I've heard people say that the spelling of their family name was changed a generation or two ago.

The spelling of the name Swarbrick has varied over the centuries but I doubt that this was due to anyone consciously changing it. I think it more likely that the spelling of the name changed through an evolutionary process caused - at least in part - by illiteracy.

When a couple brought their child to their parish church for baptism the vicar would undoubtedly ask their family name. If it was a less common name, like Swarbrick, they might be asked for the spelling. But if the couple were illiterate they may not have known how to spell their own name, and the vicar may have spelled it the way he thought it should be spelled.

I've seen baptism register entries in which the surname of the same family was spelled two, three or more different ways. If a vicar guesses the spelling of a name he, or his successor, may not spell it exactly the same way a year or two later when the couple's next child comes along.


While Swarbrick is now the most common spelling of the name, there are and have been many variations. I've seen examples such as Swarbreck, Swarbrecke, Swartbrick, Swarebricke, Swarebriche, and Swarthbreck.


But where does the name come from?

There have been many books written on the origin and meaning of surnames. Most of the ones I've seen don't mention Swarbrick - but I have found the name listed in two or three.

The experts seem to agree that the name is made up of two words and that the first part of the name comes from the old English word swart or swarth, meaning black.

According to The Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, published in London in 1901, Swarbrick is a local name from a place called Swarbrick in Lancashire and the second part of the name, brick, comes from the Old English word Brigg - meaning Bridge. So combining the two we could translate the name to mean Black Bridge.


However, A Dictionary of Surnames by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges asserts that the second half of the name comes from the Old English word Brekka - meaning Slope. So the name could translate to Black Slope.

In Vikings and Surnames, K.H. Rogers suggests that the name is of Scandinavian origin and may be named after an early inhabitant called Svartr, translating the name as Svartr's Slope.

I've come up with a theory of my own. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, another definition of the word swarth is green turf or grassland. If the first part of the name actually comes from this alternate definition, the name could be loosely translated as Grassy Slope. Although this may sound far- fetched, it does fit in with the area of Lancashire that was once called Swarbrick.

To confuse the matter further, I found a rather bizarre item on an amusing website. It explains that the name is broken down not as Swar and Brick but as Swarb and Rick. I discovered the website when a search engine found a page with the intriguing question, "Might one use swarbricks to build a garden wall?". Have a look

As the experts can't agree on the true meaning of the name Swarbrick, I can't give a definitive answer. I like the rather Medieval sounding Black Bridge, but could it be Black Slope, Grassy Slope, or is a swarbrick something we can use to build a garden wall?
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NOTES: A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, Charles W. Bardsley, Oxford University Press, 1901
A Dictionary of Surnames, Oxford University Press, 1988
Vikings and Surnames, Wm. Sessions Ltd, York, England, 1991
The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, Volume XVII, Oxford University Press, 1989