What’s in a name: Idle, Thackley, and Yorkshire place-names

Names – places, people, trees, fungi, for example –  the origins of all kinds of names have always interested me. So when I came across an article from an early copy of the newly formed Bradford Archaeology Group’s Bulletin (Volume 1, No 2, 1954) on ‘The Origin of Some Place-Names’, by Wade Hustwick I decided to copy it, and add it to this website.  Wade Hustwick was an antiquarian and historian, and a regular contributor to the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, and other journals.  His article mostly describes place-names in Yorkshire, with references to other areas of Bradford. It follows the first part of this article, in which I’ve attempted to explain how Idle and Thackley got their names

Part 1: IDLE AND THACKLEY – what do they mean?

Where does the name Idle originate?  In Idlethorp, Wright Watson devotes an entire chapter to the question. He appeared to be satisfied with the answer given by another authority on local history, Harry Speight, who wrote that

‘The name indicates the hill or elevated land of its Saxon possessor, Ide or Ida … The personal name, Ide, occurs in the local deeds, as well as in the poll-tax returns of Richard II in 1379.’

Watson also suggested that the origins of Idle ‘would appear to have been on or near the present Idle Hill’ where there had been a camp for Roman soldiers, and where Roman coins had been found.  He referred to an assortment of later documents that mention ‘Idelawe’ in lists of fields or of barren areas in the locality, and states that ‘we know that ‘law’ or ‘lawe’ means a hill’, although Wade Hustwick (above) did not list that meaning. 

However, the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names suggested that ‘it is perhaps a derivative of the Old English Idel: idle in the sense of uncultivated land’ .  But that, surely, would be a description applicable to a large proportion of the whole country at the time?

Finally, Wright Watson puts together his theory, a tale that includes both meanings: Ide, he thought, might have been a character from the long period when successive invading warrior tribes attacked Britain after the Romans departed.  Ide acquired a ‘sunny slope’  of barren waste where he settled and cultivated the land.  This ‘straggling village on a lovely hillside in Yorkshire’  becameknown, eventually, as Idle.

Fortunately, perhaps, there seems to have been no great debate (at least in Wright Watson’s book) about the meaning of Thackley, which was, after all, merely an unimportant part of Idle itself. 

In 1583 a major survey described it as one of Idle’s ‘four several parcels of waste lands’, the others being the Over Moor, Wrose Brow and Gawcliff Crag.  As an area of common land it was prone to being encroached upon by people living round the edge, who tried to get away with building cowsheds, coal sheds, and generally fencing off small adjacent plots of land.  They were fined repeatedly, but rarely paid the fines.  This was a continual problem, and renaming the area Thackley Green later in the eighteenth century didn’t improve the border land-grabbers’ behaviour.

Wright Watson writes that ‘In those long past days before Thackley had been so vastly “improved” by our Georgian and Victorian forefathers and remained much as Nature had made it, the few scattered aborigines wandered where they would to gather reeds and rushes with which to thatch or “thack” their primitive dwellings.’

That simple, though disparaging, picture of Thackley’s past (and its population) by Wright Watson suggests how it acquired its name: ‘thack’ is a common word for a thatched roof, and for the reeds or rushes used for thatching. Thus the waste land or meadow (lea or ley) from which the rushes were gathered became known as ‘thack ley, and the area became Thackley.  What was initially part of the common waste land developed into a village with cottages, mills, tanneries, a workhouse, and gradually the infrastructure that a settled community requires. Thackley became a proper place, not just an area of common or waste land.

Joseph Wright, who came from Thackley, and compiled the famous 6-volume Oxford Dialect Dictionary, has a lengthy entry for the word ‘thack’.  This shows that the word was mostly used in the northern counties and Scotland, and the many words that ‘thack’ is combined with, such as thack-brod, thacking-spurkle, etc., indicate how widespread was the use of thatching for roofs, and the skills and tools it required.  The list even includes the thack-sparrow, a dialect name for house-sparrows, which would no doubt build their nests in the thatched roofs of the cottages.

