This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 27th March 1995, 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 WILKINSON?

"Wilkinson" is only one of the many surnames and all derived from "William" and all with much the same meaning: "a son of -" or "a descendant of William". It is a Germanic name made up of two units: "Vilja" and "Helm". Exactly what they signify in combination is not immediately apparent. "Vilja" incorporates such ideas as "will, desire, aspiration" and "helm" refers to the protective head-gear known as a helmet. Therefore it is possible to contrive a meaning along the lines of. "He who draws strength and support from a wish to succeed".

If so, that name certainly suited its most celebrated bearer, Duke William of Normandy who led his followers across the Channel in 1066 and achieved the Conquest. No doubt out of compliment to their Leader, his supporters bestowed the name upon their sons and it was not long before it was one of the most popular names in England. Certainly from about 1700 (with the Accession of William III) until 1925 it stood almost (and sometimes) first place in the tables of fifty most frequently occurring names for boys but after that date it began to decline and during the following decades it steadily approached the bottom of the list.

Here it is worth drawing attention to the fact that the currently familiar form "Bill" has origins not easily explained. It was certainly not in use during the Middle Ages and so no surnames appear to have been built upon it. People called "Billson", "Billings", etc. can trace their names to a different source altogether.

It is acknowledged, though, that most first names develop a "pet" form - clever people refer to it as "hypocoristic" - and "Wilkin" was that of every Medieval man who answered to the name of "William"! The unit "-kin" is a very old suffix and indicates smallness or "the little one" . Its origins are unknown. Although it has a diminutive force, no positive link can be made between it and the Germanic "kinde" (child) and, in spite of its frequency in surnames, neither can it be associated with the word "kin" signifying "relations" or "kinsfolk".

The form "Wilekin" is on record for 1249 but there is evidence that it had been used long before that date. The suffix was originally tagged on to personal names only, but by the 1500's it began a short fashion for being applied to everyday objects such as bodkin and napkin. A few odd examples arise during the 1600's and 1700's but it never "took on" and is now obsolescent. The name "Wilekin" went through the usual modifications and has now emerged in various forms, all signifying "the son of Wilkin" such as "Wilkinson" and "Wilkes".

Another diminutive form is "-ot" and this survives as "Wilmot" (i.e. "the little one of whom William is his father") (See "Eliot" - Peak Advertiser, 20th December 1993).

Names such as "Wills", "Willis" and "Wilson" are examples of names based upon the unit "Will" which was so common an abbreviated form of "William" as to be accepted as a name in its own right. (Admirers of "Robin Hood" will be familiar with Will Scarlet, Will the Bowman as well as "Jack, Son Wilkin".

The rendering "Will" probably came about because the name at first seems to have been pronounced as "Will'm" whereas the present practice of saying it as "Will-ee-yam" is of later origin. This has given rise to the later abbreviated form "Willie" - how many of our older readers can remember those comic tramps "Wearie Willie and Tired Tim"?

On a completely different tack, the name "Will" standing alone as a surname - of which there are just two listed locally - is an example of a neighbourhood name. It would have identified people dwelling in proximity to a well - i.e. water supply. In Old English "well" appeared as "will" because it was derived from an even older word "wiella". This form still can be detected in "Halwill" in Devon. Not surprising, therefore, the surname "Will" occurs most frequently in the South-West and also in Scotland.

Although it is comparatively rare, it is known to have generated "Wilson" and so people of that name who believe that they have West Country or Scottish connections might look to their origins in those directions.

In the local directories there are some 300 entries under the name of "Wilkinson" and as for the number of related surnames - well they just can't be counted!

The most outstanding personality in recent times who bore the name must surely be Miss Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) who was a devoted Champion of the Workers - especially in Jarrow which she represented in Parliament. Equally worthy of mention is "Saint" Kitty Wilkinson (1786-1860) of Liverpool. Although in a poor station of life, she never tired of giving a helping hand to those in poverty and distress and in her own small way was a pioneer in the development of our Public Health Services.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 27th March 1995.

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