The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Kindred SOULs?

by Don Steel

This article was originally published in the June 1992 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.


Surname Spellings

One of my childhood memories is of how cross my parents used to get when people put an ''e' on the end of our name - 'STEELE'. Later, in my genealogical investigations into my Ayreshire ancestors I found 29 different spellings of STEEL. Before 1800 the most common was STEILL. With the Industrial Revolution it got assimilated with the spelling of the metal, perhaps because this had become more familiar and sounded the same.

On my mother's side, my gt grandmother was called Martha KITCHINER. Her father, William Kitchiner of Arlesey, Beds, who married Frances Sole, died in 1879 and is buried in the churchyard at Sandon, Herts, alongside his son Gregory Thomas Kitchener who died in 1929. On those two tombstones side by side the father is spelt KITCHINER and the son KITCHENER. When I started my researches in the 1950s there were living first cousins, some of whom were KITCHINERs and other KITCHENERs.

Until recent years spellings of surnames varied for three reasons. Firstly, even well educated people didn't care very much about spelling, which was simply a device for getting sounds on paper. Shakespeare signed his name in six different ways. Standardised spelling came in with the dictionaries.

Secondly, relatively few people could write. When people got married or had a child baptised, the clerk either knew their surname already and wrote it down how he thought it sounded, or else asked them what it was and wrote what they said phonetically. The very first piece of transcription practice in Derek Emmison's How To Read Local Archives 1550-1750 is a 1596 extract from an Essex parish register beginning:

Agnes Martyn wyff of John Martin was buried the viii of Marche

Here the surname is spelt differently in the same entry.

Thirdly pronunciation differed from county to county, even place to place within a county. So a family that moved a few miles away might find their name spelt the same and pronounced quite differently, pronounced the same and spelt differently, or even both pronounced and spelt differently.

Surname Derivations

There is no difficulty, then, in accepting SOLE, SOUL, and SOAL as the same name - we have abundant examples of cross-over within the same families. But what about names that appear quite different - like SOLE, SAUL, SEWELL and SOLLEY?

If you look them up in the surname dictionaries you will find quite different derivations. Reaney's Dictionary of British Surnames gives for SOLE 'Dweller by the miry place. Old English sol, mud, wallowing place for animals'. The more recent Hanks & Hodges Dictionary of Surnames gives three derivations - the muddy place, 'a habitation name from one of the places named with this word, as for example, Soles in Kent' or 'nickname for an unmarried man', from Middle English and Old French soul - single, unmarried (L. solus, alone).

I have not found SOLLEY in any of them except Allen's Family Names in Australia & New Zealand, who curiously gives three derivations for Solley but does not list SOLE at all, despite its prevalence in the New Plymouth area of New Zealand.

For SAUL we have in Reaney 'Hebrew Saul, asked for' with the note 'not a common medieval name'. This is hardly surprising for King Saul did not get a very good press in the Old Testament and in the New Testament Saul changed his name to Paul when he ceased to be a persecutor. Hanks & Hedges follow Reaney, but plausibly suggest that it may have been given to someone who played the part of Saul in a religious play.

The older 1901 surname dictionary compiled by Bardsley gives two roots for SAUL - the Bible name and 'local at the saule from residence therein as owner or servitor Old English sel, a hall, French salle' and cross references it to SALE. He says that the surname of the famous knight commemorated by Froissart (1332-48) is variously written DE LA SALE, DE LA SAUL, DE AULA or DE HALLE. This very clearly brings SALE into the picture and I will be discussing in a future article the relationship with this and other 'fringe' surnames beyond our immediate sphere of interest.

SEWELL is the most common of the four because it derives front many different place-names: Sewell in Beds, Seawell and Sywell both in Northants, Showwell in Oxfordshire and Sowell in Devon. Reaney says they all meant 'seven springs', and Ekwall in his Dictionary of Place Names agrees 'The seven wells. A tradition of seven springs is common'.

Are the Surname Dictionaries as True as Steel?

It all seems very obvious and convincing. However the surname dictionaries are not always right.

