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The study of surname origins in the medieval period is a vast and sometimes subjective research area. In general, surnames could be made up of elements that contain topographic (hill, brook, etc.), toponymic (a place name), patronymic/metronymic (father or mother's name), occupational, personal names or in using a byname or nickname. As names were often not fixed, there are many examples of the same person having a number of different names in records from this period. The art is recognising whether 'Roger son of Richard' is the same person as 'Roger the Smith', 'Roger the short' or 'Roger Richardson'. Luckily, surnames became more fixed under one surname from the 14th century.

In his book 'The Surnames of Leicestershire and Rutland', David Postles suggests that nicknames used as surnames accounted for around 14% to 22% of those names recorded in Leicestershire tax records between 1296 and 1525 (p9). Here are a few examples from Sileby in the 14th century, some of which may have already been inherited from their own father, grandfather etc. :

Will' de sallowe (1327) - pale, yellow complexion

Rob'to Marmion (1327) - monkey like

William le sparrew (c1340) - sparrow like

Regenald le wyte (c1340) - white or pale in complexion

Will[iam] le longe (c1340) - long in body or face

Ralph Red (c1340) - red hair, or complexion.

Robert pruet (c1340) - small but brave

Willelmo Frend (1379) - Friendly!

17th Century Evidence

The medieval sources consulted so far are mainly manorial or tax records, which by their nature are bureaucratic and administrative. They generally list only the bare essentials, i.e., names and tax amount. Other types of records of a more personal nature survive from the 16th century onwards. For Sileby, a couple of examples survive in the documents of the early 17th century ecclesiastical courts. Witness statements in a long standing series of Sileby cases from the 1620s and '30s often give rather stark and detailed information about gossip and reputations. John Morton, a gentleman, and relative newcomer to the village, is a case in point. Even though he was probably the most influential person in the village, he was not immune from the accusations brought by gossip and finger pointing. It was claimed that he was often seen skulking in the shop of a local married woman, Bridget Church. The assertion was that he went to her shop way too often just to buy paper. For those actions the local wags branded him 'the writer', and gossips insinuated something more than just normal customer relations there.

Another example of local name calling revealed in the same church court depositions was that of Nicholas Oswin the younger. He was a prosperous grazier who seemed to have been a comedic figure in the community. According to some, he was a 'cracking, boastful fellow'. To others he seemed like a jester, and whose extravagant manner acquired him various nicknames such as 'cracking Nicke' and 'bagg of nutts'. These are only two examples, but it proves that nicknames and human nature endured, and no doubt there were many more not recorded for posterity.

Victorian and Later Names

In 1935, Neroli Whittle, a journalist from the Leicester Evening Mail, interviewed a number of villagers for an article about village life. The piece appeared on the 3rd October 1935, and included a discussion about names :

"There was fun, though, in the old days (speaking about the old framework knitters), as well as unceasing work. "A man was never known by his own name," says a tall cobbler, "everybody had a nickname". There were stockingers known and remembered as "Old Billy Longstockings," "Jack Dobbin," "Old Jorland," and "Al Man."

Then there were "Old Buff," "Noseller," "Old Blucher," and "Old Pinkie," a deaf fiddler who accompanied the singing of the Plough Monday boys as they went from house to house, as far as Ratcliffe. He never knew that the boys had greased his fiddle strings so no sound could come therefrom!

Then "Old Jim" was another village character. Even at 80 years of age he was agile enough to chase up the street every boy who dropped things down his chimney.

Another quaint character was the "Old Rogue," whose mischievous pranks delighted the village.

There was "Old Bob" who, with distinctly French taste, used to eat snails and frogs. His clever impersonations of local and visiting preachers will long be remembered.

"The Fat 'Un" here today says the old days were as good as any now, and "The Young 'Un," who has just celebrated his 70th birthday is the youngest old stockinger in Sileby. His was the largest family here, having 18 children, 13 of whom are living...

Another noted character was a man who went by the name of "The Cossington Ghost." There were villagers who fled at his approach, for his peculiarities of dress inspired fear. He wore a long, light coloured loose coat and often had his face muffled up. He was never seen to smile and had a face as long as a fiddle...

In those days there were so many families called Dakin that they had to be distinguished with the name of their trade, such as Baker Dakin, Farmer Dakin, Twist Dakin, Backlane Dakin, etc. The curious thing was that they were in no way related!"

This last point did not solely apply to the Dakin family. It seemed that many families, friends and neighbours used to bestow names to identify people by their character, attributes or appearance. The Prestons' are another large local family with many branches, and hence lots of nicknames. The celebrated local composer and bandsman Thomas Preston (1840-1919) was mainly known by his unusual nickname, that of "Tricker Preston". Other Preston nicknames include "Comp", "Long Ted", "Curly Bill" and "Drop Dead" amongst others!

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