This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th March 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 THATCHER?
Variations: Thacker, Theker, Thaxter etc.

Contrary to a popular misconception "thatch" does not refer to the material going into the making of a roof but to the roof itself. The expression "thatched roof" was concocted by a Victorian novelist in 1865 and has stuck ever since. The expression is as logical as "a three-sided triangle". "Thatch" literally means "a roof' or "a covering". Hence old writings make mention of buildings being "thatched with lead" (1552) or "thatched in stone" (1501).

The word was a late arrival in English, dating only from 1398. Previously "thack" or "tack" prevailed. These date from well before the 9th century. They combine two Anglo-Saxon words "thaccian" meaning "to cover" and "theccian" which means "the cover". The two ran together as one word ending up as "thack" or "thatch". There were a fair number of variations in the spelling. In 1387 it was directed that the "Roofe of St. Giles (Edinburgh) be thekit with Stane" and that later (1552) there is an account of an English church that was "to be tacked with Leade". Even as late as 1800 a builders' manual described what would now be called "slates" as "tack-tiles". These variations in spelling are reflected in the numerous forms taken by related surnames. The earliest is "Thacker". Since the record is for a "Walter the son of Theker" and is dated 1199 the name can be assumed to have been known at least one generation beforehand. It is located in Staffordshire.

The first mention of "Thatcher" is to be found in the tax returns for Derby. It is dated 1328 and refers to a "John Thatcher". In Scotland, however, the name seems only to have settled on variations of "Thacker". Hence "Thomas Theker" (Aberdeen: 1411) and "Cuthbert Theker" (Edinburgh: 1426).

Since shelter is so fundamental to the human condition, it is not surprising that the word to describe it occurs very early in the development of language. In this case the word was "sthagati" and it belongs to Sanskrit, spoken in Central Asia over 4000 years ago. Across the centuries some of the people who spoke it migrated westwards. Those who settled by the Mediterranean laid the foundations of Greek and Latin, while others journeyed north and developed the Celtic and Nordic languages. In Greek the word "sthagati" modified into "tegos" and in Latin as "tectum" which means "a house", "a roof" or "a shelter".

Note: it had an off-shoot in Latin as "tegula" which gives "tile" in English and "toile" in French. In German it emerges as "dach" and in Gaelic it ended up as "tigh" (although in place-names it is reduced to "Tay" hence "Taynuilt" (Argyll) meaning "house near the streams". There are no Irish equivalents apparently.

Lists of the principal occupational surnames all begin with "Smith" and "Taylor", and continue in order of frequency. As might be expected "Tyler" and "Slater" are quite prominent, yet, considering the extreme antiquity of the craft, neither "Thacker" nor "Thatcher" is included.

Why this should be so is not certain but it is suggested (no more) that a contributory factor might have been status. In the towns the use of straw, reeds and other traditional materials was prohibited on account of their susceptibility to fire as in London for 1212. In their place tiles were recommended and this led to the expansion of the use of "tile-thaks" and the mobilising of "Tile-Thackers" or "Tyle-Thatchers". Being a concentrated work-force they resisted attempts by authority to keep them down as "mere labourers" and were permitted to establish "The Goode Misterie of Tilers" in 1467. To enhance their separate status even more they dropped the qualifying unit "thack" and with such success that a Statute of 1562 refers to the "Occupation of a Tyler".

Such considerations did not obtain in rural areas. Scattered settlements rendered great conflagrations less of a hazard and since traditional materials were ready to hand and certainly less expensive than tiles which might have to be transported from a distance, the old ways and old names continued. More significantly only small bodies of workmen - one family perhaps - met the needs of quite an extensive neighbourhood. But even in country districts roofs of other materials were being introduced - stone slates particularly in the north - and so traditional "thatching" declined, and with it, so it is submitted, the surnames.

So it remains simply to observe that families bearing the name "Thatcher" or any of its variations are not necessarily the descendants of one who worked in straw roofing, etc. but in a variety, from stone, lead, etc. It is significant that the designation "roofer" dates only from 1855. The association of "thatching" with East Anglia is more apparant than real. It arises from the fact that among the best materials for thatching is the variety of reed called "Norfolk Reed" which is still harvested in that county. Very possibly women participated in its gathering and hence a feminine form of the surname "Thaxter" (c.f. Baxter) is special to Norfolk. Otherwise the name is not noticably concentrated anywhere. There are about a dozen entries in the local directory. Certainly no personality under any variation of the name is listed in the Standard Biographies.

The best-known "Thatcher" is to be found in fiction and is the delightful "Becky Thatcher" who, with her brother "Jeff" are the companions of "Tom Sawyer" the hero of Mark Twain's American juvenile-classic. Older readers may recall the actor Torin Thatcher (1904-1981). He was endowed with a naturally sinister appearance which caused him to be often cast as the villain in may films (The Crimson Pirate: 1953). Locally the name is known to many of us on account of Nick Thatcher who makes a welcome appearance on our TV screens when presenting items for "East Midlands Today" - the BBC regional news programme.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th March 2001.

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