The English Surnames Project, based at the Department of Local History at Leicester University, is transcribing medieval tax lists and other early sources to find the earlier forms of surnames. Often derivations are based on the modern forms of the name whereas the name may have looked quite different a few centuries ago. Thus for my name Reaney gives 'Old English style, stele 'steel', probably for one hard, reliable as steel cf. the common phrase 'true as steel'. I can't swear that no Steels got their name that way but my Steills certainly didn't. Black in Surnames of Scotland is almost certainly closer to the mark when he says 'Of local origin. There are places so named in the shires of Ayr, Berwick and Dumfries'.

In the same way it seems to me more likely that the Midland SAULs took their name from the place Saul on the river Severn, not far from Gloucester, than that their ancestor was named Saul, played Saul in a pageant or even worked at the Hall. Yet none of the dictionaries has even suggested it, a case probably of the name looking so obvious they never checked to see if there was such a place. But in my experience most of the rarer surnames are topographical.


In the case of the Gloucestershire SAULs, this explanation seems almost certain. In a 1608 listing of the names of each male inhabitant in the county and what arms they had, compiled by the antiquary John Smith, there are only three adult male Sauls. In the City of Gloucester there were William SAUL, a mercer aged about 20, and Richard SAULE a tailor of the same age. In Tewkesbury there was John SAULE, a 'typler' (presumably a retailer of ale) aged about 40. Since these were the only Sauls in the county it is reasonable to assume that the Gloucester-Tewkesbury area is close to their original distribution and Saul parish is only a few miles away. In 1619 there was a stray SAUL baptism at Quinton, near the Warwicks border, but no Sauls there in 1608. Perhaps the parents moved there from Gloucester.

I have not yet received from Rosemary charts for Sauls further afield. Whether more distant Saul families originated from Saul in Gloucs remains to be seen. Certainly Sauls in other places could have arrived by river. The location of Saul on the Severn means that the people of the village were very well-placed for centuries to travel on this navigable waterway looking for work.

There were no SOLEs in Gloucs in 1608 but three SOWLEs - a husbandman at Brookthorpe, close to Gloucester, a servant at Frocester only a few parishes away from Saul, and a smith at Bishop's Cleeve, just north of Cheltenham. Only a few miles away is Eckington in Worcestershire where George Soule, the Mayflower pilgrim is believed to have originated. My Marriage Allegations in the Diocese of Gloucester shows that in 1682 Thomas SOULE, 23 year old vintner of the city, was granted a marriage licence. I have little doubt, in the light of present knowledge, that Saul in Gloucs is the best candidate as the place of origin not only for the Gloucestershire SAULs and perhaps the Banbury Sauls too, but also the three 1608 Gloucs SOWLEs, the 1682 SOULE in Gloucester and the well known family of SOULE in Eckington.


Similarly in Cumbria, another Saul area, I would be more inclined to look for a place than for a medieval Cumbrian with a biblical name. There were two places called Soulby, one in Cumberland and the other in Westmoreland. The former, in Dacre parish near Penrith was Suleby in 1278 ('by' was the Norse for village) and is in SAUL country - early civil registration entries are all in the registration districts of Carlisle, Kendal, Wigton, Whitehaven and Cockermouth. Ekwall reckons Soulby comes from an Old Danish personal name Sula. So another possibility is that the Cumbrian Sauls do come from a personal name; not biblical but a Viking one surviving into the medieval period.

But the strongest candidate for Cumbria is probably salh, sallow, a willow tree. In Cumberland there are place-names Gt and Lt Salkeld, so sallow was obviously widespread there. In Cheshire it gave its name to the place and through that the surname of SALE. But Reaney gives the parish of Sall in Norfolk as from sahl, and Sall was spelt Saulle in an 1197 document. Both the place and surname Salkeld are pronounced 'Saul-keld'. Like my Steel from Steill, when the word 'salh' was forgotten it would be natural for the spelling to become assimilated to the familiar Bible name.

