The Amazing History of Leather Craft and Family Names: Did Your Ancestors Work with Leather?
Alex Mileham·February 18, 2021
We all know that our surnames are passed down through our families, usually from our father’s side. But where do the names come from? What is their link to the history of leather craft...and how long have they been in use? How have they changed over time? You may be surprised to find that your family name comes from one of the many and varied leather crafts from history.
Our family names as we know them have been around and fairly stable since the middle ages. Prior to this period the small populations of villages and towns meant that people could be identified by a single name. As towns grew and populations expanded you would be distinguished from someone of the same name as you by adding a second name. This, for example, might be your occupation, an identifying physical feature or a kinship with someone else e.g. Richard (the) Baker, John (the) Short or Mary Wilkin (meaning the kin of Will). These names changed from generation to generation. As people moved about the identifying name would change with them. As one generation begat the next generation the kinship relationships changed - William Johnson begat Richard Wilson for instance. These names remained fluid for many centuries and were perfectly apt for identifying people in the small towns and villages of Britain in the middle ages.
When the French conquered Britain in the 11th century they needed to keep tabs on their new minions to be able to control them effectively and tax them appropriately. The new king, William the Conqueror, bid his French nobles carry out a ‘great survey’ of his new land to see just what he had won. The legendary Doomsday Book was created. The collection and recording of the names of the British people in great detail is thought of as the beginning of the settlement of family names in England. In the beginning, it was the noble families of Britain to whom this applied. Since these were the families who would be required to pay homage to their new monarch as land holders. But it soon filtered down into the wider population. Once recorded for the purposes of bureaucracy, family names were not so easily changed from generation to generation. The taxman’s got to get paid! Surnames as we know them were born, as was their link to the history of leather craft.
As a resilient natural material that could be fashioned in many ways, leather production and the skilled crafts associated with producing leather goods have been part of life for millennia. As surnames settled and became stable around the middle ages, many of these names came from the varied leathercraft industries that were important through time. Some of these names are quite obvious - Skinner, Tanner, for example, yet some are more obscure. Our use of the language may have changed so as to make the word unrecognisable today, or it may be of a craft that is no longer in common use.
In today’s world, where many crafts are seen as hobbies, horses are primarily used as a leisure activity and where our quick fashions can be thrown away, it can be really easy to forget the value and importance of these activities through history. A leather money pouch would be yours for life. Most people certainly wouldn’t buy a new one each year to keep up with the fashions like we do today. The invention of the motor vehicle 140 years ago has removed beasts of burden from our everyday lives. Previously, from the very birth of civilisation many thousands of years ago, their power was harnessed with leather. All travel, if not on your own two feet (clad in leather shoes), was powered by horses saddled or harnessed in leather. The invention of plastic 110 years ago has meant that many leather crafts have been made redundant in the last century. Prior to this, for example, even our most basic essential needs, such as water, had to be carried in leather goods.
So, is your family name one that has come down the ages to us today from the history of leather craft, its production and the workmanship associated with it? Did your great-great-great-grandpa craft leather bottles? Did he make saddle trees? Did he work in the forest collecting tree barks for tanning? Here is a list of surnames that you may not realise are associated with leather:
BARKER: a name with deep history back to Anglo-Saxon times. It was a name for a person who stripped bark from trees for the tanning process. Also, an occupational name for a tanner of leather. Relating to the bark of certain trees that contain the tannins required to tan skins. From Middle English bark(en) ‘to tan’.
Related names: Berker, Barkere, Berkier
BELGER: another name reaching far back in history to Anglo-Saxon times. It was the name given to the maker of purses or the bearer of the purse for an important official. An occupational name for a bag, pouch or purse maker. From Middle English borsier, meaning purse.
Related names: Bolger, Burser, Purser, Purse
BELTER: this name was in place by the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. An occupational name for a maker of belts. From Old English ‘belt’.
Related names: Belton, Beltone, Beleton, Belting
BOTTLER: a forgotten necessity today - the leather water bottle, also known as a flask or skin, was made by a bottler. An occupational name for a maker of leather bottles used for carrying water and liquids when on the move. From Middle English.
Related names: Bouch, Bouche, Budge, Bottell, Bottle
COBBLER: another ancient name from Anglo-Saxon times. An occupational name for a maker and fixer of shoes. These ancient occupational names often transcended cultural and linguistic boundaries; Cobbler is a good example of this.
Related names: Cobler, Cobbelar, Cobelere, Cobeler, Coblere, Cobbeler
CORWIN: a worker of leather. In the middle ages, the very best leather came from Cordova in Spain. The leather was known as cordonvan, and workers of leather were called cordwainers. From Old French ‘Cordoan’.
Related names: Cordon, Currier, Coade, Curwin, Curwin, Kervin
FOSTER: another old occupational name for a maker of saddle trees. Saddle trees are the solid wooden frame on which a horse’s leather saddle is built. From Old French ‘fustiere’.
Related names: Fuster, Fewster, Foister, Fuster
GLOVER: glove making was an important trade in medieval times. Glover is the name given to the maker of gloves, which would have been delicately stitched from extremely fine leather. Derived from the Old English word glof.
Related names: Glovere, Glouere,
LASTER: an occupational name for a maker of shoe lasts. Shoe last are the
wooden foot shapes on which leather shoes are moulded by cobblers in the making and repairing of shoes. Derived from the Middle English word laeste.
Related names: Last, Lastur, Lastor
LEATHERMAN: a name given to the traders and workers of leather. This is another ancient name that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries. Derived from the Old German word lederaere meaning leather. Versions found throughout Europe such as Lederer in German and Ledergaerwe in Austrian.
Related names: Lauder, Lawder, Lauther, Lederman, Leder, Lederle
LORIMER: an ancient name dating from Anglo-Saxon times. An occupational name for a maker of metalwork for equestrian pursuits, think bits, stirrup irons, spurs, buckles and fittings for harness etc. This was a very important job in olden days, as evidenced by the Worshipful Company of Loriners getting its first royal ordinances in 1261, predating those of any other existing livery company. Derived from the Latin word lorum through Old French lorimer.
Related names: Lorinar, Loriner, Lorrimore, Loriman, Larimore
SADDLER: an ancient name dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. The name Saddler was given to the maker of saddles. Saddle making was a very important trade in medieval times, as evidenced by the Society of Master Saddlers getting it’s royal charter in 1363. Derived from the Old German word sadel meaning saddle.
Related names: Sadler, Sadlar, Sadiler, Sadleigh, Sadleir
SKINNER: a very old name derived from the Old Norse word skinn meaning hide. Historically, a particularly important job, as indicated by the Skinners Company of London getting its royal charter in 1327 and being one of the Great Twelve City Livery Companies. Skinners were employed removing the hides of animals to be sent to the tanneries.
Related names: Skiner, Skynner
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the surnames with which we are familiar today that derive from leather craft and its long and distinguished history. Unfortunately, I have run out of space and time to continue. There really are too many to list, but just to whet your appetite here are a few more that may seem obvious, or not so obvious: