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Origins of Willeter

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Report Compiled by "Nameswell Surname Research", on the Origins of the
 family name Willeter

Area of Origin

The surname Willeter is a very rare name, occurring only 22 times in the 1881 census of Great Britain.

Just over half of these people live in Middlesex, and the rest in neighbouring Surrey, in the parishes of Croyden and Epsom.

Clusters in Middlesex usually indicate migration to the capital. This theory is supported when the distribution of the surname is analysed per 100,000 people, showing that it is concentrated in the Surrey parishes, particularly Croyden.

The surname appears to have been stable in that region for several hundred years, as it has been recorded as early as 1575 in Mickleham, near Croyden, in Surrey.

Surnames tend to predominate in the area in which they arose. However the distribution of a rare name can be distorted by the migration of a single individual, who travels far from his home, and has many descendents, whilst the original family dies out.

Recent research using DNA has proved that some names were carried across the country as early as the 14th century. Nevertheless, most surnames remained close to their place of origin for several hundred years, at least until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

Therefore, whilst the distribution seems to indicate that the name originated in Surrey, this can only be a tentative conclusion.

Type of Name

Willeter is quite a complex name, as it incorporates three syllables.

The second syllable,  -et, is usually attached to shortened forms of first names. Will is indeed a shortened form of William, one of the most common first names in England from the 11th century, so the name Willet(t) is consistent with other first names which have become surnames e.g. Bennett, Emmett, Hewett.

However, the final syllable, -er, challenges this interpretation, as there are no known examples of –er being attached to first names. Whilst -er often denotes an occupation, ‘willett’ does not appear to fall in to this category.

Richard McKinley, in A History of British Surnames, summarises the use of –er as a final syllable in surnames, and each of these will be considered in relation to Willeter:

1) a topographical term, i.e.  general term describing the landscape, one who lives by the feature in the landscape, e.g. bridger,  fielder. Willet does not come into this category, as it does not seem to be a geographical term. 

2) place name g e.g. Isbister, Scotland; Bamber, Lancs; Elmer, Sussex. There are no places called Willet(t)er.

3) first names which had fallen out of use by 1300 e.g. Alymer, Gummer, Rayner. The name William does not come into this category, as its popularity rose substantially from the 12th century.

4) nicknames of French origin e.g. Pettifer, Telfer, Gulliver. There is no evidence that Willet is French, particularly as it conforms to English names that were popular in medieval England.

The name Willeter does not fit with any of these naming patterns, and therefore this is conflicting and confusing evidence.

The conclusion must be drawn that Willeter has most likely changed over time, and the current spelling is disguising its origins. From this information it is not possible to say what type of name it is.

The Meaning of the Name

The following works of reference were searched for Willeter, or possible variants:

The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, Basil Cottle, 1978 mentions the surname Willett, meaning son of William. Variants of this name include Willatt, Willitt and Willott. An alternate explanation may be that these names are all variants of Willard, Old English for ‘will/ resolve bold’, or Waylett, Old English for a road junction or cross roads. 

Cottle also mentions the name Woollatt, from Old English ‘wolf Geat’ (a tribal name) and Wooller, Old English for a wool worker or dealer.

A Dictionary of English Surnames, Reaney and Wilson, 1997 lists Willet, Willets, Willats, Willett, Willetts, Willitt and Willott, to be derived from Will (William), or a development of Willard: or a variant of Waylatt.

Reaney mentions other names which have some similarities, in spelling or pronunciation, to Willeter:

Willisher a variant of Wiltshire.
Wallett from a personal name.
Weller Old English ‘to boil’, a salt maker.
Willard from possibly Old English Wilheard, a variant of Willett.
Wollaton from Wollaton, a place in Nottinghamshire.
Wollerton, Woolerton, Wooloton from Wollerton, Shropshire.
Woollard from Wolford, Warwickshire.
Wooler Old English, a dresser, weaver or seller of wool.
Woollet, from Woolvet from Old English Wulfgeat.

A History of British Surnames, R.A. McKinley, 1990 says the surnames Willett and Willott are derived from shortened forms of William, plus suffix the –ett/ ott.

Family Names and Family History, David Hey, 2000.
The Surname Detective, C. Rogers, 1995.
Surnames and Genealogy, George Redmonds, 2002.
Middle English Local Surnames, Mattias T Lofvenberg, 1942.
Old English By-names, Gosta Tengvik, 1938.
Middle English Occupational terms, Bertil Thuresson, 1950.

There was no reference to Willeter, or any name from which it may have developed, in these books.

H.B. Guppy, The Homes of Family Names, 1890

Henry Guppy studied localities in which family names predominated, in an attempt to identify the ‘homes’ of our surnames. He concentrated on the names of farmers, as he believed they were ‘the most stay-at-home class of the county’.

Guppy did not mention Willett or Willeter, but classified Woollatt as a Hertfordshire name.

Bartholomew’s Survey Gazetteer of the British Isles, 1921, and The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place Names, Victor Watts, 2004, do not list any place names of obvious similarity to the name Willeter, although there is a place called Willett in Somerset.

The name Willeter therefore does not appear to be documented in the literature, or been the subject of any research. The meaning of the name remains obscure. Focus must therefore turn to the possible variants of the name, to consider whether, and how, it may have changed over time.

Recognised and Possible Variants

Each sound in the name was studied in turn, to consider how it may have been affected by changes in spelling and pronunciation, and what theoretical variants may result:

’w’: this is not a consonant greatly prone to change. However, 'w' was
sometimes written as 'qu' in medieval times. Names starting with 'wh' are
sometimes found with an initial 'h'. 'W' can also occur as part of an initial
cluster, and in rare cases the first part of this may have been omitted, e.g.
sw or tw become 'W', e.g. Quilletter, Swilletter.

'i': vowels have been very prone to change over time, and so any vowel change should not be considered to signify a separate name if all, or most of, the consonants are identical, e.g.. Walletter, Woollatter.

'll': the 'l' sound is very often substituted for 'n' in surnames, e.g. Winnerter.
Phonetically 'l' is also quite similar to 'r', e.g. Wirretter

'e': a vowel, see 'i', e.g. Willatter. Because it is an unstressed sound, it may also be omitted, e.g. Wilter.

'tt': this sound is most likely to be confused with 'dd' and also possibly 'kk', e.g. Willarder.

'er': this is an unstressed vowel at the end of the name and could be written
in several forms, or omitted altogether, e.g. Willettor, Willett. It may already have been affected by change, particularly by shortening, e.g. Willerton.

Any combination of the above, e.g. Wallett, Wollertton.

The 1881 census was studied for phonetic variants that matched the above names.Those of most interest were:

Willett: a relatively common name compared to Willetter, probably of multiple origin as it is found in several parts of the country, with one area of concentration in Sussex.

Willet: much rarer spelling of Willett, concentrated in Essex.

Woollett, Woolet, Woollitt, Woolett, Woolet: these names involve two changes
to be related to Willetter i.e. change of initial vowel and loss of final syllable. However, they do occur in the same locality as Willeter, i.e. mainly Kent and Surrey, and are almost identical to the first two syllables of Willeter.  Even if they are not related, they may demonstrate phonetic patterns in use in that area.

Woollerton, Wollerton, Woolerton: a confusing mix as the first two occur mainly in Leicestershire, the latter in Lincolnshire.

Quilet, Quillett: both occur only once in 1881, in Surrey and Warwickshire.
Probably spelling conventions rather than a separate name.

Quilter: concentrated in Essex. Occasionally a surname with two syllables
could acquire an extra medial unstressed syllable, e.g.  Henry to Hennery. With such a process Quilter becomes Quilletter. As 'qu' came to be seen as an old form of 'w', this could be 'modernised' as Willeter.

Quillerton: occurs only four times, in Surrey.

Willerton: the same name as above, found in Lincolnshire, also Surrey.

Willeton: only 5 occurrences, in Yorkshire and Surrey.

The last three names listed are all phonetically identical. They all occur in
Surrey, although the numbers are too small to give anything but tentative
clues. It is noted that Willerton occurs in the same county as the surname
Woolerton. Perhaps Willerton, Wollerton and Woolerton have the same source.

Wallett, Wallet, Walletter, Wolleter: all found in Staffordshire, the former
the most common. The fact that these names are all concentrated in the same
area as each other is evidence that forms such as Wallett and Walleter are
probably related. This is circumstantial evidence that Willett and Willeter
may be related.

Wolletter in Staffordshire and Wollerton in Leicestershire are close enough
geographically to be of possible significance.

It is very possible from a phonetic point of view that the final syllable
of the name Wollerton or Willerton could become less well defined,
especially if the name bearer moved to a new area where his name was
unfamiliar to the clerks. The name would become Wollerter or Willeter.

Names ending in -ton seem to be obvious place names. The Gazetteer was studied for place names similar to Willeter, ending in –ton:
Woollaton, Devon.
Woolaston, Gloucester.
Wollerton, Shropshire.
Wollaton Hall, Nottingham.
Wollaston, three places in Northampton, Shropshire and the West Midlands.
Willoughton, Lincolnshire.

It is interesting that Willett is a place name. Redmonds gives examples of
the name Rippiner, which he says may be a late development (possibly 16th century) to describe someone from Ripon.

The place names Wollerton, Shropshire and possibly Wollaton, Nottinghamshire, (depending on the age of the name) could be the source of some of the surnames listed above.

Whilst the location of most of the place names do not correlate well to the
location of similar surnames, the Lincolnshire place name Willoughton is of
note. Willoughton is presumably pronounced Willowton. The medial vowel could easily be reduced to a less well defined 'er' sound, giving the surname
Willerton. This surname is found in Lincolnshire and Surrey, although the
numbers by the 19th century are very small.

A Dictionary of Surnames, P Hanks and F Hodges, 1991, does mention the surname Willerton, as a derivative of the place name Willoughton, from Old English ‘wilig’ + ‘tun’, willow enclosure, or settlement. The authors then add this interesting comment:

'This surname has always been closely associated with Lincolnshire, with some spreading into East Yorkshire. A branch of the Alford family of this name was established in London from the early 18th century.’

Although the presence of people named Willeter in Surrey 150 years earlier  seems to challenge this as the source of the name, it does not rule out the possibility that members of the same family, or another branch of the family, migrated south before the 18th century.

The English Dialect Dictionary, ed. Joseph Wright, 1905, gives several definitions of the word 'quilt', including:

to beat, to thrash soundly.
to swallow, especially to swallow large amounts in one gulp, a samll drink.
fatiqued, unfit for work.
quilter anything or anyone very large.

and ‘quillet’: a narrow strip of land.
a small plot of land lying within the property of another proprietor.
a small croft.

Also written ‘guillet’, ‘quellat’.

Theoretically therefore a ‘quilletter’ was someone living on a croft situated
on a small strip of land, perhaps belonging to someone lese.

The surname Gillet(t) (total 3507) was found in Lancashire and all over the
south of England, including Surrey in 1881. The names Jillett, Guillet and Guillot also occurred. There were no occurrences of Gilletter, or anything similar.

How and When the Name Developed

The process by which a surname became hereditary differed according to the type of surname, and its place of origin.  

In Anglo Saxon times people lived in small, rural communities and spoke a language now called Old English. Names were derived from descriptive words, often bestowing worthy attributes or great fortune on the individual. Each name was unique within the community, and therefore everyone needed just one name. Our ancestors had names such as Wilheard and Wulfgeat. There were no hereditary names.

The Norman Conquest, of 1066, brought many changes.  Some French barons brought with them the new fashion of using the name of their estate as a second name, as a mark of their inheritance, and the idea was quickly adopted by the aristocracy throughout the country.  At first this trend did not affect the local population.

A small number of British names may therefore be traced back to the aristocracy of the 11th and 12th centuries, but most families had no hereditary names at this stage.

New first names were also introduced by the Normans. A relatively small number of names such as William, John, Richard, Alice and Margaret became very popular, and slowly replaced the Anglo Saxon names.

Names were no longer unique, and from the 12th century many people acquired a second name, known as a by-name, to distinguish them from other people with the same name. These names were not at first passed on to successive generations.

Hereditary names first developed from by-names amongst families who were known by the name of their estates and farms. These are known as locative names, and are the oldest type of surname in the British Isles. 

Surnames first began to be acquired amongst the general population in south east England towards the end of the 12th century. Peasants, moving to a new farm, village or town in search of work, often acquired the name of their previous place of residence. Therefore a family may be known as Willerton if they owned land there, or if they had migrated from that neighbourhood.

However, surnames based on place names were formed several centuries after the place name evolved, by which time the origin of the place name had been forgotten, and was therefore of no direct relevance to the families who were known by that name.

Hereditary surnames, based on location, occupation or personal attribute, particularly gained popularity in the towns, where the need for identification was greater. In rural areas surnames were acquired which described the location of a person’ house, such as Quilleter. Surnames such as these, which describe a general feature of the landscape, rather than a specific place name, are known as topographical names. They were influenced by local dialects, so that some topographical surnames were only found in specific regions, and were acquired from 1200 in the south.

The trend for hereditary surnames spread towards the south, the Midlands and East Anglia, where the majority of families had gained surnames by 1400.

Are All the People With the name Related?

As this is such a rare name, everyone called Willeter will be related, barring illegitimacy and adoption.  People named Willeter may also be related to people with other names, e.g. Willerton. 

The Social Class of Your Earliest Named Ancestor

When hereditary names were first acquired, there was a marked difference in the types of surname adopted by different social classes.  

Surnames based on places, known as locative names, were initially held by the aristocracy and wealthy families, and later by small landowners, farmers and substantial free tenants.

Surnames based on features of the landscape and occupations were held by free and unfree tenants of the manor, who farmed their own land, and tradesmen.

This class difference subsided in the south from the 13th century, and slightly later further north.

Tracing the Family Name Back Further in Time

Try and go further back with your family by looking for the surname in different spelling variations, along the lines suggested. At this stage it is preferable to use the original records rather than indexes. Look out for all possible versions of your name, particularly in the south east and Lincolnshire.

Note that individuals could be known by different versions of their name, or even two very different names, as surnames were developing, e.g. John Willerter alias Willowton, or Thomas Willeter alias Brown. The inclusion of ‘de’ or ‘atte’ before a name indicates it is a place name, e.g. John de Willerton, William atte Quillet, although the use of such prepositions had largely died out by 1400.

An example of an individual or family using the form Willeter and another form related to one of the possible sources, e.g. Willerton, will provide conclusive evidence of the origin of the name.


The origins of the surname Willeter remain obscure, but several possible sources have been identified:

From Willerton, originally Willoughton, Lincolnshire.
Someone from Willett, Shropshire.
A variant of Quilter, from Essex
Derived from Quilletter, although this form is theoretical.

The date at which the surname became hereditary depends on which type of name it is, and where it originated. Whilst names were acquired earlier in the south than the north, locative names were also earlier than other types of name. As Willeter may be derived from a southerly topographical or occupational term, or a place name further north, it is likely to have originated between 1200 and 1350.

The further back you go with the family line, the easier it will be to interpret the origin of the name. 

@ 2013 Peter Snitch, York, UK