Looking Backwards: Nice Place You Have (1)
I’ve loved maps for as long as I can remember. Not only do they feed the imagination for far away and, presumably, exotic places, but they’re also mysteries to be unravelled. It always intrigued me how the maps had been created, how the people had travelled there and why were so many places saddled with such strange and bizarre names. I’m sure that my mother in particular spent many moments wondering why exactly I was chuckling when scanning an Atlas. It was of course the names of towns, rivers, mountains and lakes. Why, oh why, I wondered did they name that town by THAT name. Naturally, as always, such questions lead to many, many interesting places – and not all of them on maps. But what’s my point, you may be wondering about now, and how does it apply to my Ancestry investigations?
As my father was born in Southern Ireland and my mother had a very Irish maiden name I presumed that my lineage was going to be almost exclusively Ireland based. As I learnt very early on I was wrong – dead wrong. On my mother’s side most of her ancestors were from the Midlands and then, much later, scattered across the country but mostly from the Midlands southwards. Despite having (apparently) 36% Scottish DNA I have still yet to find any Scottish ancestors – but I’m working on that. But we should start from the beginning – at least as far as I’m concerned. My mother, I and both of my siblings were born in Liverpool (home of The Beatles!) on the North-West coast of England. This is from Wiki: The name comes from the Old English lifer, meaning thick or muddy water, and pōl, meaning a pool or creek, and is first recorded around 1190 as Liuerpul. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, "The original reference was to a pool or tidal creek now filled up into which two streams drained". The place appearing as Leyrpole, in a legal record of 1418, may also refer to Liverpool. Other origins of the name have been suggested, including "elverpool", a reference to the large number of eels in the Mersey.
This is, of course, one of the great things about English place names – many of them are OLD and some of them are so old that no one actually knows where the name comes from. In this case ‘Old English’ means Anglo-Saxon but there are places with modernised versions of Roman names, Celtic names, Scandinavian names and so on and, of course, place names have an influence on family names with a typical ‘X of Y’ Surname not exactly uncommon. [Side Note: It’s always funny finding someone in my lineage called ‘Fletcher’ or ‘Bowman’ or some such and ponder “I wonder what THEIR ancestors did for a living!”].
Going back a few more generations a LOT of my ancestors came from in and around Wolverhampton. From Wiki: The city is named after Wulfrun, who founded the town in 985, from the Anglo-Saxon Wulfrūnehēantūn ("Wulfrūn's high or principal enclosure or farm"). Before the Norman Conquest, the area's name appears only as variants of Heantune or Hamtun, the prefix Wulfrun or similar appearing in 1070 and thereafter. Alternatively, the city may have earned its original name from Wulfereēantūn ("Wulfhere's high or principal enclosure or farm") after the Mercian King, who according to tradition established an abbey in 659, though no evidence of an abbey has been found. The variation Wolveren Hampton is seen in medieval records, e.g. in 1381. So, solidly Anglo-Saxon again. I had no idea that Wolverhampton’s history went back quite that far.
Interestingly, digging a little deeper, a whole bunch of my maternal ancestors hail from a place called Sheriffhales in Shropshire. From Wiki: The name derives from Halh (Anglican) and scīr-rēfa (Old English) which is a combination of Hales (a nook of land, small valley) and Sheriff (a king's executive). At the time of the Domesday Book, it was held by Roger de Balliol the Sheriff of Shropshire. I did have a feeling it was a Norman sounding name but it looks like the village, which only had around 1000 people scattered across farmland when my 4th great-grandfather lived there, pre-dated the Norman invasion.
Another interesting, and somewhat weird, place name is Gnosall in Staffordshire. My 4th great-grandmother was born there at the turn of the 19th century. From Wiki: The village was mentioned in the Domesday Book, in which it was named Geneshale. It is listed there as having a population of 12 households. According to research presented online by the University of Nottingham, the name Gnosall derives from a combination of the Old Welsh Genou meaning 'mouth' and the Mercian word halh meaning 'a nook of land' or 'a small valley' or 'dry ground in marsh.' The Gnosall Parish Council also believes that Gnosall derives from both Genou and halh, however believes that halh actually stands for 'low-lying land by a river' and states that Gnosall translates to a ‘narrow valley that suddenly opens out into a wider one’. That same site also states that there are at least 27 different spellings of the name, the oldest surviving record being for Geneshale in the Domesday Book of 1086, and that it is only by chance that Gnosall is the current spelling. How STRANGE is that one – a name so ‘odd’ that no one could agree on its spelling!
My 5th great-grandmother was also born in Shropshire in a little place called Shifnal. From Wiki: The town, also once known as "Idsall" (relating to potential Roman links), most probably began as an Anglian settlement, established by the end of the 7th century. Shifnal is thought to be the place named "Scuffanhalch" in a 9th-century charter, as a possession of the monastery at Medeshamstede (later Peterborough Abbey). Though this seems a dubious claim, and the ancient charter is in fact a 12th-century forgery, the full picture is more complex. Sir Frank Stenton considered that "Scuffanhalch", along with "Costesford" (Cosford) and "Stretford", formed part of a list of places which had once been connected with Medeshamstede; and the charter purports to have been issued by King Æthelred of Mercia, during much of whose reign the bishop of Mercia was Sexwulf (or "Saxwulf"), founder and first abbot of Medeshamstede. The first part of the name "Shifnal" is reckoned to be a personal name, "Scuffa", while the second part, from "halh", means a valley, thus describing the town's topography. Unusually, the name of the town has alternated through the centuries between Idsall and Shifnal. Idsall is mentioned in a 9th-century charter as "Iddeshale", meaning "Idi's nook" or corner. A nook is said to be an area of land of approximately 20 acres (81,000 m2). It is often conjectured that the two names of Idsall and Shifnal were names of settlements on the east and west sides respectively of Wesley Brook, a brook which runs through the town, and is a tributary of the River Worfe. In the 19th century, J. C. Anderson, in his Shropshire its Early History and Antiquities, wrote that Idsall means "Hall of Ide", and that Shifnal is "Hall of Sceafa".
You see why I like looking at maps so much. Place names are not only important and endlessly fascinating but tell you a LOT about the history of that particular place as well as what was going on in the rest of the country. The things you can learn from an apparently simply enquiry into your ancestry continues to blow me away. MUCH more to follow…