What’s in a name? It could be misleading

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There have been many guidebooks to Morpeth, varying from an historical essay to a street atlas, pure and simple.

Most of them have included advertisements for local businesses, but A Descriptive Account of Morpeth, published by W.T Pike & Co, Brighton, in 1894, did it in a different way.

The only copy I know of is held at the Morpeth branch library in Manchester Street.

More than half of the booklet is given over, not to advertisements, but to editorial articles about the chosen businesses. Some take up a page or so, most half a page or less.

It looks as if the sponsors paid according to the amount of space they took up.

The historical material is well enough, but certainly not to be relied upon. There is, however, one particular matter on which the author has an interesting take.

“The origin of the name of Morpeth,” he says, “is so obviously More-path (the town on the track across the moor).”

Some people, however, find this simple explanation too "tame and impotent".

“There is a traditional derivation which makes the origin ‘Murder-path’, and John Stainsby, writing in 1666, says the town derives its name ‘from the many robberies and murders in those parts committed’. Old charters and other documents, however, show the fallacy of this fanciful etymology.”

The reference to John Stainsby and 1666 took me by surprise. I didn’t know that the ‘murder-path’ theory was any older than 1920.

The systematic study of place names only began in the 20th century.

The Swedish scholar Eilert Ekwall began work on his Place-Names of Lancashire in 1910. Allen Mawer, the author of Place-Names of Northumberland and Durham, 1920, began his in 1912.

Even if Mawer knew about John Stainsby, he would not have quoted him. He was a scientific student of place names and only consulted the earliest known examples of a name. His cut-off date for this purpose was 1500.

The forms ‘mor-‘ (moor) and ‘morð-‘ (death or murder) are both found in the earliest sources, and Mawer, unwisely in my opinion, opted for the murder path “from some forgotten crime”.

He was well aware of the importance of topography in place name studies, but had to rely for the most part on guidebooks and maps.

This was no doubt why he missed the vital clue. The moor in ‘Morpeth’ was not a high, bleak kind of moor, but a marshy area where the flower park at Carlisle Park is now. The Moor-path was the path round it, not over it.

In short, Pike’s Descriptive Account was very nearly right.

Turning to the section on General Trade, each article gives a little biography of the proprietor and how they came to either set up or take over their business.

Most of these people are completely forgotten now, but their buildings often survive. One such is East Mill, the premises of Mr William Davison, Corn Miller.

“The old mill was erected many years ago, and was re-built as far back as 1798. Mr Davison took over the business some 30 years ago, and in 1890 became the owner of the whole of the premises by purchase.

“The premises being quite inadequate for his rapidly increasing business, a year later, 1892, the present new mill was erected.

“The offices are roomy and well placed, and the yards exceptionally spacious and convenient. The whole presents a most cleanly appearance; while the entire buildings are lit throughout by electricity.

“The old mill is used for the storage and manufacture of feeding stuffs; and the new mill for flour, both steam and water power being employed for driving the machinery in the new mill.

“The business is one having a considerable interest for the people of Morpeth, seeing that Mr Davison is the pioneer of electric lighting in the borough.

“On the completion of the new mill, the subject of lighting became one of great importance, and with characteristic enterprise Mr Davison determined to employ electricity, and showed that many mechanical engineers are wrong in their conclusions by proving that steam and water can be used together as motive powers.

“So successful has been the installation, that the (Morpeth) Board of Health have employed Mr Davison’s dynamo for lighting four lamps, which are their property, and a further extension may be anticipated.”

The building now occupied by Robert Green and Partners, and by Lollo Rosso Italia, was then W. Burn & Sons, Cabinet Makers, Upholsterers, Undertakers, etc.

Pike says: “The shops and show-rooms are very spacious, covering about 10,000 feet, and are handsomely fitted up and conveniently arranged. The workshops are carried over and beyond the rear show-rooms, and the visitor on entering is surprised at the variety of goods in process of manufacture, such as bed-room suites, gentlemen’s and hanging wardrobes, sideboards, book-cases, etc., etc.

"An extensive trade is done, the firm sending goods throughout the northern counties.”