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What’s A Pilcher?

March 16, 2016 19 comments

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!

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