Defining Historic Names

Defining Historic Names

Shelley Suffolk, All Saints’ Church


In any attempt to analyse our historical past, it surely requires an understanding of how and why people and places were named in the way they were. English surnames, or family names, are thought to have been first considered in around 1605 when Richard Verstegan (1550-1640) published his ‘Restitution of Decayed Intelligence’. His essays contained chapters on both forenames and surnames.

The study of personal names, as with the study of place-names requires a constructive approach, closely analysing the elements of the name. This will involve the separate sciences of etymology and genealogy. Analysis of place-names or ‘toponymy’ (toponyms) is one of ‘onomastics’ and is essential when researching for an original source for the name.

English place-names are as much a part of England’s cultural heritage as the English language or the landscape from which they spring. The strange names of many towns and villages can give us a clear insight into their early origins. Before making any obvious assumption by the apparent name of such a town, village, farmstead or hamlet, it may well require further investigation, often with surprising results.

Peoples surnames can provide a clear indication of their distant heritage. They may indicate the forebears trade, early location, physical appearance or even their temperament. A good understanding of the makeup of names will not only colour a piece of research but may also assist in locating family movements.

Our family surname ‘Shelley’ is almost certainly a reference to our once being domiciled in the small township manor of Shelley in Suffolk, close by Sudbury (South-borough). ‘Shelley’ is a locative name, a landscape (Shelley = a shelf of a lea or meadow clearing). Predominately, with the exception of the western parts of Britain, Wales, Devon, Cornwall and Cumbria, the naming was Anglo-Saxon. Place names generally depict significant natural features of an early landscape. Or they may indicate the territory of a Celtic or pre-Celtic, Brittonic society.

The vast majority of English place-names are more than a thousand years old. A great number reflect the historical migrations, conquests and settlements of the past and the different languages spoken by successive waves of inhabitants. Some of the river names predate Celtic and Germanic names. The Roman era left little of a mark on place-names. Latin was limited to written sources, although the Latin of the later Feudal period often became applied in reference to Church and civic administrations. Such were the references to Forum market, magna and parva (great or small) or to Regis as King. When it came to place-name references it was the old English that prevailed over the subsequent Middle English.

Scandinavian settlements that took place in the 9th, 10th  and 11th centuries resulted in many place-names of Scandinavian origin found today in the north and east of England. Norman French can be found in some areas, influencing the spelling and pronunciation of a few medieval places.

The earliest tribal ‘folk-names’ leave interesting facts providing a clear indication of their early strongholds. Agricultural lands had finer distinctions. Field names can provide specific details of their past history, qualities and features. From a compilation of all this information we are able to know more about the names of former tribal leaders, local topography and the origins of its inhabitants.

A small number of place-names have pagan associations. Such names illuminate the social structure and legal customs of early times. After 1066, many of the Old English personal names for both men and women gradually fell into disuse and were largely replaced by ‘Christian’ names introduced by the Normans. Place-names and personal names form an inextricable part of our English history and socio-cultural heritage. In this context one might also mention the great importance of recording ancient shop signs and the names of public houses or inns. Old city street names indicate much about the past. They provide an interesting insight to previous market places, names of former mayors and aldermen etc. In rural places, the names of old lanes, particularly ancient green lanes no longer maintained by the local authority. The larger picture can be drawn by observations of these many minor features.

Here are some typical examples of Old English descriptive place names:

barrow = wood                 burh = borough                 combe = small valley

cot = small house             dun = hill              gate = road

ham = settlement            hamm = meadow within a bend in a river

holt = wood                        hurst = wooded hill          ing = people

leigh, lea, ley = woodland cleared for grass           mere = lake or wetland  nei, ney = island

port = market town         stead = place      stow, stowe = holy place

ton, tun = enclosed settlement                  wick, wich = market farm              worth, worthy = enclosure

See also Shelley Family Origins

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