This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 3rd October 1994, 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 WHITEHEAD?

There is some evidence to suggest that this name is associated with the Lake District. Immediately one is urged to exclaim: "That's an upland region where you'll find "heads" - that is to say, mountain tops and also the heads of valleys like our own Monsal Head, in fact. So of course it must be a location name!"

That's not at all certain! The current Ordnance Survey list will reveal plenty of "Whitfields", "Whitbys" etc. but there is no "Whitehead" in England. It is possible there might be an isolated patch of modern development to which the name has consciously been given but there is no place of that name which can be said to have acquired it historically. However there are two places of the same name in Ireland, but since English names in that country are often questionable, there is a puzzle.

This Irish connection is worth investigating. The fact that "Whitehead" appears slightly to preponderate in the North-West does indicate that perhaps it was brought over from Ireland that it might (emphasise "might") be an Anglicised version of the Irish name "Canavan". In a former article in this series (Driscoll: 11th April) mention was made of how successive English governments sought to suppress Irish culture and even prohibited the use of Irish surnames. The name "Canavan" was subject, so it may be surmised, to this process and it emerged mistranslated as "Whitehead".

Investigation into this aspect of the name's development is not made any the more easy because even Irish interpretations of the name have gone astray. There is certainly a place called "Whitehead" on the northern edge of Belfast Lough and it takes its name from the distinctive white chalk cliffs which contrast with the black rocks to the north. In Irish it is called "An Cionn Ban" (literally "the white headland") but out of it the name "Canavan" cannot convincingly be created.

Those who are skilled in these matters state that "Canavan" is a rendering of the Gaelic "Ceanndubhan" which unfortunately means "the black headland". So where we go from there is anybody's guess! There is certainly a locality called "Whitehad" on the north Antrim coast, in the vicinity of the Giant's Causeway which is made of black basalt and the two names might have become confused. When Irish names were in the process of being revived in the earlier years of the present century the old name "Ceanndubhan" was confused with "An Cionn Ban" and misapplied to the "Black Headland"!

The foregoing account illustrates some of the problems in researching surnames. Even where only the English language is involved there can be pit-falls. Not every location-name including the unit "white" can be linked with that colour. For example, in our own county, there is Whittington, which is less likely to have meant the "White Town" and more likely to have signified "The Town of the Tribe of Hwita" - whoever he was! It is even possible to link "white" with the Old English word "quit" which means "alive" - (i.e. "the quick and the dead") and so a person now called "Whitehead" might be a descendant of somebody once nick-named "Quic-hedd" because he was lively and intelligent.

Still all that is mere speculation and confirmation would entail considerable research among records which have probably perished centuries ago! Otherwise "Whitehead" means exactly what it says, but how it was applicable to individuals must be forever a mystery. Still we can draw upon a familiar historical anecdote for one plausible surmise. The Medieval Scholar, the Venerable Bede, tells us how Pope Gregory once caught sight of some captive children while wandering through Rome - about the year 580. No doubt accustomed to the darker characteristics of people then living around the Mediterranean, he was struck by the fair skin and golden hair of the children. The questions he asked and the whimsical Latin twist he gave to the answers he received are too well-known and need re-telling, but it establishes the fact that the majority of our early English ancestors were generally blonde.

What seems surprising then is that some could have attracted the nick-name "White Head". In the case of "Red Head" or "Blackett" (i.e. "Black Head") the characteristics would have been obvious and easily accounted for. So, for a person to have been distinguished as "White Head", it suggests that they must have been exceptionally fair - possibly even to have been an albino. Unfortunately this expression, which is based upon the Latin word for "white" (albus) was unknown to our ancestors and was coined sometime at the beginning of the 19th century. The only word at their disposal was "white" and had to cover the entire range of fairness, from pure or part albino to shining blonde.

The name is not very widespread. In the case of "Canavan" there are less than a dozen in the local directories, and only about 600 under the heading "Whitehead". As we said at the beginning of this feature, there is some evidence that the name might be an Irish import and centring on the Lake District. Support for this lies in that George Whitehead (1636-1723) the famous Quaker preacher and advocate. Robert Whitehead (1823-1905) the Inventor whose name is associated with the Torpedo of the same name, and James Whitehead (1834-1917) the Philanthropist who did much to foster preventive medicine, all originated in the North-West.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 3rd October 1994.

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