Surnames and placenames

Many people throughout Britain and the wider, particularly English-speaking world, can trace their roots back to the villages of Calderdale. Surnames arose out of many of these place names, along with others deriving from descriptions of the landscape.

If your surname is Greenwood, Illingworth, or Woodhead, for example, you may well be able to trace your ancestors back to the area.

Names which originated in Calderdale

“No other parish in the West Riding approaches Halifax in the richness of its surnames”, wrote George Redmonds, and over 100 Calderdale place-names have become English family indicators. Many are topographical names, that is, derived from descriptions of the landscape – like Sutcliffe (South Cliff) and Akroyd (Oak Clearing).

The formative period in which surnames became established as identifiers was the 13-15th centuries, prior to which many names were simply by-names. The ramification into widespread surnames owed a great deal to the extensive trading and communication networks that linked this area with the rest of the country from the early mediaeval period onwards (see ‘All Roads led to Home’), and that in turn owes much to the early textile industrial base of the Halifax area. Reflecting the success of non-conformist Christianity in the area, a number of Calderdale men took their names to New England in the early English settlement of the United States – like Nathaniel Greenwood, John Lumb, John Tillotson and Matthew Boyes.

Greenwood Lee, Heptonstall

The most impressive ramification came with the name Greenwood. This name, now familiar throughout Britain, does not seem likely to have a specific source, but evidence indicates otherwise and suggests a single principal source – a hamlet above Heptonstall, where the family’s ‘ancestral home’, Greenwood Lee, still stands. By 1672 there were 90 Greenwoods in and around Heptonstall – the situation today can be gauged by a glance at the local telephone directory!

Among other names that Calderdale has bequeathed to the nation’s families are Bairstow, Boothroyd, Bottomley, Cockcroft, Crossley, Eastwood, Hey, Holdsworth, Horsfall, Illingworth, Longbottom, Lumb, Shackleton, Sunderland, Wadsworth and Woodhead.

Recommended reading

George Redmonds:

  • English Surnames Series 1: Yorkshire West Riding (Phillimore, 1973)
  • Yorkshire Surnames Series 3: Halifax and District.
To find out if these books are currently in stock in Calderdale Libraries, enter 'George Redmonds' as a 'quick search' term in the Online library catalogue