This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 20th November 2000, 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 WOOLLEY?
Variations: Wooley, Wolley.

This surname has nothing to do with sheep or wool. Quite the opposite! It refers to wolves! However in a few instances it can describe a source of water, i.e., a well. Readers who have links with the West Country might look to "Woolley" a place two miles north of Bath. The "Wool-" or "well" is actually a short stream which eventually joins the Bristol Avon. The "-ley" in this case allows for the interpretation of the place-name as "the meadow-land by the stream." It is possible that a similar meaning could be given to "Wooley" in Northumberland (3 miles south of Hexham). Here the "Wool"- is "Devil's Water", a tributary of the Tyne.

Surnames based on place-names tend rather to be concentrated in the region where they emanate. In the case of the Somerset "Woolley" the local directories for Bristol and Bath contain upwards of 100 entries. A similar convergence occurs in our local directory where the name "Woolley" occupies nearly three columns.

However spelled, the name is generally interpreted as "The wolves' wood" or, possibly, "the open-land belonging to a person called Wolf". Wolves were still roaming in Scotland in 1743 but in England they were probably extinct about 1500. Although the wolf was feared as a savage beast, its cunning and especially its ability to see in the dark were admired by our Nordic ancestors and they adopted forms of the word "Wolf" as personal names.

The most famous bearer was "Wulfila" (Latinised more frequently as "Ulfilas" 311-383). It means "Little wolf". He was a scholar and translated the Bible into Gothic, laying the foundations for northern literature.

It was not exclusively a man's name. Hence there is both "Wulfhere" a King of Mercia in 675 and the celebrated Abbess of Barking, Wulfhide c990. So whether the allusion in place-names such as "Woolley" is to the wild creature or to a person is not easily resolved after all this time.

Families in Derbyshire are likely to have derived their surname from one of two places. The first stands about four miles east of Matlock, between the A615 (Derby) and the B6014 (Mansfield) roads, alongside the Ogston Reservoir.

The second is just on the county border with Cheshire (formed by the River Etherow) near Glossop, and known as "Woolley Bridge" although the single name "Woolley" belongs to the neighbourhood just inside Cheshire. The spelling varies. On the current OS map (1998) it is Woolley, but the Place-name Society (1959) preferred Wolley, whereas the survey of 1829 went for Wooley.

There is another "Woolley" in the West Riding exactly half-way between Barnsley and Wakefield, to the east of Junction 38 on the M1 motorway. Hence for people living in this region, any one of the aforementioned sites could be the source of their surname but which one exactly must be left to individual research.

It is difficult to refer to other places called "Woolley" without making it seem like a gazetteer! Still, mention should be made of the place just four miles due north of Grafham Water (Huntingdon). Then to the site in Berkshire, seven miles north of Newbury. It is doubtful if any of them are anything to do with the Derbyshire "Woolleys" and certainly the place in Cornwall some ten miles north of Bude is too small a settlement to have generated many surnames in our northern region.

Although "Woolley Green", about seven miles west of Windsor is attested from records dating from 1286, it is submitted that most places elsewhere in which the names "Woolley" is linked to "Wood" or "Moor" or "Park" etc., must be viewed with caution. They are likely to have acquired the name at a later date and indicate associations with families who were already known by that name.

The earliest record occurs in York for 1219. It is to "Hugo de Wuluele". In Berkshire mention is made to a "Ralph de Wufueleye" (1230) and in Wakefield to "Bate de Wolflay" (1308). It is an interesting fact that while the meaning of this surname is obscured in modern renderings, the significance at a site in Sussex is quite apparent. It is also "Woolfly" near Henfield.

Not until 1594 does the "de" (meaning "from") drop out from surnames. It is then to a student at Oxford, called "John Wooly" but where he originated is not given.

Although "Wolf' appears as a given name as early as 1165 in Scotland, it has not formed the basis of any surnames. In Ireland it was introduced by Norman settlers and spelled "Woulfe" which translates back into Irish as "Bhulbh". A form "Wooley" emerged but is sometimes confused with "Whooley" and "Wholey" which is a native Irish name based on "ualach" which means "boastful".

Here in Matlock it was the name of the family which occupied the old hall at Riber for seven generations. One of them, Adam Wooley is claimed to have lived until he was 100 years old (1557-1657) and his wife, Grace, until she was 110 (1559-1669). Their descendant, also called Adam Woolley, who died in 1827 accumulated much material relating to the history of Derbyshire.

The most celebrated namesake was the professional cricketer, Frank Woolley (1887-1987) who was described as "the most graceful left-handed batsman of all time".

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 20th November 2000.

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