Category Archives: Surnames

Court Rolls of Balsham Manor

Old village sign, depicting the one resident of Balsham who escaped the Viking invasion in 1018.

Old village sign, depicting the one resident of Balsham who escaped the Viking invasion in 1018.

I recently visited the London Metropolitan Archives to view some early manor court rolls for my home village of Balsham in Cambridgeshire.

At first, manor court rolls can seem a little overwhelming as a source – until 1733 most were written in highly abbreviated Latin. It takes some effort to access, transcribe and translate them. It’s worth perservering, though, because they can be a very valuable source of information about individuals and families in a period when other sources can be scant.

Manor courts were the place where the business of the manor was carried out. Court barons, which took place every three weeks or so, dealt with exchanges of land, the swearing in of new tithingmen and/or tenants, the pledges of existing tenants and minor disputes or misdemeanours. Court leets, held twice a year, dealt with more series cases within the jurisdiction of the lord of the manor.

In practise, the customs of each manor varied greatly, and some held courts more regularly than others. Moreover, not all manor court rolls have survived, so (as always!) the chance of finding mention of an ancestor depends upon the availability of the records.

In Tudor Balsham, the Elizabethan lord of the manor was one Thomas Sutton, said to be the richest commoner in England at the time. On his death, Sutton bequeathed Balsham Manor, along with his other estates, to establish a school and hospital at the former monastery of Charterhouse in the City of London. As a result of this, the rolls have been reasonably well preserved and most have survived.

The first manor court after Thomas Sutton bought Balsham Manor was held on 14 December 1575. Earlier courts had recorded its jurors and those sending their excuses for absence (called essoin), but these lists were not long and it is apparent that the previous lords had not required all tenants to attend. However, in Thomas Sutton’s first courts, there are extensive lists of villagers, including those who couldn’t attend but who sent proxies, lists of head tithingmen (chief pledges) who were sworn as jurors and a list of customary tenants who were obliged to attend court. In total there are over 60 names of people of Balsham recorded. As such, it is an incredibly rich source of names for the parish.

The parish registers for Balsham have survived from 1560 onwards, and so some of these names can be cross-referenced in with baptisms, marriages and burials. In some cases, it gives more information about the person, such as ‘cleric’, ‘widow’, ‘junior’ or ‘aged’.

Below I have transcribed the full list of names from the manor court roll of 14 December 1575 and I hope it might help anyone who has ancestors from Balsham to further their knowledge. For those without Balsham ancestors, I hope it might illustrate how useful the manor court rolls can be to help understand a particular place and its people from many centuries ago.

Those who couldn’t attend, and the names of the proxies sent in their place:

  • William Freeman [to be replaced] by John Freeman
  • John Funstone by William Lawrence
  • Thomas Lawrence senior paid a fine
  • William Teversham by Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Cranfield by Robert Cranfield
  • Henry Tye, Thomas Malt, Robert Symond, John Symond and William Sibley by John Pearne the rector of Balsham paid a fine
  • Richard Mayles and Edmund Smyth by John Smyth junior
  • Leonard Durgeon by Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Pepper by Thomas Lawrence junior
  • Henry Norton by Richard Cornell
  • William Pryor by John Smyth senior
  • Robert Webb of [West] Wickham by Richard Marsh
  • John Stacey and John Brand by Leonard Woolward
  • John Lynzell and William Lynzell by William Flack
  • William Cornell by bailiff

The chief pledges who were sworn in as jury, in three groups of 11:

  • Richard Marsh
  • John Smith senior
  • John Cowle
  • William Lawrence
  • John Smith junior
  • John Starre
  • Leonard Woolward
  • Robert Haylock
  • Robert Bullen
  • Edmund Rule
  • Richard Cornell
  • Robert Smith
  • Thomas Lawrence junior
  • Henry Marsh
  • John Taylor junior
  • John Pearn
  • John Woolward
  • Matthew Teversham
  • Bartholomew Tassell
  • William Symond
  • Thomas Grigg
  • William Lorkin
  • Thomas Morton
  • John Abery
  • Robert Teversham
  • Thomas Smith
  • John Chaplin
  • John Diss senior
  • Robert Cranfield
  • Thomas Webb

The customary tenants who were obliged to attend court were:

  • Leonard Norton
  • Robert Broomstead, clerk
  • William Pryd junior
  • Letitia Diss, widow
  • Alice Cockerton, widow
  • Elizabeth Rule, widow
  • Marion Webb, widow
  • Katherine Haylock, widow
  • Joanna Pryd, aged.

Name changes by deed poll

Name change

How can you find evidence of a name change in your family history? Image from Wikiphoto published under Creative Commons Licence.

Family historians looking for proof of a name change will often find it simply does not exist. It was (and is) perfectly legal to change your name and begin using a new one without having to register the change with an official body.

So, in the days when divorce was prohibitively expensive for many, if a married woman began to live with a new partner, she could adopt his name without requiring any legal process.

However, some people preferred to make their name change official. Before the 20th century this was done through royal licence or sometimes through Private Acts of Parliament. Later, deed poll was used.

Deed poll is a legal contract which is made before a solicitor. It provides documentary evidence of the name change.

In most cases, the files are unlikely to have been kept by the solicitor for more than five years. However, for safekeeping, a deed poll can be entered in the Enrolment Books of the Supreme Court of Justice.