Part 2: THE ORIGIN OF SOME PLACE-NAMES by Wade Hustwick  Bradford Archaeology Bulletin Volume 1, No 2, 1954

It is not easy to trace the origins of some place-names as it is often difficult to find the original spelling.  Some names contain the name of the original settlers, such as Huddersfield (Hudda’s Field), and some names are descriptive of the topography of the district, such as Bradford (the broad ford) and Mirfield (swampy ground).  Other names are from the farming community, like Wheatley (the wheat meadow),  Lingard (the flax or linen garth), Swinton (the swine village), Calverley (the calf field) and Otley (the oat field).  There are names from the forest, like Oakenshaw (the oak wood), Allerton (the alder tree), Bramley (the bramble bush);  from wild and domestic animals, such as Foxup (the valley of the fox), and Cowick (the cow farm) and many other sources descriptive of the situation or use of the locality.

Place-names are bound up with the history of our county, and one can trace the settlement of the Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norse and Norman colonists by the names of the towns and villages.  Some of our local names date back to Celtic times, particularly the geographical names of our mountains and rivers, such as Penygent [sic] and Pendle Hill (pen being the name of a hill), Derwent (der – water), and so on. There are not many Roman towns in Yorkshire, but we have Doncaster (the city on the Don), Pontefract (the broken bridge), Appleton-le-street (on the Roman street or strata) and Tadcaster (the camp of Tada).

After the Romans there came the Anglo-Saxons, and they settled in considerable numbers in this area.  Names ending in ham (a homestead), ton (a fenced homestead), ley (a meadow),  shaw, holt, shot or hurst (a wood), den or dale (a valley), worth (a homestead), clough (a ravine),  ing (a river meadow), ford (a river crossing), royd (a clearing), and others all denote the homes of our ancestors from the Continent, and if you look at a map you will soon discover Manningham, Bolton, Ilkley, Buttershaw, Hurst (or Hirst) Wood, Silsden, etc.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, A.D. we have the Danish invaders, who, in Yorkshire, settled mainly in the North and East Ridings and the Dales.  Their place-names end in ‘by’, (a large settlement) thorpe, (a small settlement), thwaite (a clearing), garth (a small enclosure), holme (swampy ground), nab (a knoll), wath (a ford), rig (back of a hill), hope or up (a small valley), wick (a village), or toft (a field near a house or bothy), and if you look again at the map you will find Danby, Whitby, Ravensthorpe, Oxenhope, Bradup, Nab Wood, Appletreewick, etc.  Notice how many village names ending in the suffix ‘by’ appear in the North Riding, for the Danes came to Yorkshire at Whitby and Flamborough where there is the Danes Dyke.

The Norse or Norwegians came from the west coast of Britain after sailing down past the Western Isles of Scotland and settling in Westmorland and Cumberland.  We find their names in the Craven district and the heads of the Dales.  Their place-names end in keld (a spring), sett (a summer settlement), gill (a glen), scale (a house on a hillside), ark (a bin), stang (a pole) and dale as a piece of land, and so we obtain such names as Creskeld, Burtersett, Ling Gill, Seascales, Pavey Ark, Garstang and Silverdale.

The Norman Conquest had not so much effect on our place-names, although we have such names as Farnley Tyas, consisting of the Anglo-Saxon name Farnley (the fern meadow) and Tyas (a Norman family name), Norton Conyers, Askham Richard, Hooten Pagnell and many others.  The Domesday Book, prepared in 1086, fixed to some extent place-names by recording the names of numerous villages, towns or cities in England as manors or berewicks, and although the spelling of the names has altered considerably in the meantime, we are often able to trace their original meanings.

It was customary to name a person by the name of his settlement, and so we get surnames like Bolton, Allerton, Calverley, and Bradford.  More than half our surnames are place-names.


Wade Hustwick’s final sentence makes me wonder:  I have an impression that a great many surnames come from ancestors who had a particular trade, and who passed their trade or expertise and name down through the generations.  Maybe a search beginning with early copies of the censuses for this area and working through to the most recently published would produce some interesting lists of local surnames.  But that would have to be added to a list of things-to-do when there is plenty of time, which may be a while away!

 Dr Christine Alvin.

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