One-name Studies

The only sure way of making even an intelligent guess as to the origin of a name is to trace back the genealogy of families of that surname and see how they link up and where they originally came from. After a few years' work, almost invariably with these less common surnames, one is amazed how few families there were. Even my Kitcheners, which was a trade name - someone who looked after the kitchen of a monastery or house - seem to go back to only two or three stems. So the casual way in which the surname dictionaries sometimes imply that some families may have got their name one way and some another, while probably true in many instances nevertheless gives a misleading impression of lots and lots of separate stems for each surname.

Before the IGI one-name studies were almost impossible. Within a generation these will make all existing surname dictionaries obsolete. But the very word 'one-naming' is a misnomer, though it is not easy to think of an alternative. Few members of the Guild of One-name Studies are interested in only one surname. Most record many variants, like SOAL or SOUL. Rather fewer record names with, superficially, quite different origins. But in the case of SOLE, and probably many other names, if you fail to take an interest in other surnames as against obvious variants, you do so at your peril. We have called such names 'allied surnames' and at present have decided to study three of them (and their variants): SAUL, SEWELL and SOLLEY. Eventually we may be forced by the logic of our researches to take more on board like SALE or SAVILLE. Hopefully that will not be for many years, if at all, or we will find we have bitten off more than we can chew! Maybe we have already.


Work on the Soles and allied surnames is in its infancy so it will be many years before we can hazard really informed guesses as to their origins. However several things are already apparent. One of these is well documented cases of cross-over.

In her book on the New Zealand Soles, Faye Clark shows that Richard, the brother of the Soles who emigrated to New Plymouth, stayed in England, emigrating later to Sydney in 1848. He and all his descendants in Australia used the spelling SAUL, an excellent example of cross-over. Less well documented, at Welwyn in Hertfordshire, Thomas SOALE had children baptised in 1623 and 1625, and Ruth SOALE married there in 1640. Thomas SOWEL married at Welwyn in 1784. At nearby Digswell, Edward SAUL married in 1613.

Geoff Sewell, our Sewell co-ordinator, is only a few generations away from a SAYWELL. A distant cousin is member Roger Saywell. If you look up SAWELL in Reaney and Allen you find a cross reference not to SAUL but to SEWELL. Are they right? We must wait a few years and see. I shall be looking more closely at these kinds of changes in the next article.


It is unlikely that the Kent Soles took their name from any old muddy place. Some of the earliest Soles we know about actually owned the manor of SOLES in Nonnington parish, south-east of Canterbury. Now Soles probably got its name because it was a muddy place, but that is not quite the same thing. Member Hamish Robertson thinks Soles in turn derived its name from Soulles in Normandy, but this seems unlikely. Had we not known the Norman DE SOLE family who appear in sundry medieval documents held the manor of Soles then one might guess their name was derived from Soulles. But we know they took their name from the place in Kent. Few places in England (as against families) took their name from places in France. Soles was in the Domesday Book and had a Saxon owner in Edward the Confessor's time.

It is much more likely that the Kentish Sole family originated in Soles than that there were a lot of separate muddy places giving rise to separate families of Sole. Most of the Kentish Sole families are, in fact clustered around the Soles area at Faversham, Sittingbourne, Deal and in Thanet.


Hamish believes the SOLLEY surname also derives from Soles. According to Ridlon's 1923 huge history of the Sole family, a John DE SOLE who purchased the manor of Northborne c. 1347 appears in at least one document as John DE SOLLEY, but Ridlon does not cite his source. The second of Allen's three derivations for Solly is 'Locality surname. Old English. An English surname of uncertain etymology, first recorded in the form Sawlen 1398, and perhaps originating at the manor of Soles in the parish of Nonington, Kent'.

Just as the Cumbrian Sauls could derive from sahl, sallow, SOLLEY could derive from sahl-leah, 'sallow wood', analogous to Ashley and Oakley, an explanation not offered by any surname dictionary to my knowledge.

