What’s In A Surname?

Last week’s post –  What’s In A Name?   – which was was an updated and reworked version of a piece from 2016 about the meaning of my first name, generated quite a few comments from fellow bloggers about their own names. This was great: I really enjoyed the interaction and finding out where others’ names derived from. Back in 2016 I also wrote a companion piece on my surname, as it has a little history attached to it, and it seemed that it would be a natural follow up to last week to share again what I wrote about that name.

Pilch, in Norwich, as modelled by my daughter Katy

Pilch, in Norwich, as modelled by my daughter Katy

In case you hadn’t previously noticed (there was a major clue in last week’s post!) my surname is Pilcher. This name 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 was until recently the name of a long-established sports goods store in Norwich (now rebranded as Jarrold Intersport). 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!

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. 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!

And in a complete detour, I mentioned last week that I was known as Pilch by many schoolfriends, but also Glen, because of this, which was heavily advertised at that time:

My surname?

As I’ve 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 The Internet Surname Database at 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, perhaps by clicking the database link? 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!