Woodland Placenames




Forests and Chases of England and Wales c. 1000 to c. 1850






Woodlands in England: an appreciation of Hilda Annie Wilcox. Brian K. Roberts  The Geographical Journal, vol167, No. 2 June2001, pp.163-173







Natural England Web Site

The Surname Atlas

The Gazetteer of British Placenames








Bradley One Name Study





sceaga, ‘small wood’, probably a strip or projecting (shaw used from sixteenth to nineteenth centuries as ‘strip of wood or underwood forming the border of a field’ (Gelling and Cole, p. 245; Smith, PNE, 2, pp, 99-100)








An Environmental Approach to Surnames of the Ancient Woodlands:

Tracing a surname to its place of origin begins by constructing a path with surname references placed in their geographic and temporal context. The article that follows illustrates the use of place name and environmental evidence to supplement the process of building a surname trail.....





The Background:

It's not precisely  know when  the Saxons began to organize the landscape on the open field principal. Certainly by the late 9th century manorial records indicate farming was taking place on the central plains of England with the village as the nucleus of the medieval economy. As England's population expanded more villages were created and more land brought under cultivation with new fields, pastures and meadows carved from the nearby woods.

The Saxons employed an extensive topographical vocabulary to denote features of the landscape and woodlands were no exception. In some instances the terms reflect regional dialect, in others, subtle nuances as to the nature or function of the woodland. Consequently village names derived from the woodland reflect a rich diversity of form. Suffixes such as ley hurst, shaw, and wood  were commonly used. Species of trees, Oak, Ash, Elm, were frequently appended to form place names or features of the landscape. 

While the village system was largely in place by the time of the Norman conquest, the role of the forest would grow in importance as it served as a source of income, game and recreation for the Norman aristocracy. Eventually “Royal Forests” would be established which, at their greatest extent, would cover approximately 1/3 of the English landscape. While the Royal Forests were not entirely woodlands, forest law greatly restricted and prescribed their use and exploitation. 

From the 11th through the early 14th century, England experienced climatic warming and an acceleration of population growth. Estimates suggest more than a doubling of population occurred during this period.  A  further expansion of the village system into the adjacent woods was needed to accommodate this growth. As this was precisely the time during which surnames were being widely adopted, it should not be surprising that surnames derived from the woodlands or from settlements named for woods, were common.

Geographic Stability:

A notable characteristic of many surnames is their geographic stability. In many  instances present day surname distributions are found in close proximity to their point of origin, often within a few miles of the village or feature after which they were named.

Cary 1787: Part of Hertfordshire showing parks and woods

But what of surnames derived from the ancient woodlands? In order to examine the degree to which surname distributions are geographically associated with the woodlands, we would first need to know the extent of woodlands at the time surnames were formed. The task of determining the distribution of woodlands was first undertaken by a remarkable young woman, Hilda Annie Wilcox. In 1927 as a Masters student at Liverpool University, Wilcox began the complex task of mapping the Ancient Woodland. Her methodology was ingenious. Wilcox, would not only construct one map, she would construct two. Each would be based on entirely different sources of data, therefore, one could be used to act as a check against the other. The first would rely on English places names and references drawn from the Domesday Book. The second would assemble data drawn from 17th and 18th century county maps. This latter map has been studied by Brian K. Roberts and found to be remarkably consistent  with our contemporary understanding of the ancient woodland. The work of Wilcox was followed beginning in the 1950’s by Darby (1952 - 77), and later an Atlas of Rural Settlement undertaken by English Heritage. Most recently Natural England has produced a highly detailed digital survey of the remaining ancient woodland to be used as a guide in land use planning.

The Methdology:

To test the association of surnames with  the woodlands, we will use  The Natural England GIS Digital Boundary set as a surrogate for the ancient woodlands. 76% of the 41,029 woods in the data base are named and can provide important clues to place and surname etymology. The search facility of The Surname Atlas will be used to isolate surname elements from the 1881 census. Similarly place names  with the same elements can queried from the Gazetteer of British Place Names. The Place name distributions can then be compared with the distribution of surnames and the woodlands. Several specific surnames will be mapped to illustrate distributions with single, plural and multiple origins.  Finally  a case study will examine in more detail surnames derived from "Box" woods. (Unless otherwise noted surname distributions will be mapped "per 100,000 population" to eliminate bias caused by urban agglomeration or by sparsely inhabited areas. In doing so the maps will hopefully focus attention on the underlying impact of the woodlands. )

Surnames derived from "ley".

The most common "woodland" names are those  bearing the "ley" suffix or it's variants.{ ley(1,828), Leigh(133), Lee(56), and Lea(47) } Remarkably 775 surnames with a frequency greater than 100 carry the "ley" suffix. "Ley" surnames accounted for 773,386 individuals and 2.96 % of the population in 1881. The suffix appears in combination with place names, topographic features, personal names, crop types, and species of animal and  trees.

Bradley Surname 1881 census frequency = 24,047 Rate/100,000 = 80.6

 Multiple origins are likely including the Manchester Region, West Yorkshire, the Midlands and Gloucestershire. Bradley place names appear to be spatially associated with the surname concentrations. Bradley woods are also closely associated with Bradley places.

Oakley Surname 1881 census frequency = 6,359 Rate/100,000 = 21.6

 The distribution of the Oakley surname is closely aligned with the woodlands, particularly the flanks of the Pennines and the margins of the Chilterns. A number of Oakley Places and Oakley woods are found in close proximity to the surname clusters

Shaw Surnames:

Henshaw Surname 1881 census frequency = 2,552 Rate/100,000 = 8.55

The Henshaw surname is relatively rare. It is fond on the margins  of the Pennines in close proximity to both Henshaw places and Henshaw Woods. 

Wood Surnames: 

Sherwood Surname 1881 census frequency = 3,815 Rate/100,000 = 12.79

The Sherwood surname  is widely distributed throughout the ancient woodlands. There are several places named Sherwood however they don't appear to be closely related to the surname distribution. Phil Sherwood has suggested  that the name is related to "Shirewoods" This certainly seems to be the case in numerous locations in the north west where Shirewoods exist.

Woodbury Surname 1881 census frequency = 263 Rate/100,000 = .88

 Woodbury  is an extremely rare Surname. Located in Devon, it likely has a single origin Derived from the place name Woodbury.

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