This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 30th April 2001, 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 WHEATCROFT??

While the expression "croft" is more familiar today with regard to Scotland the way of life it describes is comparatively recent and in fact the word "crofter" (in its Scots sense) only appears in print as late as 1799. In the case of England, references to "croft" can be found over 100 years before the Norman invasion. Such allusions are generally understood as being descriptive of an enclosed field which had been given over to cultivation - as distinct from grazing. There still prevails a misconception that a dwelling-house was always adjacent to such a field and so "croft" is frequently defined as being "an area of land attached to a habitation". Records however indicate that this restricted meaning obtained largely in the north of England, whereas in the south it could apply to any enclosed land for whatever purpose. The fact that "croft" occurred all over the island indicates that it is part of our early native British language but its precise origins remain obscure. Suggestions that it might be allied to the word "craft" are inconclusive.

In the case of "wheat" a few observations are in order. The word itself is directly related to "white" and it is believed that it could have been given this name on account of its characteristic white flour and which was superior to that obtained from other cereals.

It is, of course, tempting to relate the numerous place-names incorporating "white" with "wheat" and to submit, for example, that "Whitecroft" (as in Lancashire) is an old misrendering of "Wheatcroft". It is true that a few isolated examples of this variation exist as, for example, "Wheatbridge" (Chesterfield) where the old records show that it was originally meant as "White Bridge". Hence, when "wheat" occurs in a place-name it refers to the cereal, whereas "white" has several applications either to open grazing land (c.f. the modern use of "brown-field" and "green-field sites") or to the quality of the soil (i.e. chalky) or to some "white" feature, especially a building in light-coloured materials.

In farming communities fields have been given names since time immemorial. Some refer simply to size, as "The Five Acres", others to the shape, as "The Nook" (i.e. Triangular) and others quite romantic such as "The Heights of Abraham": which incidentally is not inspired by Old Testament mythology but the capture of Quebec in 1759! However, "Wheatcroft" (Derbyshire) is self-explanatory. It first appears as "Watecroft" in a record of the sale of land in 1210 and goes through several permutations and emerges as "Wheatcroft" on Christopher Saxton's map of the county (1577).

Otherwise, in the course of time, as farming methods changed and boundaries expanded, many old fields disappeared but during their productive life their names frequently provided an identity for families who lived in them. So while the original site may have long since vanished, its description still lives on in the form of a surname. Field-names tended to be repeated all over the country and even now some are still identifiable and therefore it follows that a few particular families are able to pin-point their exact place of origin. Nevertheless, caution must be exercised because a similarity of surname with that of a place does not necessarily imply that the bearers all came from the same site. It is, of course, readily conceded that the majority of Derbyshire families called "Wheatcroft" owe their name to the settlement near Crich, but it is hardly likely that everybody bearing that name can trace their ancestry there as well. The first reference to the location occurs in 1210 yet the surname is already found in Yorkshire some years earlier in 1191 (Adam de Wetecroft). It is perfectly possible that a man may have migrated from Wheatcroft into Yorkshire, but it is questionable if the designation "Wheatcroft" would have been very significant among his new neighbours. Generally it was the custom to confer a new and more understandable surname, particularly "Darbyshire" (ie. "the man from Derby") and which is a surname quite frequently found in Yorkshire during this period. However, it should also be taken into account that Wheatcroft seems to have been a fairly important place and that its name might have been carried further afield than we think.

Otherwise one must assume that the surname as found in other parts of the country could be derived from sites which have vanished from the map. Records range from Lincolnshire (Robert de Watecroft, 1272) across to Staffordshire (Adam Whetecroft, 1339) and even down in Devonshire around Cullompton - though this is ambiguous.

Being so closely involved with English agricultural practices of the Middle Ages, the name has no Scots or Irish counterpart. It made its way across the Atlantic and the name appears in several directories for American cities during the 19th century.

In a contemporary English survey (1890) "Wheatcroft" was noted as being special to our county and this is confirmed by referring to the current local directory where some 50 names are listed. The name is well-known here in Matlock on account of Noel Wheatcroft the estate agents. Older readers might still recall the flamboyant features of Harry Wheatcroft the specialist in rose growing. There is only one entry under the name in the standard biographies of recent date, and that is to George Wheatcroft (1905-1987) who came from Derby. His name stands high in the legal profession, both as a practitioner and teacher.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 30th April 2001.

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