Etymology

As many people who have had dealings with Spurretts know, the spelling of this unusual surname is a source of frustration to those who have the name, and those that try to write it down. The Spurrett family history has been traced back to the SPURRETTs of North Yorkshire from the sixteenth century (1500’s).  At this time, a large number of variants of the spelling were in use, even within a single family, such as SPORRYTT, SPURRETT, SPURET, etc.    Bearing in mind that most of the working classes such as the SPURRETTs will have been illiterate around this time, it is not surprising to see variations in spelling as the name was verbally passed through and down the generations.  The modern spelling became consistently used since around 1850.  

There are sporadic occurrences of the SPURRETT’s ancestors in North Yorkshire going back to the 1300’s.  In these cases, the spelling that is almost exclusively used is SPORRETT.  So to understand the roots of the name, I think it is necessary to establish the origins of that spelling.  I suspect that the answer to that will be found in the history of the Forest of Knaresborough - more of that later.  So far, the answer has eluded me.  Many other researchers have given views on the origin of the name which in my opinion do not hold water.  However, I will repeat them here in case I am proven wrong.

It is possible that the name it is derived from SPURA; which is the Old English word for the ancient trade of spur making.  By around the sixteenth century, the Old English word SPURA had evolved into SPURRIER.  It is not until the mid-nineteenth century that there is any evidence of ironmongery as a profession within the family, so it seems highly unlikely to me that this is the real route of the name.  Going back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the name SPURRETT is often used interchangeably with the name SPURRIER.  For example, a newspaper report 1754 of the murder of the Spurritts at Hopcroft’s Holt refers to:

‘... a most inhuman murder committed there on Friday night the 18th instant upon the bodies of John Spurritt and his wife, (commonly known by the name of Spurrier) ...’

I suspect that the dual use of the names arises from SPURRIER being a known name and trade, whereas SPURRETT was a very rare name.   In other words, it was a nickname used to overcome a less comprehensible surname (something that many modern-day Spuds, Spuzzas, etc. will relate to, I am sure).  There are even cases where the nickname SPURRIER ‘stuck’ and was then corrected a generation or two later to SPURRETT (or SPURRITT, etc.).  The interchangeably of the name has caused me some problems in researching the history because some people recorded as SPURRIERs are actually SPURRETTs, and in many cases those that are recorded as SPURRIERs are not even remotely related to the SPURRETTs.  

It has also been suggested that the name could date back to SPIRITES who was a priest and land owner in six English counties, and part of Edward the Confessor’s royal household. Edward exiled him and took his lands in 1065, just prior to the Norman Conquest.   Several of the earlier SPURRETTs hold religious positions so maybe that is our ancestry.  The phonetic similarity of Spirites to Sporrett is close enough to believe that it could have evolved over centuries, especially given the level of literacy amongst clerks.  Surnames were not common until the thirteenth century so we are lucky to have this lead, if it proves true.  Although this is an appealing hypothesis, it requires further research.

Another possible source of the surname is that SPIR means ‘The Tall One’ in Old English, and there certainly seems to be a genetic trend to tall Spurretts.   When surnames first began to be used in the thirteenth century, they were linked to places of origin (Peter de Abingdon), trades (Peter Baker), or physical characteristics. Maybe a SPIR-ETTE is a small person or child who descended from a tall family.  All speculation of course ...

The misspelling of the name has on occasions been very useful as it has given clues as to the origins and movements of the Spurretts around the country.  The most common derivatives include single letter where there should be doubles, and also different vowels, so SPURRITT or SPURRATT.

The level of literacy in ancient times is often blamed for the evolution of the spelling of Spurrett.  There are certainly good examples where a clerk has phonetically recorded the spoken word of a Spurrett, for example: Anthonie SPURRET’s marriage bond describes his first wife as Margaret ONYON instead of UNWIN.  Parish records of christenings, marriages, and burials began around 1558.  In many cases these records were made on paper which did not stand up to the rigours of time.  In the early 1600’s many of the registers were transcribed by the parish clerk onto parchment, which is far more robust.   This would have been a major undertaking and will often have been performed by a different clerk to the original, with different handwriting.  Clerks were not professional scribes and handwriting styles varied enormously.  Aside from the room for error, there is also the possibility of misreading the original.  The older parish records are not easy to read so mistakes have also been made and propagated by modern transcribers.  For example, Anthonie SPURRET’s surname for his second marriage in 1588 is given in Phillimore’s Index as ‘SPROOT’ and the reason for the transcription error becomes obvious when the original handwriting is observed.

One major advantage in tracing the history of such a rare name is that we can be fairly confident that everybody with the SPURRETT name is related to the same family in some way or other.  I am yet to find and exception to that rule despite having traced over 1,000 of them!

© Rob Spurrett 2013      Contact me at:  rob@spurrett.net