What’s A Pilcher?

A few weeks ago I posted Say Your Name, which was an updated version of a previous post about the meaning of my Christian name. I thought then that it might be a good idea to do a companion piece on my surname, as it has a little history attached to it.

Pilch, in Norwich, as modelled by my daughter Katy

Pilch, in Norwich, as modelled by my daughter Katy

There’s a major clue to my surname in the title of this piece – just in case you hadn’t noticed. The name ‘Pilcher’ is largely native to East Kent, the part of England from which I come. I’ve not seen a recent telephone directory but when I was growing up there were two pages of us. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than five Pilchers in most other directories. The shorter version, ‘Pilch’ is common in East Anglia, and is to this day the name of a store in Norwich (‘A Fine City’). Many UK surnames which end in ‘-er’ derive from a trade: Baker and Butcher are obvious examples of this. Less obvious examples are Cooper, a maker of barrels, and Fletcher – the man who made arrows. Or you could have Turner – unsurprisingly, this was the man who worked the lathe. Or for a really obvious one, try ‘Parker’ – yes, it really does mean the man who looks after the park. At its most basic, Pilcher is no different from these: he was the man who made a Pilch. You could be forgiven for not knowing what one of these is, or was, as the term – and the item of clothing to which it refers – has long gone out of fashion. A pilch was a kind of loincloth, usually made of animal skin with the fur still on it, and use of the name can be traced back as far as the 13th century. In all probability it is even older than that, but I haven’t yet been able to find an episode of What Not To Wear or How To Look Good Naked(ish) that goes far enough back to enlighten me on this. It is thought that it derives from the pre-7th century Olde English word ‘pylece,’ which means a skin or hide. It is recorded in several other forms including Pelcher, Pilchere, and the French Pelchaud, Pelcheur, and Pelchat, and is clearly an Anglo-French surname. Given the proximity of France to Dover, where I was born, this perhaps explains why there are so many Pilchers in that part of the country. As well as the maker and seller of pilches, the name could also be given to someone who wore them. We don’t appear to have a modern day equivalent of this, unless you know of anyone called Nappyer or Trusser. And for American readers, I don’t think Diaper counts!

My surname?

My surname?

In later years “pilcher” apparently became a popular term of abuse, being associated with the unrelated word “pilch”, meaning to steal, and the equally unrelated noun “pilchard”, a type of fish. I’ve mentioned before that I was known as Pilch by many schoolfriends, but also Glen, because of this, which was heavily advertised at that time:

Whilst some name-holders may originate from habitual use of these various terms, I like to think that my family origins belong to a noble tradesman rather than a thief!

As I mentioned, the name goes back as far as the 13th century: recordings of the surname include Hugh Pilchere, who appears in the tax registers (known as the Feet of Fines) of Cambridgeshire in 1275, and Henry le Pilchere in the Subsidy Rolls of Worcestershire in the same year. Church records list the marriage of Henry Pilcher to Jane Empsley on June 2nd 1572 in Borden, Kent, whilst in France Henri Pelchat appears in the town of Bourg L’Eveque, department of Maine-et -Loire, on July 26th 1708. The first known recorded spelling of the family name is that of Mabilia Pullchare, which was dated 1214, in the “Feet of Fines of Essex”, during the reign of King John, 1199 – 1216. (I’m indebted to http://www.surnamedb.com for this information).

Whilst my name isn’t particularly special or famous, I rather like it and the fact that it has so much history attached to it. The only famous Pilcher that I know of is the author Rosamunde Pilcher, but no doubt there are others. After all, we’ve had long enough to make our mark in the world! Why not try following your own name back into history? You may find something interesting and surprising that you hadn’t come across before. And I set you the challenge of finding a name that has a meaning going back further than the 7th century!

19 thoughts on “What’s A Pilcher?

  1. Fascinating bit of history, although I’m having trouble getting past how uncomfortable those loincloths must’ve been. Not to mention steamy. I did get past that long enough to wonder if the word pilch, meaning to steal, led to filch, which Lord Google lists as origin unknown.

