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The Evolution of Names

Prior to the 11th century surnames were not common and after that date they only slowly, and inconsistently, came into daily use. Even Kings were known only by their first names and, perhaps, an appellation describing their birth. Thus King John was known as John Lackland because he was the youngest son of King Henry II and not bequeathed his own domain. King Henry IV was known as Henry Bolingbroke because he was born in that town. His father, the Duke of Lancaster, was known as John of Gaunt after his city of birth, Ghent, in Flanders. Historians know this family of English kings as the Plantagenets because the founder of the clan, Count Geoffrey of Anjou, earned himself a nickname. The story is told that while disguised in battle, in order to make himself known to his followers, he leaned from his horse and grasped a sprig of the yellow flowering plante de genet, the common broom corn, and thrust it in his helmet. It became a habit of his to wear this flower in his hat in memory. However, only the later Kings of that house would have recognized the surname as their own.

Family surnames that were passed on from father to son evolved slowly, starting in the cities. In the countryside, in villages that might count less than 100 inhabitants, having a family name was not important. Eventually surnames were forced upon families for census, inheritance, tax, military obligations, or other administrative reasons. Land rights, fishing rights, and their produce were also taxable assets to the King and early on the family name was used to determine this as well. By 1450 family surnames were a fixture of English life.

There are four types of native English surnames. First were those based on the father’s given name, for example, "William, the son of John," or "William Johnson." Others included Williamson or Williams, Anderson (Andrew’s son), Tennyson (Dennis’ son) and Thomson amongst the English, the Mac preface with the Scottish, Mc or O' with the Irish, Ap with the Welsh, and Fitz with the Normans. These types of names could be altered significantly over time. The name David, for example, has become: Davey, Davids, Dowell, Davidson, Davidge, Davie, Davies, Davis, Davison, Dayson, Davy, Davys, Daw, Dawe, Dawes, Dawkes, Dawkins, Daws, Dawson, Day, Davitt, Dowson, Dowd, Dowden, and Dowling.

Second were those based on a locality or place of origin, for example, "William, who lives by the marsh," or "William Marsh." Others included Rivers, Cullen (back of the river), Dunlop (muddy hill) and Banker (lived on the bank ‘of the river’), or for more specific locations, as Lancaster or York. For the latter type, these names might infer a place of residence or birth, or of possession, as in "Lord of the manor." The de Lancaster [of Lancaster] family were rulers of the Earldom of Lancaster. The Hissem/Heysham name derives from the manor of Heysham.

Third were those based on an occupation. These included the baker, barber, carpenter, carter & cartwright (drives a cart & makes a cart), chandler (makes candles), cooper (a barrel maker), farmer (a tax ‘farmer,’ or collector), fisher, fletcher (one who makes arrows), forrester, fowler (bird catcher), fuller (processes wool), miller, sawyer (saws wood), shepard, smith, tailor, turner (makes bowls, etc., by turning them on a lathe), wainwright, and wheelwright, for example. Palmer would be a pilgrim, not an occupation, but an achievement. Some of these occupations also had feminine versions which became hereditary surnames. For example, the feminine of Baker is Baxter, of Brewer is Brewster and of Weaver is Webster. Occupational surnames, as a class, also include office names. Examples of these are Marshall (a tender of horses, or an office of high state), Steward (a manager of an estate) and Abbott (the head of an abbey).

Finally there were those based on nicknames. For instance, Tomkin meant “little Tom,” Wilkin “little William,” Bartlett “little Bartholomew,” Perkins “little Peter,” Philpott “little Phil,” and Dickens “little Dick.” Blakely meant black haired while Moore indicated one who looked like a Moor, that is dark. Finch was a swindler. Shakespeare meant to brandish a spear while Sherlock was one with bright, fair hair. While the name is Irish, not English, I must include Kennedy, which is “ugly head.”

Many people did not know how to spell their names so they were written down however the clerk or priest decided to spell them. There was no “correct” spelling and everyone felt free to use their own phonetic or idiosyncratic spelling. What was important was how the names were pronounced.

The great Norman families of the Conquest did develop surnames, but they did not consistently pass them from father to son. Thus Roger Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, and father of Roger of Poitou, was succeeded by his eldest son, Robert de Belesme, whose own son was William Talvas. Many families who later had different surnames sprang from the same paternal stock. An example is that of the powerful Lathom family of Lancashire who descend in the male line from a Saxon or Norseman called Dunning. As a family spread, younger sons were given land in different manors and used the manor name as their surname.

To a great extent surnames were, in the beginning, less family names then added nomenclature to better identify a particular man and his position in society. It is also possible for a man to have different names in different parts of the country. However, it should not be assumed that even these general rules were consistently followed. It was the beginning of a naming custom and subject to personal interpretation and family convenience.

