This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 11th September 2000, 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.”


Curiously enough, although this name has long been special to Staffordshire, it originated in Lancashire. As "Tonacliffe" it is a neighbourhood name of a settlement which is to be found almost on the boundary separating Lancashire from Greater Manchester. Travelling north from Rochdale along the A671 (Rochdale-Burnley) one first crosses the county borders at Middle Healey, next through Broadley and then passes by Tonacliffe and on to Whitworth. The geography of the district is important towards some understanding of the name which was originally "Tunwaleclif'. The feature which provides the "cliff' is the high land either side of the main highway (A671).

At Tonacliffe it presents a narrow passage in which, as well as the highway, there is the track of the former Lancashire and Yorkshire railway, the minor service road for Tonacliffe as well as the course of the river Spodden. The sides may not be absolutely precipitous but they rise to an average of 1000 feet, with a spot height of 1050 at "Rushy Hill".

Communications over the top must have been difficult because even today the older routes around the lower levels are still called "Rakes". This is an old expression which in this context describes narrow paths through a gap. It may be significant that because passages to the summit were limited, one possible route was specifically described as being accessible by farm vehicles and still bears the name "Waingap Hill".

Furthermore it is interesting to note that near the summit, land appears to rise suddenly to form a spur, on either side of which the tracks noticeably separate. In Old English such a division was called a "tang" and this is still preserved as "Tonacliffe Tang". The route now shown running over the top appears to be a restricted private road mostly serving a golf course (Lobden Golf Course) and a club house as well as a few farms. It is, no doubt, of modern construction.

The earliest reference to the place is dated 1246 and is to be found in the Assize Rolls for Lancaster. It takes the form "Tunwaleclif". The advantages of the site for protection and surveillance are obvious and encouraged the establishment of the settlement.

This accounts for the unit "Ton-" in the place-name. It is identical with the Old English word "tun" which was at first applicable to any enclosed space attached to a dwelling. It corresponds with the modem German "zaun" meaning "fence". The expression gradually carried over to mean a "farmstead" then a cluster of dwellings and nowadays provides the word "town". The constricted nature of the site of "Tonacliffe" indicates that it never advanced beyond being a small group of habitations around a farmstead. The interpolated unit "wale" in the former spelling of the name would now take the form "-well-" and the meaning is obvious: a spring or a supply of water which would have been vital to the survival of the early community. Why and when it was dropped from the spelling of the place-name is not known.

It may have been that the original spring mysteriously dried up. Otherwise a possible site could be a small pond lying alongside two public footpaths. It is of sufficient height above the valley to have provided a convenient focus for the original settlement, where security from surprise attack was desirable.

The foregoing analysis is based on a study of the largest scale map available to the "Peak Advertiser" (O.S. 3½ to the mile) and it is willingly conceded that it is only inspired speculation and that local observers may have a different interpretation.

As a surname it does not appear to have been much adopted before the 1600's. All the earlier records give it as a place of origin. The reference dated 1246, just mentioned, refers to a "Henry (who comes from) Tunwaleclif" and some 300 years pass before it is heard of again, and in similar terms. It is dated 1545 (Chester) and speaks of a "Husbandman" who is called "James Scholfield of Tunnicliffe, (which is near) Rochdale".

This very likely illustrates the situation where a local surname was based on the place name but it had become so insignificant as hardly to be known much beyond the vicinity. If a man emigrated to a neighbouring settlement the name "Tunwaleclif" could be meaningless and his new neighbours would soon find another name for him - usually derived from his occupation or a nickname. So it is not altogether surprising that the surname first appears only in 1724 with regard to a John Tunnecliff. There was a mayor of Macclesfield called Joseph Tunnicliff in 1818.

The most celebrated bearer of the name was the artist Charles Tunnicliffe (1901-1979). He came from Langley in Cheshire. The illustrations for the books on Derbyshire by Alison Uttley were drawn by him and admirably catch the spirit of her writings.

There are several variations on the spelling, most noticeably in the form "Dunncliffe" and "Dunnicliff etc. Otherwise, in the local directory there are about 50 entries. Those of us who live in Matlock and patronise the offices of the Derbyshire Building Society in Crown Square will know our own Miss Julie Tunnicliffe who is one of the very helpful ladies there.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 11th September 2000.

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