Name them in three

As so many people had the same name, it was common in Swaledale to call people by three first names to identify who was who (Picture courtesy of Yorkshire Dales National park)

It has long been a custom in North Yorkshire to call people by either their first name only, or by a certain nickname. For example, in the village in which I grew up lived two well-known and well-loved local characters, sisters Minnie and Fanny. It never occurred to me that they had a surname, nor did they need one because everyone knew who they were. It was only as an adult that I discovered they had a last name, which was Benson.

In his column from 21st November 1981, Dad talks about the curious custom in the Yorkshire Dales of using three first names to refer to an individual. It was particularly prevalent in Swaledale, and a reader had sent my dad examples such as Peter Tom Willie, Mark Jamie Jess and Dicky Tom Johnny. In these cases, the first name was the individual’s Christian name, the second was his father’s name, and the third his grandfather’s. So Peter was the son of Tom and grandson of Willie and even though the second two names would not be listed on his birth certificate, the locals would call him Peter Tom Willie.

There is an apparently true story of about a Swaledale man who lived near Gunnerside who was handed a letter by the postman addressed to a Mr Calvert. Looking at the envelope, the man said to the postman: “Nay, there’s neea sike feller lives ‘ere.”

The postman insisted that he had the right address, and finally the man remembered that his own last name was Calvert. He been known for so long as simply Assy Will Kit that he had completely lost track of what he was actually called.

In days of yore, communities were self-sufficient and had little need to travel far, so you would find many people with the same name marrying and having children, making it quite confusing to know who was who. Therefore a technique arose for distinguishing  between people and families and this was to adopt their profession after their name. In Swaledale, Alderson was a common surname, as was the first name Thomas, and this particular name is mentioned in a local folk song called The Loyal Dales Volunteers. The song is based on the roll call of a troop of men from Swaledale and Arkengarthdale who in 1804 volunteered in response to the threat of invasion by Napoleon.

What makes the roll call so unique is that because there were so many men with the same names, none are called by their surname, but all by their Dales nicknames. So to work out which Thomas Alderson was which, we find Grain Tom, Glowremour Tom, Screamer Tom, Pod-dish Tom, Tarry Tom, Tish Tom, Tripy Tom and Trooper Tom. Also on the roll were five John Hurds who were known as Awd Jack, Young Jack, Jane Jack, Mary Jack and King Jack, all of whom are listed in the song, along with many others. What interests me is the use of the female names, presumably a reference to their mothers. I wonder if that was because the father’s name was already attributed to a sibling? I’d love to hear from you if you have any such stories about common family names and nicknames you remember being used.

The Yorkshire dialect word ‘bramah’ cropped up again in a message from reader Ian Atkinson who served an apprenticeship at a garage in Osmotherley. When a particularly fine car came into the shop, the mechanics would say it was ‘bramah’. Ian adds: “My dad was a keen fisherman and he would often use the term when he was showing me his latest shopping ‘fix’ – a carbon fibre rod or a fancy reel that he had brought home – then made me promise not to tell mother!”

Ian also reveals another dialect word that is new to me, that of ‘ghiablek’ or ‘gearbelt’ which was used by farmers in Bilsdale and referred to a metal pole with a pointed end that was used to drive holes in the ground in which to place fence posts. Ian regrets that the Bilsdale farmer accent, which is still used by his father-in-law, is dying out, but adds: “It’s now up to us to keep those memories and experiences alive as best we can.”

And through this column, and through you lovely people getting in touch to share your memories and stories, we are doing just that. Thank you all!

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th and the Gazette & Herald on 17th November 2021

Recipe for laughter

In my column a couple of weeks ago I talked about the term ‘bramah’ which was used to describe something that is either unusual or of excellent quality. For example you might stay, “Eee, it’s a proper bramah that one.” I wrote that an exceptional 18th century South Yorkshire engineer called Joseph Bramah, most famous for inventing high quality locks, was likely to have influenced its use.

I was contacted by reader John Rodmell who put forward an alternative explanation for the origin of the term. He wrote: “I’ve always understood the word to mean ‘stunning example’ and have been led to believe it originates from the name of a particularly large chicken.”

The breed in question is called the ‘Brahma’ and is thought to have been developed in the United States from birds imported from Shanghai in China. Because of its considerable size, it was the principal meat breed in the US from the 1850s until about 1930. It came into the UK in December 1852 when some were gifted to Queen Victoria.

Although this could be true, I’m not sure it is as convincing as the Joseph Bramah explanation. I have found a variety of spellings and as well as bramah and brahma, we have brammer, brama and brammah, all meaning an outstanding person or thing. It has also been suggested that rather than originating in South Yorkshire, it is West Yorkshire folk who should take the credit. But then again, there are others who say it is of Scottish origin. Incidentally ‘bramah’ follows ‘brain fart’ in the slang dictionary I was using. This is an inability to think clearly or a moment of forgetfulness. As a result, I have diagnosed myself as a sufferer of chronic brain fartism.

I’ve also been contacted about mondegreens, a term that came into common use thanks to writer Sylvia Wright who as a child had confused the words to the 17th century ballad ‘The Bonnie Earl o’Moray’. For the line that went ‘And layd him on the green’, Wright heard ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and thus the term began to be used to refer to misheard song lyrics.

I received a very kind message from Caroline Hodgson who said: “Thank you very much for your lovely column each week…There is always something which I learn from it!” Caroline particularly enjoyed the ‘mondegreen’ article and sent in a few corkers used by her own family. We have ‘I believe in Milko’ (‘I believe in Miracles’, Hot Chocolate), ‘Checky tea towel’ (‘Chiquitita’ by Abba) and my personal favourite, ‘Bald-headed woman, more than a woman than me’, (‘More Than a Woman’, The Bee Gees).

And Graeme Cunningham wrote: “Due to a duff sound system in my local cinema where I saw ‘The King and I’, I heard Deborah Kerr sing: ‘I know how it feels to have wings on your heels, and to fly down a street in a tram.’ ” The correct version has a wistful Deborah flying down the street in a ‘trance’.

These recollections had me laughing out loud, so do keep them coming (either contact this paper, or get in touch through the contact page at

You may remember that last week I talked about witch bottles, everyday containers intended to ward off evil sorceresses that were filled with small objects such as fingernails, hair, pins and urine. The bottles were hidden by fireplaces, thresholds, graveyards and river banks to try to keep witches at bay.

By the time he had written his column the following week in 1981 (7th November), Dad had found some instructions which may still come in very useful if you are troubled by these dastardly old hags.

He informs us: ‘To destroy the power of a witch, take three small-necked stone jars. Place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar.

‘Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven inches from the porch. While in the act of burying each, repeat the Lord’s Prayer backwards. As the hearts and livers decay, so will the witch’s power vanish.’

So now, if you’re ever troubled by witches, you’ll know just what to do (keep this column handy though, just in case you’re struck by a brain fart).

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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 5th and the Gazette & Herald on 3rd November 2021