The Greatorex family of Nantwich

This website details the history of the Greatorex family

The origin of surnames or family names

We all have surnames or family names, and one or more Christian or given names. My given names are David Thomas and my mother explained to me how she gave me these names. I was born on the 1st January 1947 at a snowbound and unreachable nursing home called The Gladwyn Maternity Home in Gresford, North Wales.

My father was a 3rd generation showman and had I been born 'on time' I would have been born an Englishman at Whitchurch in Shropshire. As it was I was born a Welshman.

The winter of 1947 was the worst winter of the 20th century and heavy snow prevented my family from visiting my mother after my birth. She decided that I would be named after the first male to visit her. This happened to be my uncle Tom! The name Thomas had become unfashionable at that time so this was given to me as a second christian name and she named me David because I was born in Wales.

How did I get my surname 'Greatorex'? This, of course, was inherited from my father, Leonard Greatorex. He got his surname from his father, Albert Greatorex, and this method of the giving of a surname or family name can be traced back a thousand years to the time of the Norman invasion.

I am indebted to Matt Tompkins of the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester for the following explanation of the origins of surnames. Why and when surnames were adopted in England is a complex question, and is still the subject of much research by historians. In particular the factors which triggered the process are still imperfectly understood, though it is clear that it was a result of the operation of complex, invisible, underlying social factors, not a conscious, deliberate decision to adopt surnames (certainly no law was ever passed compelling their use). At the time of the conquest only a few members of the Norman aristocracy had hereditary surnames, but their use gradually spread down from the nobility to the rest of the population over the following centuries. Surnames only began to be assumed by large sections of English society from the late 13th century onwards, and the process was not completed in every part of England until the mid 17th century, and even later in some other parts of Britain. It was a gradual change, spreading slowly from the south to the north, from the rich to the poor, and from town to countryside.

Thus the process was completed for all sections of society relatively quickly in the southeast, but took longer for the rural poor in the far northwest-in Lancashire, Cumbria and the adjoining regions. A common type of surname was one that was derived from a place-name. This might be the place where the first holder of the surname lived (his place of residence), or where he had recently come from (his place of origin). Generally speaking people whose surnames came from their place of recent origin were unlikely to be from the landowning classes-they would typically be ordinary people who had moved to a new village or town, where they could be conveniently distinguished from the other ordinary inhabitants of their new home as the person from X. People who were named after a place while they were still residing in it, on the other hand, could be from either the landowning classes or the middling ranks of society, depending on the size of the place. Clearly one of the ordinary inhabitants of a town or village would not be named after that place while he lived in it-the whole point of a surname was to distinguish him from other people, and that purpose wouldn't be achieved if everyone in the place was named after it-but most villages and towns were owned by a single lord, who could be distinguished from other lords by the name of the place he owned and lived in. Small places containing just one or two farms, on the other hand, often became the surname of the single family who lived there. Such families would not often be from the upper social classes, who owned many farms, but since they did at least have a farm (whether they owned it or were just tenants) they would not be from the very bottom either.

Greatorex, or Gretraches/Greatrakes, as it was known in medieval times, is a surname which comes from a place name. It originated from Gretraches, a small farming settlement in the high peak of Derbyshire situated between Buxton and Tideswell and which is now known as Great Rocks Dale. In modern times Great Rocks has been a small hamlet consisting of just a handful of farms, and may have been smaller still in the medieval period, so my paternal ancestor probably took his name from it because he lived there, not because he had recently left there. This supposition is supported by the fact that we know there were Greatorexes living in Great Rocks from 1251 until 1540, when the daughter of Robert Greatrakes of Great Rocks married an Edward Bagshawe and the farmstead passed out of Greatrakes hands.

My earliest paternal ancestor to be named after Great Rocks would probably have been known as 'John of Gretraches' or 'John de Gretraches' when he was mentioned in a Latin or French document.

When was he living? It is difficult to say with certainty. A hereditary surname, especially one derived from a place-name, could have been first adopted at any time between about 1100 and 1500. However, because surnames were adopted by the non-landowning classes later rather than earlier ( and surnames from small places like Great Rocks were more likely to have been adopted by such people) a date around the 13th century is more likely.

One of the earliest recordings of the name is dated 1251 and is to be found in the Derbyshire archives. Thomas, William and Henry de Gretreak were living at the Great Rocks farm. In 1336 Richard de Gretrakes is also recorded. Is Richard a direct descendant of either Thomas, William or Henry? Am I a direct descendant of one of these early Greatorexes? It is possible that between 1200 and 1350 a number of different families farmed the settlement and took their name from the settlement, therefore I may be related to any one of them, or none of them!

In the 1379 Poll Tax, in the vill of Wormhill, we find Willelmus de Greterakes and his wife, a 'cultivator' (the word is Latin-it presumably meant a farmer, the equivalent of the husbandman of later periods), who paid three shillings which was quite a high assessment. It doesn't say where in Wormhill vill the individual taxpayers lived, but it can probably be safely assumed that William of Greterakes lived at Great Rocks.

It is probably impossible, through written documents, to be able to confirm whether any of these are my ancestors. It is probably through DNA (see chapter 1) that the answer may lie .

