakki" which describes a shallow depression. The special difficulty which is met when considering this term is that shallow depressions are not very outstanding features in any landscape and are not found in the composition of the names of leading settlements.

On the other hand, however, "Slack" is extremely common as a neighbourhood and, a field-name throughout all those parts of our Island which were subject to the Norse Invasions. Hence; from the Slacks of Cairnbanno, Aberdeen, down to Slackholme End (Lincolnshire) the unit is widely distributed.

Evidence that the expression is highly localised lies in that the most comprehensive General Gazetteer currently available which lists only seven places in England incorporating "Slack" and except for "Slack" (Hebden Bridge - West Riding, none is mapped, - not even Slack in Derbyshire, being merely described as being 3 miles North-West of Matlock.

It is interesting to note that if a line is projected from Slackcote (Lancashire) down to Slackholme End (Lincs.), it corresponds most significantly with the historical boundary called the "Danelaw" as negotiated between King Alfred (who spoke a form of English) and Guthrum the Dane (who spoke a form of Norse).

The distribution of neighbourhood names which incorporate "Slack" across the Northern Counties is probably much the same as it is for our own County. Here the number of field-names is innumerable, but fourteen can quickly be identified: Slack (Mellor and Ashover); Slack Barn (Edale); Slack Edge (Charlesworth); Slackfields Farm (Horsley); Slack Hall (Chapel); Slack House (Chinley); Slack Lane (Thornhill, Brampton, Brailsford); Slack Mere (Wensley); Slackrake Mine (Middleton); Slack Side, as well as Litton Slack. All these places are identified with the Old Norse "Slakki" - those who are interested should visit the sites or consult a large scale map to see how the meaning corresponds with what is on the ground. Only Slack Hall (1285), Slack House (early 1500's) and Slack Lane at Brampton (1663) are mentioned in the Records.

The expression "slack" still survives in dialect and is very old. A Scots writer describes an incident during the time of Robert Bruce (1306-1329) thus: "As they made their way through the slack they were ambushed". Even in 1891, a Guide to Yorkshire referred to the Moorlands as being intersected with "gullies, slacks and hollows".

So it follows that in the countless communities where "the Slack" would have been a readily recognised feature in the district, the people who lived within or about it would quickly have been identified as "The folk who live by the Slack" - and which, in the fullness or time became an established surname. And, just as the term is special to the North, so it follows that the surname is also just as special to us here. There is a decided concentration in the North-West. The Local Directories alone list over 500 "Slacks".

The oldest mention of the name is to Thomas del Slack (Wakefield, 1275) and then to Nicholas Slakk (Whalley, 1331). Now it is very tempting to see in the profile of any shallow depression the same outline as that of a loosely strung line, and from that to assume that the "slack" in the rope and word for the valley related. This is not so. The expression for "loose" is derived from the Teutonic "slaec" which also passed into English as "slack". It has an exact Latin counterpart in "lax" from which words with related ideas have been derived: eg "languid" and "to lag behind".

Like "slakki" it is a very old expression. In 897 King Alfred describes how one of His predecessors warned his Chieftans "ne to slacc on theare mildheartedness" i.e. "Don't let people take advantage of your good-nature". Later (1535) Coverdale translated Ecclesiastes:V-4, as "If thou make a vowe... be not slacke to perfourme it".

King Alfred's notions seem to have been picked up a thousand years later, because in a Handbook on Law and Order in the American Wild West, it is suggested that when the "Sheriff is slack, lynch-law may usefully be invoked"!

Since our ancestors were very fond of conferring nick-names upon members of their communities (and very rude some of the were, too!) it follows that a person who was noted for being lazy or shiftless would attract the name "Slack". In Lincolnshire (1195) mention is made of Gerebod le Slac and in Gloucester (1359) we meet Thomas Slac. As an extremely general rule families who can definitely trace their ancestry to the North may interpret their name, "Slack" or "Slacke" as based on a site, whereas other bearers of the name must reconcile themselves to having had an ancestor known to his neighbours as "That Lay-About"! Indeed, in the year 1587 a John Slake was buried in St. Peter's, Cornhill and against the register of his burial was added "a Rogue".

In passing it may be mentioned that although our area is strongly associated with coal-mining, the word "slack" - i.e. small and loose pieces of coal - is not related. In any case it does not appear with this meaning until 1440 - some time after surnames had become established.

Although it is is widely distributed in the North and is very old, there are no headliners recorded under the name - with the distinguished exception of Dr. Kenneth Slack (1917-1987). He was born in Wallasey, Cheshire and became a noted Preacher and was frequently heard on "Thought for Today" (B.B.C. Radio 4).

Otherwise the name is well-known to us here in Bakewell as Slacks Tours - our local Coach Service, not only on account of the Coach Services but also in the person of our own Sergeant Brian Slack at the Police Station.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 22nd December 1997.

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