Not all people chose this option, as it came with a fee and, after 1914, required a public notice in The Gazette.  The cost and publicity put many people off. Therefore, absence of an enrolled deed poll does not mean the name change was informal. A deed poll may have been obtained, but not enrolled. The National Archives estimates that only 1% of names changed by deed poll were enrolled.

From 1914, all enrolled deed polls had to be advertised in either the London, Edinburgh or Belfast Gazette, and these papers are searchable for free online.

The London Gazette, 2 July 1929.
Reproduced under Open Government Licence.

These two examples are from the London Gazette on 2 July 1929. Wolfe Zukovsky of Leeds was seemingly very fond of his forename!

Further information can sometimes be found in the wider press. For example, this was reported in the Shields Daily News on 19 August 1925:

“Robinson Case Echo

Newton Changes His Name by Deed Poll

Mr Montague Noel Newton has changed his name by deed poll to Montague Norman Norreys. The fact is announced in the ‘London Gazette’. He is described as of Down Street, Piccadilly.

Mr Newton gave evidence for the Midland Bank when Mr Vharles [sic] Ernest Robinson unsuccessfully sued the bank for £125,000 – part of the £150,000 paid by Raja Sir Hari Singh (“Mr A”) to avoid being cited as co-respondent in a divorce petition.

Most of the money had fallen into the hands of William Cooper Hobbs, who was subsequently convicted of conspiracy and sent to prison.”

Shields Daily News, 19 August 1925. Accessed through the British Newspaper Archive on FindMyPast.

If you want to see the original enrollment, the Enrollment Books are held at The National Archives, Kew. Years 1903-2003 are held in series J18.

During the Second World War all name changes had to be declared and published in The Gazette so that the National Registration details could be altered and an identity card and ration book could be issued in the new name.


Discover your medieval ancestors through your surname

What can your family name tell you about your medieval ancestors?

Firstly, it may be able to tell you something about the occupation, parentage or location of a distant ancestor.

My Collier name comes from the occupation of charcoal burner, or coal seller, so (assuming there has been no illegitimacy) at least one of my ancestors from about 700 years ago worked in this industry.

Robinson is another name that appears in my tree, and so I can assume that another 13th or 14th century ancestor was called Robin or Robert.

Finally, my Blatchford ancestors take their name from Blatchford in Devon and so another branch of my tree would have been living there in about 1300.

The meanings of other surnames are harder to interpret. Was the first Mr Lilley the son of Elizabeth, a child with a fair complexion or from Lilley in Hertfordshire or Berkshire?

There are many surname dictionaries published and one very useful online site The Internet Surname Database. These offer suggestions of the meanings of surnames, but it is worth remembering that these sources are continually updated as the study of surname origins is continuous. As more information becomes available, more accurate definitions can be given to a surname.

But surnames can give more information about your ancestors than simply its meaning.

Distribution maps

A study has been done of the surnames recorded in the 1881 census. These are published online at Great British Family Names. Here, all names that had more than 100 bearers in 1998, have been mapped by (modern) postcode district.

A similar map can be found on the Ancestry website, using data from the 1891 census.

Searching the map shows how surnames were distributed throughout the UK. This can be an interesting exercise, as even common names, such as Collier, have densely populated areas, and areas where they don’t occur at all.

The Collier name was distributed along the western side of England, from south Lancashire to Dorset but, with the exception of Yorkshire, was rare in eastern England.

Although Robinson is also a relatively common name, its distribution was heavily weighted to the north of England. So I can now say that there was a likelihood that my ancestor called Robin/Robert lived in the north of England in c1300.

And, as anticipated, the name Blatchford was rarely found outside of Devon and Cornwall, confirming that this branch of my family line was almost certainly from south-west England.

Although there was migration in the UK before 1881, there is a surprising level of consistency between where a surname is based in 1881 and where it originated. Looking at the distribution of a surname can help to narrow down the options of where the surname began and where your medieval ancestors lived.

DNA testing

One relatively new way to help determine a surname’s origin is to use DNA testing. Using the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son in the same way that surnames are, can help to show whether bearers of a surname are related along their paternal line.

There is room for error, as what’s called non-paternity events can mean a surname does not reflect a direct male line (for example illegitimacy or adoption). However, if a reasonable sample of a surname is taken, it can help to identify how many origins the surname might have and can put people in touch with other family members who share their male line.
Sharing their family history research could help to identify their shared ancestor.

There are several companies that offer this, including familytreedna, Britain’s DNA and ancestryDNA.

We haven’t yet tested the Collier DNA, but as prices come down and the number of DNA samples collected increase, it is increasingly worth considering having it done.

Further reading: Surnames, DNA and Family History by George Redmonds, Turi King and David Hey.

What’s in a name?

It’s fairly well known that patronymic surnames ending in -son are English, pre-fixed with Mac or Mc are Scottish and with O are Irish. The Welsh often just used ‘s’ at the end and in Cornwall, which used fixed surnames later than the rest of England, they used just the father’s name with no prefixes or suffixes at all.

Interestingly too, some Welsh names took the prefix ‘ap’, meaning ‘son of’, but over time the ‘a’ was lost, so ap Rhys became Price, ap Richard became Pritchard and so on.