This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 5th April 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.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called WILSON?

This is one of the most widely distributed names in the English-speaking world. In Scotland it first appears as "Wulson" (1405) which is an interesting indication as to how it was then pronounced. It is by far the most common of the surnames imported into Ireland and prevails especially in Antrim.

Its meaning, in most cases, is simply "the son of Will" but a few families who have connections with Leicester and, possibly Hereford, might have derived it from a place- name. Near Castle Donington is to be found a settlement called "Wilson" from which it may have originated. Details are confused but it is known that the first unit is based upon a personal name, greatly esteemed by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, and which was "Wifel". It has now gone completely out of favour and survives only in several place- names - as, for example "Wilsthorpe" in our own county (Long Eaton) as well as in Lincoln and the West and East Ridings. There is also a neighbourhood name of "Wilson" in the vicinity of Ross in Herefordshire but the Peak Advertiser has no information about it. The term in "Wilson Lane" (Heath - near Chesterfield) was named centuries later after an existing personage: John Wilson (1829) of Ault Hucknall.

Although this surname is very widely distributed across the United Kingdom there is a noticeable weighting towards the north. The local directory lists over 600 names. There are also a few entries under "Willson" but this is merely a variation and is without significance.

The form "William" upon which "Wilson, Willson, Wills, Willis etc" are constructed is a combination of two Germanic units - "Vilja" and "Helm". Whereas the second is quickly recognised as "protective head-gear" the first is less easy to analyse. It yields the word "will" but except as paired as an auxiliary verb with "shall" it is less employed in ordinary speed than formerly - that is to say, in the sense of being determined to do something. The older meaning still survives in contexts such as "He set to work with a will", or "Where there's a will, there's a way". So - putting together the two units of "Vilja" and "Helm", the name "William" can be interpreted as something along the lines of "He who is fortified in all that he undertakes with the determination to succeed". It was one of the most admired names during the Middle Ages. It continued to stand high right until the mid-1920's and then rapidly went quite out of fashion. Recently, however it has shown signs of a revival - possibly because of Princess Diana's elder son called William (1982). Like all personal names it acquired pet versions of which "Will" was the most widely adopted. It is an intriguing curiosity however that very few of these "pet" versions emerge as surnames in their own right. Although there are countless descendants "of the son of Will" (i.e. Wilson, Willis, Wills etc) very few families bear "Will" alone. In our local directory there are only two entries under this heading and similar limitations, for example, in the case of "Jack" (9 entries) and "Robb (6 entries). The prevalence of the name in the north of England is revealed in that the earliest references are to a Robert Willeson of Wakefield (1324), Robert Wilson of Kirkstall (1341), John Willison, Lancashire (1366) and Adam Willyson of York, 1279. In Scotland Michael Wilsoun is found in Irvine (1418) but is is not until 1467 that an actual John Wilson is located in Berwick.

It should be noted that the village of "Wilsontown", in the vicinity of Carnwath, near Lanark, was named after three Londoners who established an iron-works there in 1779.

The numerous place-names abroad incorporating "Wilson", and especially in North America and Australia is testimony to the great many people of that name who made their way overseas. "Wilson's Promontory" (Victoria) is the most southerly point of Australia and Mount Wilson (near Pasadena in California) is the site of a celebrated observatory. The Standard Biographies include well over 100 personalities having borne this name. Out of this number selection is invidious but mention might be made of Sir Erasmus Wilson (1809-1884) who was a pioneer in the studies and cures of skin diseases and to whom we own the habit which we all follow in taking a daily bath or shower. He also brought Cleopatra's Needle to London. Locally we have Theodore Wilson of Little Eaton. He was killed in battle during the First World War (1918). He had shown very great promise as a poet. Otherwise two outstanding political leaders share the name. First there was Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. He fostered the former League of Nations which has now evolved into the United Nations Organisation. Of the second - Well! Those of us who remember the "Swinging Sixties" will recall the Prime Minister during much of that decade, Harold Wilson: 1964-1970 and, later, 1974-1976. He led the most constructive administration within the last fifty years. Apart from conducting a referendum (1975) which committed the United Kingdom to Europe, he broke new ground in race relations, sexual discrimination, equal pay and divorce reform. Lasting legacies include the present age of majority (reduced from 21 to 18), votes at 18, the decimal currency, the National Giro, and, the jewel in his Crown, the "Open University".

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 5th April 1999.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page: https://names.gukutils.org.uk/Wilson.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library