    My own family name was changed on Ellis Island, where 19th-century immigrants to the American East Coast landed. The same story a couple of people mention above. The original was long and difficult and written in another alphabet. When my father was a young man, he changed his name, partly to avoid antisemitism and partly (I think, although I can’t know) to cut his ties to the past. Which has left me with this absurd Anglo-Saxon name and a fascinating history about avoiding history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for reading this and the companion piece. I would imagine that most clothing from those days would seem uncomfortable to us, but just think of the luxury in having a furry nappy! I also wondered about the link between Pilch and filch – to be honest I knew the latter word but didn’t know about the other one until I researched this piece – I guess the similarity may be down to regional language variations. Either that or people wearing their pilches on their heads and muffling their hearing.

      From what I know of American history there was a lot of localisation of names during the periods of mass immigration, both since it began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century and again for less pleasant reasons in the Hitler years. It is sad that so many names will have been lost down the years – I’m only guessing but I wonder if the American predilection for using surnames as first names may once have been a way of trying to preserve those names in some way? I can understand your aversion to finding out about something which may recall a difficult past. It could be worse though: your forebears might have been called Drumpf.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mercifully, we have no Drumpfs in our closets. As far as I know, anyway.

        I don’t actually have an aversion to finding out the history of the family names, just a sense that I’m not likely to be able to trace it back very far, especially since once we go past Ellis Island, I’d run up against language problems.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good to know – who’d want that! I see what you mean, as the changes and language issues would be against you. Spellings change enough over time to make it difficult anyway, without the other historic complications.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jumped over from the Senior Salon
    Almost missed this one! I try to get to all the Senior Salon posts each week, and thought I had. Fortunately, I scrolled down before closing the tab and there you were!

    My sister would have been all over this post – she shared your fascination with names, and was a big-time fan of genealogy. Unfortunately, she never got around to making copies of her work and, following her death, her 20-something sons threw her papers away during their move from the NY apt. in which they all had lived.

    I can’t imagine having the time to retrace her efforts, but your interesting post makes me hope that I will be able to do so eventually. Thanks for sharing.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

    Liked by 2 people

      • Mine were added at the last minute too, so I thought I’d squeaked in under the wire. Since I finished out the row it certainly seemed so until I scrolled down.

        I think the online research programs make it easier than when my sister was digging for info. A college friend is a professional genealogist, and frequently had to travel from his home in TN. to Washington, DC or the Mormon library in Utah when he ran into dead ends. I never caught the fever, but he and my sister found the research thrilling.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I really should try it. I’ve bought a book to guide me but haven’t got started! I’ll try to catch up with your posts in the morning – NCIS calls now 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • They just about managed to get over losing Ziva but despite replacing him with three people it isn’t the same without Tony. Sad to say, from one who’s seen every episode multiple times, but I think it’s run its course.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Take It Easy and commented:

    Another piece of recycling, for newer readers who won’t have seen this before. I did a little research into my surname and found it has a lengthy history, although it is far from being a famous name! There’s also a link in the piece to an earlier post about my Christian name, in case you’re interested – it may be a little geeky of me but I like to find out about my names and their meanings. I think we all should try it!

    And as she features in the post, it would be very remiss of me to post this again without wishing my daughter Katy a Happy Birthday!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. In the US, there is the same issue with names being changed for immigrants…especially the more difficult ones like my family with long, complicated Polish names. It also didn’t help that Poland wasn’t on the map when they came, (around 1900)! I have felt lucky to be able to trace one great-grandfather back to where he was born, but the Germans burned the town to the ground in the last battle in Poland in WWII so I doubt any records remain. How amazing to get the roots of your name in the 7th century…and a fancy fur loin cloth as well! Sounds pretty upscale for the era!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. How wonderful to be able to trace the history of your name so thoroughly! It’s very difficult for many of us in Canada, since immigration had a habit of shortening difficult foreign names as people literally “came off the boat”. Still, I’d love to pursue my family name, and still may do that, if time allows!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You are so lucky to be able to find out all that interesting information about your name and heritage. Is it really so difficult to explore further back than the 7th century? Exploring your name in the US. is really difficult because everyone seemed to marry someone else and move all over the place. Mr. grandfather from Texas even became a merchant marine and married a woman he met in Port Glasgow, Scotland and then ended up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I haven’t tried exploring in any great depth but I’m not sure how accurate anything could be, going that far back! If you click on the link in the piece it opens up with a search box that you could enter your name into. Worth a try? It might at least help overcome the issue of portability of names in such a large country.

      Liked by 3 people

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