This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 12th November 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 SMELT?

A reader in Matlock has approached the "Advertiser" for information on this name.

Although it is not local it prevails in the East Riding, especially around Beverley, some interesting points in the development of surnames are presented which readers might find worthy of note.

While the names of birds and beasts appear in numerous surnames, those of fish rarely do. What often seems to be a fish-based name is a converted form of a similar one e.g. "Salmon" is really "Solomon". Where a fish connection is established it usually relates to trade: eg. "Herring" generally describes one who dealt in that commodity.

This is not surprising. Characteristics of birds and beasts have their counterparts in humans. A beautiful singing voice gives us the surname "Nightingale" and "Lamb" from a gentle disposition. But fish are different, they inhabit an alien environment and present few points of comparison with mankind. A fat indolent person was readily identified with "Chubb" and a man with a hooked nose and pointed chin with "Pike". But of the forty or so fish known to our medieval ancestors barely half a dozen have provided undeniable surnames!

Applying the foregoing to the fish called "Smelt" it is really quite a puzzle to see what characteristics it displayed to justify its comparison with anybody. It is submitted that the most one can say is that it might have been conferred upon a specialist who fished for smelts or who marketed them. There is evidence that night-fishing was involved and that they were not an easy fish to take. But such evidence is slight and derived from a few observations made towards the end of the 19th century where a "smelter" (a word newly coined at the time) was described as spending the night in his boat and commended for his patience.

In passing it may be mentioned that "Smelt" and "Smelter" here has nothing to do with the metal industry. The word smelting is first recorded only in 1531 by which time surnames had been established.

There is also an old saying: "to go westward for smelts". This leads nowhere. The proverb cannot be dated much before 1600 and seems to be nothing more than a sly reference to men on the prowl for ladies who were not quite respectable!

The "Smelt" is now principally employed (so the cookery books say) as a garnish. Otherwise it is not exceptional. It is described as having a delicate tender flesh with a distinctive taste and odour. (note: this odour does not provide the name of the fish, but the origin of "smelt" is uncertain). A housekeeping guide (1835) states: "Smelts when fresh have a fine bright appearance and a fragrant smell like a cucumber". However it is still a puzzle to see how any of these characteristics could provide a nick-name, eventually becoming a surname. There are plenty of alternative ways to describe a pleasing appearance and surely smells emitted by human beings are far from fragrant!

Probably the trade in smelts was a speciality. It was not associated with deep-sea fishing. The creature prefers the brackish upstream waters of tidal rivers of land-locked lakes. Unlike the open sea, where fishing was free, inland waters came under the control of the land-owners alongside and riparian rights were highly regarded. So it might be taken that the catching and trafficking in smelts was somewhat specialised and this reinforces the notion that "Smelt" could be an occupational name for one who dealt in that commodity.

The "Advertiser" is attracted to another explanation, but it is submitted as being no more than inspired guess work. It has already been said that many fish surnames are corruptions of words of similar spelling and here it is a possibility that "smelt" became confused with the word "smolt". It is Old English and signified calmness and peace and was used in Norfolk to describe the settling down of the sea after a storm. An Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospel of St. Matthew dated 950 employes the word in Ch. XVI v.2, and it was still known in Scotland as late as 1837. It seems to have generated the personal name "Smolt" in early English society (eg. Smolt of Dorset in 1035) but as was the case with many of our native names, it went out of use following the Norman Invasion (1066).

However as a surname it survived, usually in the form "Esmelt" or "Esmeld" since the French-speaking invaders had difficulty in pronouncing words beginning with an "s-" and followed by a consonant. Nevertheless the older versions continued and we encounter "John Smolt" in Kent (1318) and another "John" in Sussex for 1418. This suggests that "Smolt" was a name signifying one of a peaceful and placid disposition but that it became confused with "smelt" the name of the fish. Both forms ran side by side: in York, for instance, there was a "John Smolt" (1405) and a "Robert Smelt" for 1415. Sadly, records are scanty and so the matter cannot be resolved with confidence. So families called "Smelt" must decide for themselves whether their name is inherited from an ancestor who had a sunny disposition or who was a fishmonger.

Only one personality is mentioned in the Standard Biographies. it is Leonard Smelt of York (1719-1800). He is well-known to historians of military engineering and was responsible for the construction of the road from Carlisle to Newcastle.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 12th November 2001.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library