One thing seems clear. Although SOLE and SOLLEY are found in the same part of Kent, whatever exchanges there were between Kentish SOLEs and SAULs, the names SOLE and SOLLEY do seem to have been distinct for centuries.

For Solleys outside Kent there are also at least two non-English roots for the name. Allen's first derivation is 'Patronymic. A double diminutive of Solomon'. This might have given rise to some Jewish SOLLYs, particularly in America, but the name does not appear in Smith's American Surnames. Allen's third derivation is 'Patronymic. Irish Mac Soilligh from soilh, agreeable, but recorded as O'Soilligh in 17th century money rolls for County Monaghan'. The source for this is clearly MacLysaght's Surnames of Ireland, but the name does not appear in any form in Matheson's Special Report on the Surnames in Ireland published in 1901-9. Solley as an Irish name must be quite rare and can almost be discounted as a root for English Solleys.


A Bedfordshire stem is the Soles of Tingrith, descended from a William whose will was proved in 1611. He was SOWLE in the will, but SOAL when his son William was baptised in 1587, SOULE when Mary was baptised in 1590, SOWLE for the baptism of Joan in 1592, Alice in 1593, and George in 1595 (who might, incidentally, be the George Soule on the Mayflower, something none of the researchers seem to have suggested so far). But he was SOULE again for Constance in 1597. The Mormon TIB cards show that most of his children were posthumously baptised in 1932, according to the Latter Day Saints custom, at the instance of Edward W. Sewell, a probable descendant, though the clue has not yet been followed up and his line traced. Whatever else he was William was, at least in the records we've searched, never a SOLE. But both in the parish registers and in an Elizabethan Chancery case, another Tingrith Sole called John, who had children baptised 1594-1603 and who may well have been William's brother, has his name consistently spelt SOLE. In nearby Flitwick George is SOLE for the baptism of his eldest child in 1615, SOALE for the other three.

In Bedfordshire Archdeacon's Visitations for 1578 we learn that at Tingrith 'William Fenson dyd begette Margaret SOULD with child...'. The 'd' on the end is also found much earlier in a 1523 will of George Blackwell of London who leaves his Spanish cloak to Elizabeth SOLDE and his cap to John SOLDE. This archaic form SOULD still found in an isolated reference in the Bedfordshire 1851 Census Index for a person born in Wales could be significant. We simply don't know.

It seems unlikely that the Bedfordshire Soles came from Kent. It is not absolutely impossible because the Soles form stepping stones every few parishes across the counties from Olney, Bucks to Saffron Walden in Essex and they could have crossed the Thames and worked their way up through Essex in the later Middle Ages, ending up at Olney by the 17th century. However, there is a simpler explanation. Tingrith is only three parishes away from the village of SEWELL in Houghton Regis parish. This rated its own entry in Domesday.

Just as surnames changed over the centuries, so did place names. They often changed much more than surnames, so that the surnames can preserve archaic forms. For example, there is no surname BRISTOL - the surname is BRISTOW, reflecting the Anglo-Saxon BRIG-STOWE, the settlement by the bridge had reached when surnames were starting. The village in Houghton Regis was Sewelle in Domesday Book, Seuewella in monastic annals. Skeat in The Place Names of Bedfordshire thinks it is derived from Anglo-Saxon Syfan wyle i.e. Syfa's well. The Anglo-Saxon Syfan would, he says, become Seue (Seve) in Norman French, and the passage from Seuewell to Sewell is easy.

In the Taxation Returns of 1297 which were for a tax on all movables, there is a substantial list of names for every place, but there are no Soles, Souls, Soals or Sowles. There are two Sewells, both on the huge list for Dunstable, Beds - not surprisingly for it is the next parish to Houghton Regis.

If the Sewell theory is correct, one might have expected to find quite a few SOWELLs in Bedfordshire, as a kind of half way house between SEWELL and SOWLE. In fact, there is only one in the Bedfordshire IGI - a baptism at Bedford in 1643. There are quite a few SOWLEs but the commonest Bedfordshire spelling before 1800 was SOULE.


