Stephen Thomas
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Great Britain Research
Stephen Thomas
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Topographical Surnames

UK Professional Family History Research

Topographic surnames are those names adopted by or given to a person which were taken from a feature in the landscape in which they lived or where they came from. They fall into two broad categories. The first of these refers to people named after the natural features that medieval name would have seen all around him in nature. People would be named after the Hill or Dale where their dwelling was located.


We are concerned here with the second group of topographical surnames which are those named after a feature in the built environment. These are structures erected by medieval man in his quest to adapt the environment to his needs, to provide shelter or protection or to trade and worship. In the case of surnames such as House, for example, this might have indicated a person who lived in something rather more significant than the modest cottages and huts that most of the population occupied. It might have been the most significant building in the village. It might also indicate a householder rather than a tenant. Variants include Houseman and Hoose. An extension of this would be Housley made up of House and Lee (a clearing in a wood) which would mean a person who lived in a house in the wood.


Somebody who lived near a Bridge might also be Bridgeman, Briggs or Bridger. Given the vulnerability to the environment that man faced in the Middle Ages the building and maintenance of bridges was one of the three major feudal obligations. Its importance can be measured when we consider that the other two were bearing arms and maintaining fortifications.


Some care must be taken when deciding whether a name is topographical or occupational in origin. Sometimes a man might be called House because he worked there. Similarly Bridgeman might be so named because he not only lived nearby but probably collected the tolls from travellers as well.


Religion played a huge part in the life of medieval man. Stone crosses were erected by the roadside and in market places and people who dwelt nearby took the name Cross or where forms of Old English still persisted, the name Crouch from cruc, the word for cross. Church and Churchill would refer to a person who lived near a place of worship as is the rarer Churchyard. Living near a feudal lord’s fortified buildings would result in a person being known as Castle. Wall or Wallbank would refer to somebody living near to such a structure.


All these structures might be grouped together into villages, towns and cities and a person might then be designated as one who came from these previously named places. Thus we find persons called Birmingham, London, Gillingham, Chester. York etc.


Their origins as smaller settlements can be seen with the use of the suffix for hamlet or settlement, ‘ham’ in Old English. The suffix ‘chester’ comes from another Old English term for the many forts that the Romans built throughout the length and breadth of the country and is found in names such as Woodchester, Chichester and Rochester, all given to people and families who came from those towns.


Man also had an effect on nature by means of cultivation and altering the landscape by making Orchards and Groves and building Barrows as well as spiritual and religious constructions. Agriculture although not built environment is quite separate from natural features and is included here as it represents changes made by man on his surroundings such as the clearance of land for pasture or cultivation.