This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd July 2001, 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 SMEDLEY?

This is very much a Derbyshire name with about 150 entries in the local directory. Although it has every appearance of being a place-name, there is nowhere listed as such in any gazetteer available to the "Advertiser" Having therefore, to resort to inspired guess-work, it is submitted that the surname is derived from a site just over the border in the West Riding and now called "Smithley" (4 miles s.e. of Barnsley).

The name is made up from two units: "Smith" and "Ley". The second is the word "Leah" which can be widely interpreted as "forest", "clearing", "pasture-land" or "meadow". It is submitted that in the case of "Smithley" reference is made to the low-lying land through which the minor river called the Dove wanders. (It is about six miles long and joins the Dearne at Darfield.) The original appearance of the district is heavily obscured under later development by the way of mineral workings.

As a starter it should be noted that the interchange of "th" with "d" is common in language development. Note the German "Bad" and "der" with the English equivalents of "bath" and "the". It is quite a feature in children's talk, especially in Liverpool vernacular.

It is very tempting to take it that "Smithley" referred to iron-workers and their forges. In North Country dialect, "Smiddy" is often used. Hence "Smiddy-Leah" presents attractive possibilities and so the transition both to "Smedley" and "Smithley" is appealing. Persuasive evidence can be found in relation to "Smishy" (sometimes called "Smithsby") here in Derbyshire - 3 miles east of Swadlincote. In Domesday (1086) it appears as "Smidsby" which is not far removed from "Smidsley" and thence to "Smedley". However it is the opinion of the "Advertiser" that the name is based upon "Smeede" which is an alternative to "Smeeth" and signifies "level" or "smooth". It is interesting to note that in Old English the form "Smeethe" preceded and prevailed over the word "Smooth" until about the year 1400. There is a place in Lancashire incorporating the unit "Smith" and which originally appeared as "Smed". It is now a neighbourhood name in Liverpool and is known as "Smithdown". In the Domesday Book (1086) it is spelled as "Esmedune" and later, in the Taxation Lists (1185) as "Smededon". This can be interpreted as the "Smooth hill" or "dun."

The surrounding terrain supports this explanation. Most of the surrounding area is low-lying but the main road, now called "Smithdown Road" rises steadily over a mile, then reaching the vicinity of a place called "Edge Hill" descends perceptibly towards the city centre.

Another significant point is that "smeeth" is a dialect word which describes a level. In a Latin dictionary (1440) the word "planities" (i.e. a level surface on a plain) is set alongside "smeeth". Even as late as 1825 a guide book to East Anglia states that "smeeth" is an open level of considerable extent.

All this emphasis upon "smoothness" and "level land" and the benefits it conferred in facilitating communication is confirmed by referring to the features surrounding "Smithley". It is an extremely small settlement - so small in fact, that it might have been merely a neighbourhood name with few habitations. Today it stands alongside the Sheffield-Barnsley railway line and about 1½ miles from Wombwell. The surrounding land is open and is traversed only by a minor road. While the north-south route seems straightforward, east-west travel is noticeably restricted. When the mineral railway tracks were constructed an elaborate succession of embankments and cuttings had to be constructed to make their way over the land. The presence of small ponds alongside suggests regular flooding and there are indications of marsh-land.

So taking all in all it could very well have been that communications, especially between Wombwell and Barnsley followed what was possibly the only convenient route from the fact that there is another settlement about ¾ mile beyond Smithley called "Swaithe". This is a very old word which means "path" or "way". It can be found as early as 850 and its application to the "path" cut by a scythe does not appear until some six centuries later.

There are very few records of the surname "Smedley". This might arise from the fact that the place or origin was so very small that it was hardly known much beyond the immediate neighborhood and so was not widely resorted to as the basis of a surname. In fact the only record occurs in the Poll Tax lists for Yorkshire and only as late as 1379. It is to a "Willelmus de Smythlay." The name seems to be concentrated in Derbyshire, the West Riding, Lancashire, Nottingham and North Wales. A highly probable cause is that the local activity centred on mining and that there was much emigration from there to the mining organisations in the adjacent regions. No doubt such emigrants could have been identified as being from "Smedley" but that is something individual families should sort out for themselves.

The name does not seem to have made its way either to Scotland or Ireland except as a conscious import. An Irish example is Jonathan Smedley (1689-1729) a clergyman who made something of a stir in the literary circles of Dublin. Francis Smedley (1818-1864) came from a family settled in North Wales, (Flintshire). His novel about the school-boy, "Frank Fairlegh" (1850) was once tremendously. admired. The name is of course well-known here in Matlock on account of John Smedley, a native of Lea, a village about 3 miles beyond the town. He established the great Smedley's Hydro in 1853 and built the pretentious Riber Castle which remains a well-known landmark.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd July 2001.

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