This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 18th November 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 SMITH?

Some families insist that their name is not "Smith" at all but "Smythe". Suprisingly enough this might very well be the case and they are not "trying it on". Their rendering of the name could be derived from an Old English word "smeeth" which is descriptive of any open level ground. It is related to the same root-word which now appears as "smooth", In early literature "smeeth" occurs more frequently than "smooth" but after 1400 it was displaced and now survives only in dialect - particularly in East Anglia. Hence those who bear this surname can lay claim to ancestors who occupied a dwelling on such a site.

Otherwise the name is occupational and is descriptive of a person whose forebears were "Smiths". Here it is desirable to stress that originally the term extended to almost every craft and not merely to that now identified with the traditional blacksmith. Our ancestors had a more limited range of materials for manufacturing than had later generations and referred to any person who worked with any hard material including wood, as a "smith". Hence in the Old English version of the Gospels dating from about 950, the expression "Is this not the Carpenter's son?" (Matthew: 13, v.55) is rendered as "Thys is smithes sunu?" The Romans also had a similar concept and for which they used the word "faber". This can throw up problems of ambiguity in old records where a person's surname is given as "Smith" followed by his occupation as "faber".

Today "hand" is frequently used to describe a worker and, where necessary, it is qualified according to his job: "deck-hand", "garage hand", etc. In much the same way "smith" was particularised, either by the material he worked or his product. Thus a worker in "black metal" (i.e. iron) was called a "blacksmith"; if in lead, as "greensmith"; a "whitesmith" (tin). Later expressions such as "lock-smith", "gun-smith" and "shoe-smith", are self-explanatory. Since iron is more widely distributed than other metals, the number of Blacksmiths exceeded other "smiths" and since the trade was far less localised, it followed eventually that the word "smith" tended to be applied to craftsmen who were strictly "blacksmiths". Still such a development is not exceptional. Note how in modern times the term "chemist" has centred on the profession more correctly described as "pharmaceutical chemistry".

In the Middle Ages, the blacksmith's forge was the focus of every community. It was resorted to, not only for shoeing horses but also to make and repair a whole range of items of domestic and agricultural use and for defence. Our Mediaeval Ancestors would have taken very much to heart the strategy described in Samuel I, ch. XIII v. 19!

The traditional picture of the smith striking his anvil with mighty blows has also contributed to obscure the fact that it means "craftsman". One has only to remember that "smiths" were understood to be workers in material which could not be "hammered out" - wood, for example.

The numerous counterparts of the word in all Northern and Central European languages (Norway: smed. Germany: schmitt. Poland: szymt) point to a common origin, now lost. It probably lay somewhere in the Himalayas and might have influenced the Greek word "sminye" meaning a hoe - i.e. the tool with which the soil is "crafted". (?)

Although blacksmiths undertook the manufacture and repair of many more things than horse-shoes, it is with this speciality that they are strongly identified. As early as 1296 this side of their business had already led to the evolution of an occupational surname: "William le Shosmith, ye sosmyth" (Sussex). The Normans had their own word for a specialist in the shoeing of horses. It was based on the Latin word "ferrum" (iron) and now appears as "farrier". (The history of this word and the surnames it generated must be reserved for another article). Because the Normans thought themselves to be top-dogs, and sought to restrict the English peasants from travelling and owning horses, they were more involved with "shoe-smiths" and preferred using their own word "ferreor". This too will have gone a long way to tying in "smith" with "farriery". Even by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the terms were interchangeable. In 1562 Parliament passed an Act regulating "Ye Craftes of Smithes and Farriers".

So the conclusion is that families called "Smith" can lay claim to ancestors who were craftsmen but not exclusively in the shoeing of horses.

Restrictions of space preclude an exhaustive list of all the variations in the spelling of the name or of its derivatives. Still mention may be made of the fact that since "Smiths" were important figures in early settlements, their trade tended to run in families: hence "Smithson" and "Smisson". They would also have been noted employers and so we find "Smither", "Smithyman" and "Smithee".

Until the invasion of motor-vehicles, the village smithy was a vital unit in the days of horse-back travel and horse-drawn carriages. Probably the most famous one in the U.K. is at Gretna Green, just over the Border, north of Carlisle. It was once the goal of countless run-away marriages. Advantage was taken that it was once the rule in Scotland that a valid marriage could be effected simply by the two parties decaring their wishes before witnesses. In this case, since the black-smith's was the first convenient stopping-place over the Border, he and his assitants were readlily available to testify to the arrangements.

Contrary to a popular belief, the celebrated "village smithy" standing beneath "the spreading chestnut tree" is not within these Islands, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sadly the road traffic lobby pretended the "spreading chestnut treet" was a hazard and contrived its removal some years ago!

It is a further reflection upon the fact that nothing in this world is permanent or abiding, and the presence of a Black-smiths in every settlement which was thought indispensable throughout Western Europe for at least a milennium, vanished within 20 years following the introduction of motor transport. Every village Black-smith converted his forge into the local garage and Service Station. Still the "Smith" lives on under a surname which is certainly the oldest on record. Ecceard Smith of Durham dated 975 at one end of the Kingdom and Aelfworde yo Smith, Somerset at the other.

The name easily heads the list of the most frequently encountered surnames throughout the Enlish-speaking world. In these Islands it proliferates in Scotland and the North, through the Midlands, East Anglia and the South-East. The greatest concentration is around Aberdeen. It is not much in evidence in Wales because occupational names did not form part of the Welsh culture. The people preferred forms based on personal names derived from historical sources and the Bible.

It seems that our Asiatic friends share a similar tradition. The equivalent term was "Patel" which thus accounts for the prevalence of that name in the Indian community. It is also reflected in the first unit of the Romany name, "Petulengro", which the Gypsies generally translate also as "Smith". It is very common among Gypsies. Older readers will recall the colourful "Gipsey Smith" the "Queen of the Kentish Gypsies". According to the local Directories there are over 4000 entries under "Smith".

Of the personalities called Smith, mention should be made of Adam Smith (1723-1790) the Monetary Theroist, Joseph Smith (1805-1844) who founded the Mormon Church, Madeleine Smith (c1837-c1930) the celebrated defendant in a trial for poisoning her lover and its controversial "non-proven" verdict and W. H. Smith (1825-1891) the founder of the newsagency and book selling enterprize. Here in Bakewell many of us identify the name with our friends who supply us with daily papers and magazines and stationery from their place in Portland Square.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th November 1996.

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