This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 7th April 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.”


"Is Wetherspoon really a surname? If so, where does it come from and what does it mean?" This question, no doubt prompted by the presence of the Tavern and Eating-House in Matlock and elsewhere, has been asked of this paper frequently. To the first question, the answer is that it is almost certainly of Scottish origin. Then, as to its meaning? Unfortunately no conclusive interpretation has yet been advanced. Taken separately, the units "Wether-" and "-spoon" can be adequately explained, but together, they are confusing.

The second unit (variously spelled according to region) is from archaic vernacular words such as "spong" or "spang". In a dictionary of the dialects of East Anglia and the Midlands (1800) they are defined as "a narrow strip of land." Even earlier (1610) a survey of the English counties refers to a site, saying, "The West part of it adjoyneth to the East Side by a very small spange". Corresponding expressions which describe the shape of a piece of land, such as "gore" and "pan-handle" are still employed by surveyors - especially in the States.

How these dialectic words such as "spon" evolved is uncertain. They have their counterparts in [Ed: sic] much imagination to see the parallelism between a bridge "spanning" a crossing and a narrow strip of land providing a sort of bridge between two sites.

The concept of "narrowness" is further exemplified in the use of the word "spon" to describe those long, narrow lengths of wood which were driven between the staves and the hoops of casks to tighten them up and to reduce leakage.

Locally, the name "Spondon" has some relevance. This is an old name, being mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). It is significant that it was then pronounced "Spoondun" (note: as in the surname "Wetherspoon"). It means "the place where shingles for roofs were obtained". The reference implies the presence of oak woods and from which the long, narrow strips of wood were manufactured and used as housetiles (shingles).

The first unit of the name, "Wether-", generally signifies "a ram" and is well-represented in most Teutonic languages. It can be traced back some 4000 years. It has a long linguistic history, making its way also into Latin where it emerged as "vitulus" - that then being a general term for the young of most farm animals. In our language it first appears in 890 AD. There a chronicler describes how "a wether's fleece" could be utilised to provide saddles for horsemen. From this and other contexts it seems that "wether" might have been a loose description for sheep.

How exactly "a long, narrow field" engages with "sheep" as in the case of the surname under discussion, is something that relies on inspired guesswork. It is almost certain that the surname began as a location name and was adopted or conferred upon persons who lived in the vicinity or who worked there. It would be helpful if such a site could still be identified but no such name is listed in the Gazetteer. The nearest approximation is "Wedderburn". This is now only a neighbourhood name in Berwick. It is held to describe a place where sheep were washed - the "burn" or "water-course?" used for the purpose being the Langon.

The site now appears to be unidentifiable. It is suggested that the place pitched upon for the sheep-washing was named informally and when (as seems the case) the practice was discontinued, all memories faded.

Similarly, if a location chosen for whatever purpose be implied in "Wetherspoon", the name would also be highly localised, and, following the cessation of the use, (whatever it might have been), the exact location was forgotten, and, except for the surname, associations vanished and were forgotten.

A similar fate seems to have befallen the "lost" settlement called Weatherwick - near Wirksworth. It is merely suggested - to be put no higher - that the "wether-spon" was given over to the sorting out of the creatures. This procedure was considered to be of sufficient importance to impel a writer on rural affairs (1527) to urge that "it is best to sever them in dyvers sortes, the lambes by themself, wedder and the ramms by themself".

Yet another writer states (1589): "In some places they do point (allocate) the wethers, the yeaws (ewes) and the lambes, ech (each) by themselfs".

A possible application for the "wetherspon" could be constructed upon the foregoing recommendations, to the effect that the configuration of the land lent itself admirably to the purpose of separating out and keeping the different beasts apart. Such convenient topography might not be repeated elsewhere, which could account for the fact that the name was not conferred in any other place.

The most that can be surmised is that the site might have been in Renfrew. The only authority for this assertion is that a certain Roger Wythirspon is described as a witness to a legal document, but the only place even hinted at is Renfrew and no date is available other than the late 13th century. Very surprising is it to encounter, at what seems to be much the same time, Adam Wytherpyn of Norfolk (1273) and John Wythspone, Yorkshire (1379). The occurrence of an admittedly Scottish surname several hundred miles to the south would furnish an interesting study in the apparent movement of agricultural workers.

The most celebrated bearer of the name is John Witherspoon (1723-1794). He was born in Scotland, but crossed the Atlantic (1763), strongly identified himself with colonists' struggle to free themselves of English rule, signed the Declaration of Independence (1776) and became President of (now) Princeton University. He wrote learnedly on many subjects and coined the word "Americanism" (1781).

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 7th April 2003.

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