This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 12th August 2002, 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.”


When the monks of Lindisfame were translating the Gospels from Latin into Old English (c. 950) they had to stop and think how best to interpret the 3rd verse of the 6th chapter of St. Matthew: Nonne hic est faber, filius Mariae? (Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?). The reason for their hesitation was that "faber" had no precise meaning. The Latin dictionary (Cassell) states that "faber" refers to "any worker, especially of any hard material".

But couldn't the translators just have introduced the word "carpenter" into their text? No, they couldn't because the word didn't exist. Over 400 years were to elapse before that word and meaning appeared in English (1303). There was certainly the Latin expression "carpentarius" which seems to have insinuated its way into old Celtic as "carpentom" but its meaning was restricted to a "maker of carts" - hence the "car-" in "carpenter"!

The holy men of Lindisfame did their best however and their rendering in modern spelling came out as: Surely this is the Smith (or the Wright) who is the son of Mary?

Their use of the alternatives arose from the fact that during the middle ages just about the only materials which were generally handled were iron and wood. Iron was treated by being smitten with blows from a hammer and this act of "smiting" passed into the word "smith". In the case of wood, it was subject to being "worked". However the old English for "worked" was "wrought" and although it remains in acceptable usage, the alternative form (worked) has largely superseded it. While "wrought" can be traced as far back as 1250, "worked" doesn't appear until 1470. And so in the same way as "smith" . followed upon "smite", so also did "wright" remain alive in the language for a very long while and is not even now wholly extinct.

The differing skills of the men who were engaged in "smiting" metal were eventually distinguished, as such words as arrowsmith, goldsmith, sixsmith etc. can testify. And in a similar way individual woodworkers had their particular vocations identified through terms such as cartwright, plowright, wheelwright etc. There are currently listed about 20 trades incorporating the unit "-wright" of which the oldest is shipwright (998 A.D.).

When moving over into their involvement with surnames it is particularly interesting to note that many such occupational surnames were being recorded as much as 200 years before finding their way into general literature. This is very much the case with "wainwright" which is first mentioned in a sort of Latin/English dictionary compiled around 1000 A.D. as "carpentarius-waenwyrht". Then apparently not again until 1855 in a "comprehensive dictionary of the English language". In fact one eminent authority on the history of our language states that the word is not found at all in middle English (ie. 1100-1400) "but its existence is attested by the surname".

As the name indicates, the work of a "wainwright" was to make that type of vehicle which our medieval ancestors called "wains". Although there was some degree of interchange in nomenclature, broadly speaking the distinguishing characteristic of a wain was that it ran on only two wheels, whereas a wagon moved on four. Although "wain" looks like a cut-down version of "wagon" and although they both share a common source, they developed separately. The wain was the most common form of wheeled transport in our island and it is mentioned as far back as 725 A.D. whereas "wagon" first gets a mention in 1542. (It was, however more widely favoured on the continent). Being mounted on only two wheels the wain was more readily managed over difficult roads and especially so in the Highlands. It had the additional advantage of being easily controlled by one person.

The first bearer of the surname to be recorded is Ailmar Wanwrecthe of Horncastle (Essex) in 1237. Next is Adam the Waynwrithe of Wakefield (West Riding) in 1285, then Alan le Waynwright in Lancashire (1332). It is a curious coincidence that the two most celebrated persons of the name were both convicted of murder by poison! They were Thomas Wainewright (1794-1852) and Henry Wainwright (??-1875).

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 12th August 2002.

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