Nickname systems of upper Swaledale

Two old characters from the village of Muker in Swaledale were celebrated by Arthur Harwood Brierley in a lengthy article published in the Leeds Mercury in 1897. They were Fiddler Cwoatey and Sarah Joan Kit – the former an itinerant musician and the latter, not a woman but a popular bachelor in need of a wife.

Brierley didn’t comment on their curious names, but they were both fine examples of the tradition in upper Swaledale of identifying folk by the use of nicknames. Fiddler Cwoatey was of course a violinist, and one among many folk known by names describing their occupation or characteristics. Cwoatey was not a regular surname, but it was probably a distortion of the common dales surname of Coates. Perhaps he was known as Cwoatey before he learned the fiddle.

More curious is the nickname of Sarah Joan Kit, which applied to Christopher (Kit) Metcalfe. In his case, his surname was one of the most common in the dale, and his forename didn’t really help much. There were many Metcalfes baptised Christopher and then commonly known as Kit. So how to differentiate one Kit Metcalfe from another?

The various codes for devising nicknames in the upper dale were brilliantly explained by Edmund Cooper in his book Muker: the story of a Yorkshire Parish, first published in 1948 and recently re-published in 2010. He noted that one of the most common methods was by prefixing the person’s forename with those from their parent, or sometimes both a grandparent and a parent, thus effectively pinpointing the person’s identity by their line of descent.

The system paid no attention to the possibility of gender confusion. So, as Edmund Cooper explained, examples included Jock Willy John and Jock Willy Betty. Cooper also quoted among his examples another Sarah Joan Kit of an earlier generation, who was recorded in a vestry minute book of 1804. It is difficult not to conclude that in both cases, these men called Kit were given the names of their maternal rather than paternal ancestors because one or both of the women had not been married.

Unmarried mothers were common in the 1800s and apparently did not attract the level of social stigma that they would in the 1900s. And so we might guess that both these people called Sarah Joan Kit grew up without the slightest sense that their identity was odd, embarrassing, detrimental or confusing. Perhaps that is why Brierley did not comment upon it. He was mainly interested in conveying what a good person was the Sarah Joan Kit of his acquaintance, and how deserving he was of gaining a wife.

Brierley’s account of the characters of Fiddler Cwoatey and Sarah Joan Kit can be read here: Muker in 1897, in what is the latest part to be uploaded of a planned full transcription of his article. Begin at the sub-heading “FIDDLER CWOATEY” AND “SARAH JOAN KIT”.


About Will Swales

Amateur historian with a special interest in Swaledale, Yorkshire.
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