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The Origin and Meaning of Our Surname



The surname BARNHAM originated in England, and descendants of the immigrant ancestor in North America have also used the spellings BARNAM and BARNUM. The last of these is by far the most common in North America today, while BARNHAM continues to be the most common spelling in England.

Sir Francis Barnham, MP, (1576-1646) discussed in his journal the origin of the surname Barnham. He stated, “Our Name as we have it by tradition, strenghtened with probable circumstances, and some good records (which I have heard some of my friends say they have seene) was first gentilized, or at least advanced, by Sir Walter Barnham, a Baron of the Exchequer in the time of King Richard II, and soe continued in a flowrishinge estate (at a place called Barnham in Suffolke not far from Thetford, where divers descents of them lye now buried) till the time of King Henry VII, all which I have received from my grandmother, father, and uncles, whoe spake it with much confidence, as being delivered to them, by theire friends of the former age, and the truth of it assured by divers records, however it is not that which I will binde on as an infallible truth, because I my self have not seene that which may soe absolutly assure it, and because I for myne owne parte care not to fetch a pedegree farther then from the certaine memory of a grandfather that was rich and honest, and a father that was vertuous and wise;....”



Frank Holmes, in the Directory of the Ancestral Heads of New England Families, calls the name a corruption of Bearnham, meaning a town in a wood or on a hill, and notes (incorrectly) that the original family seat was at Southwick, Hants [Hampshire], England. Bardsley, in his Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, defines it as a location-derived surname meaning “of Barnham,” and referring to parishes in Ely, Chichester, and Norwich.

In fact, our surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is a locational name for any of the towns or villages called Barnham in the English counties of Sussex, Norfolk and Staffordshire. Locational surnames were derived from—and originally designated—the place of residence of the bearer. They were employed in France at an early date (e.g., La Porte “at the entrance to”) and were introduced into England by the Norman conquerors, many of whom were known by the titles of their estates.

Barnham in Sussex is recorded as “Berneham” in the Domesday Book of 1086, while the two places in Norfolk and Staffordshire appear in the same source as “Bernham”. All of these places have the same derivation. That is: a combination of the pre-7th-Century Old English byname Beorn(a) [from beorn (Old Norse barn), a warrior] with the Old English suffix “ham”, meaning homestead or village.

During the Middle Ages, when migration for the purpose of job-seeking was becoming common, people often took their former village name with them as a means of identification, resulting in a wide dispersal of the name. Early examples include Walter de Bernham, mentioned in the Hundred Rolls of Suffolk in 1273, and John de Bernham, in the Book of Fees of Kent in 1293. Benedict Barnham is recorded in 1572 in the Register of Oxford University. Sir Francis Barnham, M.P. (1577-1646), supported the parliamentarians in the Civil War.

An early coat of arms granted to the family is said to have depicted a red cross engrailed between four red crescents on a silver shield. The Crest was a red crescent between two laurel branches in orle proper. The first recorded spelling of the family name is that of Simon de Bernham, which was dated 1273, in the “Hundred Rolls of Norfolk”, during the reign of King Edward I (ruled 1272-1307).

As mentioned above, Beorn is the Old English word for warrior (or freeman in Anglo-Saxon society), but was also a name used by some noblemen (since “nobleman” was an alternate meaning). It is related to the Scandinavian names Björn (Swedish) and Bjřrn (Norwegian and Danish), meaning bear. The word baron also developed from Beorn.

The basic meaning of Barnham in Old English was thus “the homestead (-ham) of the family or followers of a man called Beorn”.



A Research Guide to the Genealogy of the Barnum/Barnam/Barnham Family in England and North America

The information on this site is developed and maintained by Patrick Barnum

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