This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th May 2002, 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 SLATER?

This is an occupational name and in most cases will have referred to a man who made roofs. The caveat "most cases" indicates that families with Scots connections and especially if they retain the old spelling "Sclater" may derive their name from Kirkwall, Orphir or Sanday (Orkneys). There, the use of nicknames prevailed and in this case would have been conferred upon a member of the community who was thought to be sly or cunning. It was derived from the Old Norse "slottigr" and the earliest example dates from 1492 in the person of Adam Sclater of Orkney.

The name is now usually spelled "Slater" but "Sclater" is not infrequent in the north of England and in Scotland where the spelling "Sklater" was still in use in 1823.

There are about 250 entries in the local directory under "Slater" but other forms such as Slater [Ed: Slatter?], Sclater and Slate are less represented. Note: "Slatemaker" is not necessarily a related name.

The term "slate" is now so firmly associated with the familiar grey stones on roofs - geologists would describe it as a form of argillacious sedimentary rock - that it might come as a surprise to many readers that it did not acquire this meaning until about 1650. This was some 400 years after the occupational name of Slater itself had been first recorded. Until then the word had been used to describe any thin rectangular piece of stone which was used primarily for use in roofs.

The origins of the word are not certain. The earliest forms of spelling are variations on "sclat" an "sklatt" and it is no difficult to relate them to the old French "esclat". This meant "to splinter" and it emerges in the modern French "eclat". Beyond this point the trail disappears. The best suggestions indicate that there is a link with a Germanic term "slitan" signifying "to split." The first use of the word occurs in Wyclif's version of St. Luke's Gospel (ch. 5, v. 19 - sick-man lowered through a roof) "slattis" is used.

Evidence that "slate" was not at first confined to that form of roofing now so familiar is provided from the fact that although the quarries in the south-west are recorded as being great centres of production, the stone slates of Collyweston in Northamptonshire were very highly regarded.

Apparently Collyweston stone had the useful quality of being easier to split after having been exposed to frost - a fact which is noted by Roman historians. A similar feature was also taken advantage of among the extracts from Stonesfield (near Woodstock in Oxfordshire). Note: that place-name is not significant in this respect.

In fact the slates from Northampton and Oxford were so regularly in demand that whereas those at Lostwithiel were sold at three shillings and a penny (16p) a thousand in 1385, the same quantity from Collyweston cost 8/- (40p). Another favoured source of supply was from Horsham in Sussex but eventually their use had to be discontinued because they were too heavy for roofs with a wide span.

The actual work involved in extracting the stone and shaping it was deemed to be unskilled and the going rate was, at the most two pence (1p) a day. However, in the case of a Slater, only he could fashion the roof and actually set the slates in their places. His remuneration was considerably more. There is a record of payment made in 1583 to a certain William Browne at twice that figure. Furthermore, while the quarrymen were paid according to the number of slates they produced, the slaters demanded payment according to the square footage they covered. Still, since their work tended to be spasmodic, comparisons in the way they were paid are not entirely valid. Even so the art or craft of slating must have been profitable and worth taking up because in a list of the 50 surnames derived from occupations and in order of frequency, that of a "Slater" stands almost half-way and alongside "Tiler".

Bearing in mind that variations in spelling are not significant and merely reflect regional and dialectical usage, the earliest records are to Thomas le Sclatere (Worcester : 1255), then Thomas Slater (West Riding: 1992). In Scotland we find Henry Sclatur (Aberdeen : 1399). Both the surname and the occupation unite with John Sklaitter, employed as the Slater for the palace and church at Dunkeld in 1514. In Ireland it is recognised as being imported from either Scotland or England during the Cromwellian times and it prevails in Longford and Louth.

Here in Derbyshire there is a local interest in the name by way of Samuel Slater (1768-1835) who originated from Belper. He trained in Sir Richard Arkwright's workshops, then emigrated to the United States in 1789 and re-designed, entirely from memory, machines for making textiles. In American history he is designated as "The Father of American Manufacture."

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th May 2002.

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