My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Winkle. Don’t laugh – this is a relatively common name in the Potteries, and presumably originates in the place name Wincle, which is a village in Cheshire. The Oxford Names Companion gives two possible etymologies of the place name: “Hill of a man called *Wineca”, or “Hill by a bend”. OE personal name + hyll, or wince + hyll.
When I started researching this part of my family history, I spent a cold afternoon in a church vestry copying out all the relevant birth marriage and death entries in the Registers, and noted that some of the entries had the spelling “Wintle”. I was interested, but not surprised, because a feature of the Potteries dialect is the merging of the consonant clusters /tl/ and /kl/ as /tl/. (It is common, for instance, to hear people talking about “pittled onions”.) I assumed, therefore, that the vicar, not being a native of the Potteries, was hearing “Wintle” and spelling the name accordingly, despite the regular local spelling being “Winkle”. I continued to collect references to the Winkle families of the district for some years, including all the entries in the censuses from 1841 to 1881. I noticed, however, that ‘my’ family appeared not to be listed before 1881, even though my great grandfather was already 45 at that time. The light began to dawn with the discovery in the 1881 census that my great grandfather was born in the Forest of Dean. Down in Gloucestershire, the name that is common is Wintle, and I now found that he had moved to the Potteries some time after 1851, when he was 15. He married, as Wintle, in 1859. He and his growing family are all listed in the censuses of 1861 and 1871 as Wintle.
My assumption about the dialectal confusion had been correct, but the wrong way round: by the time of my grandmother’s birth in 1877, the registrar had heard my great grandfather say “Wintle”, but had assumed that this was his dialectal way of saying “Winkle”, and registered my grandmother under that spelling. The whole family became “Winkle” by 1881, and when my great grandparents died, within two weeks of each other in 1924 – after 65 years of marriage, made even more remarkable by the fact that my great grandfather had been a coalminer – they were both buried as “Winkle”.
So even in an age when literacy was spreading very fast, the spelling of family names could still be affected by local dialectal considerations.