Textiles and English surnames
Textile production has had a significant impact on English history and culture in a number of different ways. For example, we can see in the grand residences of the Cotswolds the way in which the industry generated wealth for the area in the Middle English and Early Modern English periods. These markers of the industry’s influence are often clear to see, yet there are other ways in which England’s textile-related history has had an effect on the country’s identity that often go unrecognised, such as the development of its names. By studying the frequency and etymology of some of the more common surnames in England, the importance of textile production is further revealed.
Three of the 100 most frequent surnames in the 1881 census have a clear connection to wool, textiles and clothing. These are Taylor, Walker (from Middle English walker ‘a fuller of cloth’), and Webb (from Middle English webbe ‘weaver’). We could also add to this list the names Miller and Mills, which may have originally been used to refer to someone who worked at a fulling mill (though the names may also have been for used for people who worked at different types of mill, unrelated to textile production). Five out of 100 names may not seem like a lot, but it’s important to put this figure in context. Out of this list of 100 surnames, 19 names relate to an occupation of some sort. This means that five out of 19 surnames in this list, or just over 26% of the most common occupational names, relate to textile processing and production.
Beyond these broad patterns of occupational surname frequency, we can also use surnames which have some relation to wool and textiles to understand other aspects of English identity, such as our dialects and their distribution. As such names are relatively common, due to the continued importance of the textile trade in England, they provide a suitable amount of data for drawing conclusions on dialect usage. The surname Walker (mentioned above) would originally have been applied to a fuller of cloth, but there are two other surnames with the same meaning: Tucker and Fuller. These three surnames have, and have had, different regional distributions, as shown in the maps below adapted from 1881 census data (these maps are generated using Steve Archer’s 1881 surname atlas – see http://www.archersoftware.co.uk/satlas01.htm). We can see that the surname Fuller is more heavily associated with the south-east, Tucker is associated with the south-west, and Walker is more widespread (though with a significant concentration in the north of England and the West Midlands). The distribution of these names reflect the regional usage of the terms full, tuck, and walk to refer to fulling mills. This usage can also be seen in English place-names; see Tuckingmill near Zeal Monachorum in Devon, Walk Mill near Burnley in Lancashire, and Fulling Mill Farm near Ardingly in Sussex.
In this way, the textile-related surnames of England don’t just reflect the influence of the trade on the country’s identity, but also reveal details of the different dialect terms used in the trade. While this exemplifies the power of surnames as a source of linguistic information, it also demonstrates that the textile industry has been so important that it has had a significant impact well beyond the bounds of the industry itself, affecting our names and language in such a way that the effects can still be seen in the frequency and distribution of our surnames today.
by Dr Harry Parkin, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Chester