Norman Surname Protocol

During the lifetime of a father it was very uncommon for any other family member to use his surname. It was, after all, the signal of his entitlement to his domain. Thus he would be, for example, “the” Montgomery. Along with that entitlement of domain, he was also the custodian of the family seal, the banner that represented the family in battle, the Coat of Arms, and any other family heirlooms which were carried with his dynasty. On the father's death the eldest son would inherit all, including the right to the surname. The younger sons usually adopted the locative surnames of their own domains. Thus de Merton for the lord of the manor of Merton. On the eldest son's death the rights went to his sons, unless childless, in which case it went to the next oldest son of the father. At that time he would change his surname from the locative name which he had been using. Locative surnames were important legally and became his domain name. They were charter proof of entitlement to his holding, his new domain. Most younger sons would never get to use the family surname.

Fitz- Names

While often the sign of bastardy (FitzRoi / FitzRoy being the bastard son of the King), they more often were temporary surnames, held by the eldest son while awaiting to inherit the patrimony, or by a younger son who did not possess a domain pending his father’s death. FitzHugh would be the son of Hugh.

The name Adam de Hessam would mean that he was Adam who was at that time the lord of the manor of Hessam. It is conceivable that if Adam owned more than one manor, as was common, that he might be called by another name when spoken of in relationship to that place.


The preposition 'de' can refer to an hereditary origin, a place of birth, a manor or town where an individual has a dwelling, or where he performs a particular duty. This simple identification of patrimony would eventually be dropped, considered clumsy by most families. Some retained it until the 14th and 15th centuries, but mostly for affectation and distinction, others just blended the 'de' or 'd'' into the surname, as in Defoe.

How Words Evolve

To understand the evolution of the family name over time from Hessam to Heysham to Hissem, I think it's important to understand how words evolve under various influences. The first influence is that of foreign languages. When the Norman’s invaded in 1066 they brought, in addition to a new social order, a new language, French, which became the language of court, of the nobility and of the upwardly mobile. The language of the Anglo-Saxons was relegated to a peasant patois. The result over time was a mingling of the languages and a number of interesting dichotomies. As an example, the cattle and pigs tended by the serfs became boeuf, or beef, and pork when it arrived on the Norman Lord's table. The greatest influence of the Norman Conquest on English place- names occurred in spelling and pronunciation. This was because there were many sounds in English names unfamiliar to the Normans. They solved this by modifying the English names to make them easier to pronounce. While I don't really have any evidence to support this, I believe that Hessam or Hessham became Heysham under this influence.

The second influence affecting the evolution of words is related to how well anchored the language is. The spelling, pronunciation and meaning of words will drift when little exists to hold them in place. Before reading and writing became general, before books were readily available, and certainly before the advent of dictionaries, there was little to keep words from changing. To read the letters of George Washington, an educated and wealthy man, is a revelation in idiosyncratic spelling. Another type of anchor is tradition. In Lancashire, in England, the force of tradition, not to mention the existence of a village of the same name, would keep change in both the pronunciation and spelling of the name of Heysham in check. Once in America, however, members of the Heysham family might feel free to modify the spelling into a simpler form and one closer to their current pronunciation. By the way, it was at this same time that Webster was producing a new dictionary that simplified spelling and brought it more in line with current pronunciation, producing an American word shop from the English word shoppe.

The third influence is that people are, generally, lazy in their speech. Hard consonants become softened with great use. Vowel sounds made with more effort, like the long e, evolve into the more easily pronounced short e. So did not becomes didn’t which is often as not pronounced did’n. In the same way the surname Heysham (He-sham) became Hyssam or Hissam (He-sam), which became Hissum (Hi-sum) or Hissem (Hi-sem). The spelling, in this case, following the change in pronunciation.

As an example, birth and marriage records from the northern counties of England, both Lancashire and Yorkshire, taken in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries contain a long list of very similar sounding names: Hesom, Hessom, Hesam, Hessam, Heesam, Heesham, Heisom, Heisome, Hisam, Hysum, Hisom, Highsame, Hishame, Hyshame, Hishon, Hysham, Heysome, Heysom, and Heisham, in addition to Heysham.

The evolution of this change in America often occurred in as little as a single generation. I have records of one brother who spelled his name Hissam and the other brother Heysham. David Heysham, our forebear, had a son recorded as Thomas Hissam (perhaps illustrating how the name was pronounced at the time), while a John Heysham, born in New York, was recorded as John Hessum Heysham. That being said, much of the variation in what I’ve found is due, I think, to transcription errors. Census takers and church clerks, sometimes poorly schooled, often used phonetic spellings, thus Hesom or Hisam instead of Heysham. Amateur historians and genealogy volunteers added their own errors while transcribing the original documents onto the internet. This is understandable, however, because the handwriting of the census takers was often so poor that little can be made out. It seems that its only in recent times that the injunction to print entries on official documents has prevailed.

