This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 15th November 1993, 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 UNDERWOOD?

This surname has counterparts in names such as "Underhill" and "Undercliff". Since the second units "-wood", "-hill" and "-cliff" are self-explanatory, the point of interest in the names is how the unit "Under-" is used.

In most cases the word is used to indicate a relative position - i.e. that something is on a lower level than something else. It needs some imagination to extend this idea to expressions such as "under way" and "under the weather"! The term is frequently found in place-names and this immediately confirms the fact that "Underwood" is a location name. No doubt the name is familiar enough in many neighbourhoods but specifically it can be identified with the place of that name near Alfreton, on the A608 from Derby. It is in the vicinity of places such as Newstead Abbey, Beauvale Priory and Selston Common and it is still well-wooded though certainly not as extensively as formerly.

The expression "under" in place-names can sometimes be confusing and probably no more so than in the case of Ashton-under-Lyne. Unless one stops to think, it is rather easy to carry over the word "Lyne" from its true meaning in this context, to that of a river of the same name and which flows, not through Ashton but through Cumberland! Of course, as soon as this fact is taken up, the idea of the place Ashton being "under" a river doesn't make sense. It becomes still more of a puzzle when one remembers that the river on which Ashton actually stands is called the Tame!

So, if the place is called Ashton-under-Lyne", then just what exactly is it "under"? Well the answer is that "Lyne" is an old word which was used to describe a forest - probably of elm trees and that Ashton stood "beneath" them. Still, you might insist, our ancestors usually preferred to occupy open-spaces and not to huddle together under trees. So that means we have to find another meaning for "under". Fortunately that isn't too difficult. We all know the Christmas Carol about "Good King Wenceslas". The King asks his Page to tell him about a poor man and "where and what his dwelling". The Page informs him that the man lives "a good league hence, underneath the mountain". There is no evidence that the "poor man" was a troglodyte, and so the word "under" can be construed to mean "close to" or "sheltered by". It is a turn of phrase frequently found in horticultural literature: gardeners are advised to grow certain plants "under a wall" - meaning, "in the shelter of such a wall". In 1720 the author of "Robinson Crusoe" described a ship dropping anchor "under an island" and this can only mean that the vessel was sheltering there.

So in the case of the name "Underwood" we can suggest that the ancestors of those who bear this name were once identified as "the people who lived close by the wood" or who "dwelt in the shelter of the forest". As a surname it is certainly widespread but the directories indicate that it is concentrated, as we might expect, in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and, surprisingly, also in Ayrshire.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 15th November 1993.

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