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!
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th and the Gazette & Herald on 17th November 2021