There is another candidate almost as good as Sewell. Again only a few parishes away front Tingrith, just over the Buckinghamshire border, but close to Leighton Buzzard in Beds, is the village of Soulbury, given by Eckwall as a 'burgh' or fortified village by a sulh or gully. This too is a possible candidate for Soles and the Souls, in which case the Bedfordshire Sewells get left out in the cold as a quite separate family.

The French SOULEs

So far we have considered for SOLE and SOUL(E) the muddy place (unlikely), the lonely man (even less likely for bachelors rarely left descendants - at least ones they acknowledged) Soles in Kent (the certain origin for one stem and the probable source of all the Kentish stems) and Sewell (Beds) and Soulbury (Bucks) both plausible candidates for the Beds and Bucks stems. But there is yet another complication - we know that some families bearing the name are not of English origin at all.

All 18th century Bethnal Green SOUL or SOLE family was descended from Daniel Soul married 1766 who was probably the son of Mathieu baptised at the French Huguenot Church, The Artillery, Spitalfields in 1710, son of Daniel Sowale and Marie Marillon. Daniel and Marie had a son Isaac baptised at Canterbury Walloon Church in 1702 and a daughter Catherine baptised there in 1704.

So at least one London Sole family was of French origin. The Canterbury baptisms make it rather less likely that Daniel was related to Abel son of Abraham Souall baptised at the Huguenot Church in Threadneedle St in 1655. It seems that there was at first one French Soule family in London, and then two as another moved in from Canterbury.

Olney, Buckinghamshire

In Olney, the characteristic spelling was SOUL. As Olney is fairly close to Tingrith and Flitwick, it would be reasonable to suppose that the Olney SOULs were all offshoot of the Bedfordshire ones. But were they'? Olney was famous for its lace manufacture. This craft was brought to England by refugees from religious persecution in Flanders and France in the late 16th century where it soon became widely practised in Beds and Bucks. There were too many SOULs and variants in Beds and Bucks in the late 16th century for them all to be of Flemish or French origin, and some were there long before 1568.

Indeed the Olney Souls seem to surface a hundred years later than most of the Sole stems were already well established. This line appears to descend from a Cornelius SOUL who married at Olney in 1689. Now the name Cornelius has also got a distinct Dutch or Flemish ring to it. This is because Cornelius was a 3rd century martyred pope whose remains were taken first to Compiegne and later to Rosnay ill Flanders, whence the name became common in the Low Countries. If the Olney Souls did hail from this area the surfacing in 1689 could be due to arrival with William of Orange in 1688 rather than to Walloons or Huguenots a century earlier. A similar surname to Soul was found in Holland, for Fred Sole has given me a family group sheet for Adam Soelle or Sell, born in Holland, who died in Maryland in 1767. But we can't build too much on Cornelius for though rare the name was found in England, with 16th and 17th century examples cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names.

Whether the Olney family was Flemish, Dutch, French or English remains to be discovered.

Not Kindred but Allied Souls

When I was working for the BBC Family History series on the ancestry of Gordon Honeycombe, the TV presenter, I discovered that all living Honeycombes appeared to come from one 17th century family. We are never going to find that with the SOLEs, SAULS, SEWELLs and SOLLEYs. Unlike the Soule Kindred of America our Society is not a kindred group but an association for sharing the results of research which is mutually beneficial. Let me give one example of how this works in practice.

In Cambridgeshire, although the commonest spelling is SOLE, there are quite a few SOWELLs. But when Geoff Sewell looked at my working chart for Bottisham, a village between Cambridge and Newmarket, I had two children of a Laurence SOWEL, one baptised in 1645, the other in 1666. Geoff had SEWELL IGI entries for the rest of the family but not my two. There were, he told me, two Laurence Sewells (or Sowells), father and son with a number of children each. In fact my Sowells and his Sewells complemented each other beautifully.

And that, essentially, is what the Society is all about.

In his next article Don will look at the effect of pronunciation and accent upon spelling variants and will discuss the likely relationship between SOLE and SOLLEY.

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