The Significance Of Given Names

As surnames developed given names changed their character. Many early names had been compounds. For example, Sigibert (victory-shining), Childeric (battle-powerful), Fredegund (peace-battle) and Radegund (counsel-battle). Early on these descriptive names began to be repeated across generations until they formed a name pool for that particular culture. Parents would choose names from this pool rather than invent new ones for their children. As time went on the language changed and in many cases the words that formed the original name passed out of use, leaving the fossilized form in the name. This is why we do not recognize the meanings of many names today. For instance, the name Edwin was originally composed of the Old English words ead, which means "prosperity, fortune, riches" and wine, which means "friend." Both of these words have passed out of the language in the intervening thousand or so years.

The pool of given names in use in England changed radically with the Norman conquest in 1066. Anglo-Saxon names such as Bealdwine, Cuthbert, Eadgyth, Ethelwine, Etheldreda, Wilfrith and Wulfgar passed out of the name pool. With the political ascendancy of the Normans, names like Emma, Matilda, Richard, and William became constants in English nomenclature. At the same time a few Old English names, like Edward and Alfred, were preserved because they were names of saints or prominent kings. Other names were preserved because they were reinforced and modified by Germanic names from the Normans, like Robert.

Christians were encouraged to give their children biblical names, adding the Jewish Mary, Martha, Matthew, James, Joseph and John, and the Greco-Roman Anthony, Catherine, Margaret, Mark, Martin, Nicholas and Paul to the name pool. Native martyrs and saints soon arose and added their names to the pool. This Christian name pool sometimes preserved names that would have otherwise fallen out of use. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Edward, for Saint Edward, survived, while that of Ethelred, for a luckless king, passed away.

The prominence of any given name at a particular point in history is driven by events. Just as Scarlett O'Hara, in the novel "Gone With The Wind," planned to name her daughter Victoria Eugenie after Queen Victoria of England and Empress Eugenie of France [Rhett named her Bonnie Blue instead], in the middle ages they were named after King Richard I or Saint Thomas a' Becket. In the early 13th century the most common given names in England for men were William (14.5%), Richard (10.5%), John (8%), Robert (6.5%) and Hugo (5.5%). Giles, a prominent name in the Heysham family, doesn't make the list. For women, the names are Matilda (16%), Alice (14%), Agnes (10%), Edith (7%), and Emma (5%).

The most common English given names by the late 16th century for men were John (20%), Thomas (13.5%), William (13%), Richard (9%) and Robert (6%). Giles was the 27th most common name. For women, the names are Elizabeth (13.5), Anne (11%), Joan (9%), Margaret (9%), Alice (8.5%), Mary (6.5%) and Agnes (6%).

The Significance Of Middle Names

To close out this discussion on names a word must be said about middle names. It was German immigrants who introduced this naming custom to America. They were in the habit of giving their children two given names at baptism. The first was a spiritual name, often that of a favorite saint, and the second was the secular name. The secular name was the name by which the child was known and the name used in legal records. But it was not until the early 19th century that this custom caught on outside the German community. By the 1840s, it had grown into a popular practice. In 1840 92% of the students at Princeton had middle names. This custom would continue to grow and by World War I it was assumed that everyone in America had a middle name.

Middle names constitute a separate nomenclature, useful for minor purposes such as pacifying relations who want their names to live on, or perhaps genuinely acting as tokens of respect to prior generations. In some instances women would give their maiden name as a middle name to the oldest son so it would not be lost completely or in honor of a famous or beloved father. William Postelthwait Heysham, who you’ll read about later, was the grand-son of Dorothy Postelthwait and William Heysham. Often this naming would be passed down through the generations as a family tradition. See the Mounsey-Heysham's, Heysham-Sayre's and Heysham-Gibbon's. There are also cases where families have adopted such a name to acknowledge a substantial inheritance from a relative with a different surname, as in the Thornton-Heysham's. In the mid-19th century John G Croker had a farmer friend, Robert Maddicott. John sold Robert his land, presumably on rather generous terms, and Robert named his next child Robert Croker Maddicott. Finally, some of our relatives have used the middle name to make political statements, hence Alexander Hamilton Heysham, Schuyler Colfax (Grant's first Vice President) Hissem and Nicolas Biddle (head of the Bank of the United States) Heysham.

There are, of course, no limits on the number of middle names and the English, especially during the Victorian period, went to extremes. King George V's name was George Frederick Ernest Albert Windsor. The author J.R.R. Tolkien's full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In our genealogy we have a Charles Augustus John Heysham, a Captain in the Royal Navy.

For the purposes of genealogical research, middle names can be invaluable, pointing to relationships not otherwise knowable.

Steve Hissem
San Diego, California