This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 11st January 1999, 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.”


During the war between England and America (1812-1814) a British Force occupied Washington and burned its public buildings (24th August, 1814). President Madison narrowly avoided capture, having to leave so rapidly that he left his breakfast half-finished. It was eaten up by some English Officers! Later the damaged premises were patched up and the scorch markings concealed beneath a coat of white paint - hence the name "White House".

Of course few places over here called "White House" can claim such a romantic origin. There is certainly an interesting parallel in the far north-west of Scotland and the Hebrides where the term "white house" (or, in Gaelic "Tigh-gal") has long been in used to describe dwellings made of stone and cemented with lime-mortar. They are sufficiently widespread and not so very distinctive a feature of the landscape as to have ever been thought of as a means of identification and generate a surname. The name "Whitehouse" is not included in any definitive catalogue of Scots names - though "Blackhouse" does! It is also absent in Ireland and no doubt for the same reason.

Most of our Medieval Ancestors occupied dwellings which were little more than wooden shacks. However in some favoured regions, where rocks lay scattered it may be surmised that they were used to construct something more robust - possibly for members of a community who stood a little higher in the social scale? Such types of dwelling were decidedly rare and readily created a neighbourhood name. It would naturally follow that the people who lived in them or who worked there would be identified as "The folk who live in the "White House".

Indeed, long after the original building had deteriorated and vanished, the name would still persist as a location-name and from which later families would derive their own surname.

Unless local records are sufficiently informative few bearers of the name "Whitehouse" or any of its variations, such as "Witters" or "Whittus" can point out, with any certainty to a definite site where the original "white house" once stood. It is readily admitted that there are plenty of places called "White House" or "Whitehouse" but most of them acquired that designation long after surnames had become established. Some will have been consciously adopted if a new building was white; and just as many simply took the name "White House" as being that of the new owner.

Confidence that this is so can be derived from the knowledge that even in our own county, the four places with the name are recorded no earlier that 1789. (Smalley: 1789, Carsington and Shottle: 1836 and Ashbourne: 1846). In fact the oldest record is in Torpenhow (Cumberland) with "Whitt House" dated 1777.

In a few very exceptional cases the name could have been conferred upon an Innkeeper whose establishment was called "The White Horse". An example dating from 1207 mentions a "Robert Whithors" and which could easily have been corrupted into "Whitehouse" - especially if there was a local family of that name.

Another interesting suggestion is that the unit "-house" was confused with "-hose". Today "hose" is restricted to stockings but in the Middle Ages it extended to all types of leg-wear from gaiters to whatever was the Medieval equivalent of Jeans! During that period the highways were filthy so light-coloured leg and foot-wear would have been patently impractical. Still perhaps some dandified creature flaunted such items to display his disregard: for expense and that he could afford to pay for a constant replacement. (A similar point is made under "Degg" (13th November 1995). This would account for a character during the reign of King John (1199-1216) who was nick-named "Galiot Wythose".

The name has its counterpart in Italy as "Casabianca" and behind that translation the most famous bearer of the name is know to us. He was a youthful member of the crew of a Warship (Battle of the Nile, 1798). His courageous stand in the face of certain death was commemorated in a poem of which the first line is possibly the most quoted in English Literature: "The boy stood on the burning deck". Its authoress was Mrs Hemans of Liverpool. Unfortunately modern historical research reveals that he joined with his father (the ship's Captain) in leaping overboard just before the vessel exploded and after clinging to a floating spar, both were rescued.

The oldest record of the name is found in Somerset: Stephen atte Whithous, (1327) and from its very nature it can have no special regional links. It is distributed across the country quite evenly with no areas of noted concentration. The local directories muster just over 100 entries.

Although it is not exceptional as a surname nobody called "Whitehouse" has an entry in any of the Standard Biographical Reference Books. Older readers may recall, however, a certain Mary Whitehouse who once campaigned against those sections of the media which she believed were, at the time (the 1970's) subverting faith and morals. She enjoyed some support, but is was short-lived and indeed some items positively profited as a result of the publicity her attacks stimulated.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 11st January 1999.

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