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Topographical Surnames 
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.
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.
Topographical features refer to buildings and places that show the effect of man on the natural landscape. They often became the surnames our ancestors chose or were given.


Abbey: lived by an abbey or priest’s house

Acker, Ackerman: someone who lived by a plot of cultivated land.

Acton: from the towns of that name in Middlesex and Shropshire

Agate: lived near a gate

Backhouse: from bake house

Badger: a village in Shropshire

Badham: a place in West Midlands

Bailey, Bales, Bayley: lived near the outermost wall of a castle

Barnes: a person who lived near a barn or granary

Barrow: lived by a burial mound

Berry, Bury: a fortified place

Birmingham: from that city

Bridge: lived near a bridge

Church: lived near a church

Churchill: a place in Devon, Oxfordshire and Somerset

Coates: from cott, a humble shelter

Cross, Crouch, Croucher, Crouchman: lived near a cross

Downton: From the town on the hill (Old English for hill is dun)

Drayton: from various towns by that name

Dyke: lived near an ancient earthworks

Eckersley: from the town of that name (Eckhardt’s settlement in the wood)

Eggleston: from towns of that name (Ecgwulf’s enclosure or tun )

Endecott: lived at the end of  a row of cottages

Fallow: land left uncultivated

Field: lived near a field

Fieldhouse: lived in a house in pasture land

Fordham: from the village by the ford

Foyle: lived near a pit or man made hollow

Furlong: length of a field

Garner: lived near a granary

Garth: an enclosed area or yard

Gates: lived near a road or gate

Gillingham: from that town

Greenaway: a grassy path

Greenhouse: someone who lived in a house by the village green

Hall: lived in or near a large house

Hardcastle: an impregnable castle

Hatch, Hatcher: a gate or entrance to a forest

Hathaway: a path across a heath

Haw, Hawe: someone who lived near an enclosure

Hay, Hayman: lived near an enclosure

Hayhurst: an enclosure on a wooded hill

Hilton: from the settlement on the hill

House: lived in a house rather than a cottage

Howes: dwelt by a barrow

Hyde: farmed a “hide” of land (about 100 acres)

Kershaw: Church near a grove

Lampit: a loam pit

Langton, Longton: long town

Lee, Lees: cultivated land

Loader: lived by a road or man made channel (Middle English loden to lead)

Malthus: lived near a malthouse

Meynell: an isolated dwelling

Mill: lived near the village mill

Monkhouse: lived or worked in a monastery

Newbold: lived in a new dwelling

Newhouse: a new building

Newey: new enclosure

Orchard: lived by an orchard

Ormiston: Orme’s settlement

Overall: lived in the upper hall

Park, Parke; lived near the landowner’s hunting ground

Parsonage: lived in or near the parson’s house

Pickles: lived near a small field (Middle English pighel)

Pound: lived near an animal enclosure

Port:lived near a gate to a town, harbour or market

Prescott: the priest’s cottage

Rigby: lived at a farm or settlement on a ridge

Rochester: from that town

Rowe: lived by a hedge or in a row of houses

Ryland: lived near a field where rye was grown

Schofield: a hut in a field

Scholes: lived in a rough hut or shelter

Sell, Seller: lived in arough hut made for animals

Somerscales: summer shelter

South: lived in the south of the settlement

Southgate: lived near the south gate

Stables: lived near the stables

Staples; lived near a boundary post

Titchener, Tickner, Tichner: lived near a crossroads (Old English twicen, two)

Town,Toner: came from a village rather than the country

Townshend, Townend: lived at the extremity of the village or town

Travers: lived near a bridge

Tye: lived near a common pasture

Upton: living in the upper part of the village

Vine: lived near a vineyard

Wall: near a stone built wall

Real Lives:

Church: Did Charlotte Church’s ancestor sing in the choir?

Churchill: Sir Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1875. His forebear John Churchill was 1st Duke of Marlborough and Blenheim was built for him by a grateful nation after his exploits in wars against the French in the 18th century. The family came from Dorset where their original home would have been much humbler!

Monkhouse: The late Bob Monkhouse’s humour may not have been appreciated in the monastery where his ancestor lived or worked!

Prescott: John Prescott may be a political firebrand but his ancestor may have been a Priest!

Did You Know:

How to identify whether you have a name of topographic origin.

Firstly it may well be on the list above so look closely and consider variants that look or sound like those in the list. Do you have a name that is the same as an existing city, town or village? You may also have surname that refers to a building of some type. This too identifies your name a topographic in origin.

If this fails then look closely at your surname and see if it contains elements that reveal its meaning. These will be words and parts of words that are of ancient origin and have been passed down the centuries from the languages first spoken by the inhabitants of these islands. They were used to describe the structures they built or the agricultural features they introduced which formed the medieval landscape they lived in. Many of these are still understood by us today because they form crucial a part of our cultural heritage.

The Old English word tun originally meant a fence and then an enclosure but it went on to describe a settlement, presumably behind a protective fence, and in the Old 

English period (500-1000 A.D.) was already used to describe a village and then a town. So if you have the elements tun, ton or town in your surname then it is probably topographical in origin. Examples: Tunstall, Upton, Townsend.

Another common Old English element we all comprehend is the word ham which was our ancestor’s word for homestead and often appears after the name of the original builder and resident. So we find that the homesteads of  Gydla, Billa and Beornmund becoming Gillingham, Billingham and Birmingham.

Other elements to look out for are:


bold, a dwelling house

bury, a fortified place

hay, hey, an enclosure

park, large enclosed area for hunting                  

worth, a settlement

Copyright © 2016 by Stephen Thomas