So, it is probable that all people with the name Greatorex, or one of the many variations of the name that I have found in my research, who can be sure that their fathers were Greatorexes, are related to just one common paternal ancestor who lived at, or near, Great Rocks Dale between 1100 and 1251?

I would like to believe that that is so. It is possible that one or two different families inhabited Great Rocks between 1100 and 1400 and therefore not all Greatorexes are of one family. It may be that one or two different families inhabited Great Rocks and that the earlier families died out and that we are indeed all related to just one family, but not the family that is recorded as living there in 1251. The low incidence of the name of Greatorex in modern times would support the supposition that we are of one family but we may never know if it is the genes of Thomas, William and Henry that we carry.

The Black Death reached England in August 1348 followed by other less severe outbreaks in 1361, 1369 and 1379. Up to 50% of the population may have perished. It is possible that the family of Thomas, William and Henry perished and that a new family, who took the name 'of Gretrakes', took over the farm. Richard de Gretrakes is recorded in 1336 and if it can be shown that he or direct members of his family continued to farm the area then it could be assumed that as a family they escaped the Black Death. Great Rocks is a remote area and this may well have saved the family. Not all the families of England perished, maybe our family were lucky and survived!

My own feeling is that we are one family. That we continually occupied Great Rocks from the earliest times and that the descendants of Thomas, William and Henry are alive today carrying their name and genes. But this is only my feeling, and hope. Whether this is true or not may one day be confirmed or denied. I hope that in the future there will be a method, or methods, that can help to clarify the position but until that time I will continue to believe that the Greatorexes are of one family who continually farmed at Great Rocks for centuries.

What of the many variations of the spelling of the name? Can a Gratrix be of the same family as a Greatrex or Greatorex? Yes they can. Many families that might have been called by the name for centuries only started to use their particular variation of the spelling of the name on a permanent basis in the 19th century.

The Wirksworth parish registers in Derbyshire identify 42 different spellings of the name, some of which are detailed below. They were all, no doubt, part of the same family and yet the name was spelt in so many ways. Gretraches and it's variant forms of Graterakes, Greatrakes, Greatrackes, Gratericks, Greatericks, Gratrickes, Greatricks, Gratricks, Greatracks, Gretrecks, Gretraks were used mainly between 1250-1600. Greatorex, (Derbyshire spelling) and it's variant forms have been used since about 1600 and were latinised versions of the earlier names. They include; Graterex, Gratericks, Graticks, Gratorex, Gratorix, Greatrax, Gratricke, Gratrickes, Gratricks, Gratrix (Lancashire spelling), Greatarex, Greaterex, Greatericks, Greaterix, Greatorix, Greatrackes, Greatracs, Greatrax, Greatrex (Midland spelling), Greatrick,Greatricke, Greatrickes, Greatricks, Greatrix, Greattrex, Gretorex, Gretorix, Gretrecks, Gretrex, Gretricks, ), Greatrix, Gretterix, Grettorix, Grettricks, and Gretterix.

These are just some of the variant spellings of the name. There are more! The name, however spelt, is an unusual and rare surname.

In the census that took place on 3rd April 1881 there were 1,134 people of all ages registered with the name Greatorex and 947 registered with other variations of the name. Add to these a few who had emigrated to the new world; a few who failed to register; some who lived in Scotland and Ireland; and the total number of Greatorex's living in 1881 would have numbered, perhaps, 2,500. Compare this with Smith, the most popular British name, where 429,197 people carried the name in 1881. It can be seen that Greatorex was indeed a rare name and, in my opinion, all people who can be sure that their ancestral fathers were Greatorexes, belong to one family who's common paternal ancestor lived in Great Rocks Dale nearly a thousand years ago.

The actual spelling of the name is an irrelevance as to whether or not all Greatorexes are of one family. Many people were illiterate until the late 19th century and the spelling of the name was often given by the church official who registered the name. The person who became literate, and recognised that spelling as his name, often took that spelling as his name. Local dialect was also part of the way the name was spelt. In Lancashire it was usually spelt Gratrix, no doubt this is how the name was pronounced. In the midlands, Greatrex, and in the homeland of Derbyshire, Greatorex.

My Great-grandfather, John Greatorex 1846-1905, was registered by his father James (who was illiterate), as John Greatrex. No doubt the registrar in Bedworth near Coventry recognised this spelling of the name which was used locally. By 30th March 1851, when the census took place, he was registered by the enumerator who called at the family home in Hob Lane Bedworth, as John Greatricks. By December 18th 1871, when John married Mary Jane Crabtree, who came from Derby, he registered himself as John Greatorex. He was, by this time, a literate man. No doubt he had links with Derbyshire and knew how the name was spelt in the county where the name originated and was more common.

So, in a period of just 25 years my Great-Grandfather was recorded with three different spellings of the name that I know of. It is possible that he was recorded with a different spelling on other documents that I have not seen. But he is the same man with the same heritage and genetic make-up. Since John decided to spell his name Greatorex the family have used this spelling of the name. The reason for this continuation of the spelling of the name is that since that time written records have proliferated, most people have become literate, birth certificates have been issued and we therefore have an official written record which we can read and take our surname spelling.

I could just as easily have become a Greatrex, Greatricks or other variant of the name and still been part of the same families that follow in these recordings of MY GREATOREX FAMILY RECORDS.