This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th July 2003, 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.”


These two surnames are so closely related that they may be considered together. Tarleton is sometimes spelled Tarlton which, as it will be shown, is a significant variation. All are derived from Place-Names. The unit common to all is '-ton'. This is old English and describes a fenced enclosure. In the case of places called 'Thornton', the reference is, of course, to the Hawthorn tree. It is an old English word and may be interpreted as 'the hedge of thorns'. The former word for 'hedge' was 'haw' derived from an even earlier word 'haga'. It appears still in a few place-names: The Hague (Renishaw) and The Haugh (Chinley).

It is common knowledge that the tree was the object of many superstitious traditions and was treated with veneration. It may well be that the presence of several Hawthorn trees influenced the choice of a site for a settlement, but these matters are best left to local historians. The Gazeteer lists 14 places called simply 'Thornton' and a further 30 carry some qualification, such as 'Thornton Clevelys' (Lancashire). The distribution of the name is distinctly towards the north: 12 sites in Yorkshire, 5 in Scotland, 2 each in Northumberland, Lancashire and Cheshire, but only single instances in Buckingham, Leicester, Warwick, Pembroke and Surrey. Hence, unless families have established connections in the northern counties, identifying their place of origin could be difficult.

Not surprisingly the first recorded surname is from Yorkshire and refers to a Beatrice de Thornton and dates from 1212. In Scotland, 1204, we encounter a Laurence de Thornton of Mearns (Renfrew). The site may be the same as an adjacent Thomliebank but...(?) Following the prohibition against the Irish for using native names by the English authorities the name 'Thornton' was adopted in place of Drennan (Blackthorn) and MacSkehan (Briar).

The name has crossed the Atlantic and there are at least 14 places called Thornton in the United States. Possibly the frequency of the place name rendered it too vague as a form of identification for inhabitants moving away to other communities and it is less used as a surname than might be thought. The Standard Biography lists only 20 names and there are just about 60 entries in the local directory.

Turning now to the other names: those people called 'Tarleton' can trace their ancestry to Lancashire; those, as 'Tarlton' originate in Gloucester. (Note: sometimes both spellings are alike (Tarleton) but the best authorities make the distinction, which is better, because the variation is meaningful). The name is not in any way connected with the dress material called 'tarlatan'. That is believed to be of Indian origin.

The prefix 'Tarl-" in the Gloucester site is derived from the same root as 'Thorn-'. It is surmised that there could once have been a distinctive clump of Hawthorns at the original site - it may be significant that it stands on an old Roman road and is the focus of several other routes. It may have been a noted landmark between Cirencester and Tetbury or perhaps a stopping-place (?). The suggestion that there was a well marked group of Hawthorns probably accounts for the old plural form in the place-name 'Thomen-'. In the Domesday Book it appears as 'Torentone'. The surveyors spoke French and the sound 'the' was unfamiliar to them and they simple replaced it with 'T'. The same substitution occurs in the naming of the Lancashire site (Tarleton).

Furthermore the Gloucester name has undergone another modification. Linguists call it 'dissimilation'. A group of sounds separates itself from others in the same word and takes on a different sound. It most often occurs when words move from one language into another (eg. Latin 'peregrinus' - pelegrinus - pilgrim). Here 'Torentone' became 'Toreltone' then 'Tarlton' and as such is first recorded in 1204 in the person of Maien de Torleton.

The spelling of the surname seems eventually to have settled on Tarlton, of which the most celebrated bearer was Richard Tarlton (?-1588). He was an actor and musician - a 'celebrity' for Tudor audiences. His ability to throw off extempore verses on subjects suggested by his listeners gave rise to the term 'to tarltonise' (c.f to draperise). Evidence is scanty but it can be inferred that his ancestry lay here.

The alternative spelling, 'Tarleton' relates to a place in Lancashire. It is close to the Preston-Southport highway (A568). It means 'the settlement of Thorald'. This was a personal name. It is Scandinavian, where the influence of the invaders is still apparent in the region. It may be interpreted as 'He who derives his strength from Thor'. Who this particular chieftain was is no longer certain, but his name appears elsewhere as in the adjacent 'Tarlsclough'.

The area is very marshy, for which the local dialect word is 'moss'. It frequently appears in place-names, including 'Tarleton Moss'. This suggests that the original site of the '-ton' could have been chosen because it was on a portion of firm ground amidst the marshes, providing a place of refuge from attack.

Gilbert de Tarleton is the first mention of the name in the Tax Records for 1332. The family of Tarleton is well-known in the area. One branch from Liverpool was granted a settlement in Ireland during the reign of James I and their descendants are still to be traced, particularly in Offaly.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th July 2003.

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