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

The origins of The Sussex SOLES

By Don Steel

This article was originally published in the July 1996 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.

John Slaughter recently reminded the of the SOLE items to be found in Richard McKinlay's The Surnames of Sussex.

This is in the English Surnames series pub­lished for the Marc Fitch fund, the fruits of McKinlay's work for the English Surnames Survey at Leicester University. I have a particular interest as when Sir Anthony Wagner and Marc Fitch launched the project (following on from Sir Anthony's jubilee lecture on Genealogy and The Common Man at the Society of Genealogists in 1961, when I was a member of the Executive Committee), and advertised this Research Fellow's job in 1965, three of us were short‑listed and interviewed, and McKinlay got it. Years later, I learned from one of the board that it had been a close thing between McKinlay and me, but as he was the Staffordshire Assistant Archivist with much more experience with records than me, he got the post. I wonder how differently the survey would have turned out if I had spent the last three decades working on it instead of him? I cannot imagine I would have had the time to help start the Sole Society or to act as its Research Co‑ordinator. So you certainly would not be reading this.

McKinlay lists a selection of surnames he regards as topographical (i.e. from places within a village like CHURCH or GREEN rather than from a place‑name) and gives the incidence per 10,000 persons.

The numbers, derived from published records are:

DORSET 1327 (Lay Subsidy): nil

KENT 1334/5 (Lay Subsidy): 26

LANCS 1332 (Lay Subsidy): nil

OXFORDSHIRE 1278/9 (Hundred Roll): nil

SUFFOLK 1327 (Anon. Suffolk in 1327. Must be Lay Subsidy): nil

SURREY 1332 (Surrey Taxation Returns, Surrey Rec. Soc.): 2

SUSSEX 1332 (Three Sussex Subsidies pp. 225‑334): 11

WARWICKSHIRE 1332 (Lay Subsidy): nil

WORCESTERSHIRE 1327 (Lay Subsidy): nil

YORKSHIRE 1301 (Lay Subsidy): nil

These figures are not 100% reliable as the Lay Subsidies covered only the better‑off people, but they confirm our own knowledge that, out of these counties, Kent is the fountainhead, the surname spreading into Surrey and Sussex even by this early date.

Bedfordshire is not on this list but I have a copy of the 1297 Lay Subsidy, published by the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society and there is a nil return for SOLE, suggesting either that the SOLEs at that time were quite poor or that they had not yet come into Bedfordshire. The latter is more probable. I have discussed elsewhere the possibility that the Bedfordshire SOLEs came up the Ouse from Stretham, the fountainhead of Brigadier Denis Sole's family. His family tradition ‑which may or may not be correct ‑ says they arrived there from Faversham, Kent.

McKinlay gives some figures per 10,000 population for the 16th or 17th century for selected counties. Unfortunately these are not for exactly the same counties as the earlier list.

DORSET 1662‑4 (Hearth Tax): nil

SALFORD HUNDRED, LANCS (SE. Lancs.) 1642 (Protestation Returns), nil

OXFORDSHIRE 1665 (Hearth Tax): nil

SHROPSHIRE 1672 (Hearth Tax): nil

SUFFOLK 1524 (Suffolk in 1524. Presumably Great Subsidy): nil

SURREY 1664 (Hearth Tax): 1

SUSSEX 1524 (Subsidy 1524‑5): 6

WILTS 1576 (Two 16th century Taxation Lists): nil

WORCS 1603 (Lay Subsidy Roll): nil

McKinlay has not included the Bedfordshire Hearth Tax of 1671 but this lists George Soale at Flitwick, Ralph Sole at Biggleswade and William Soale and Widow Soale at Southill. We are not told how many entries there are and I can not be bothered to count them all up so I can not produce a figure per 10,000 but at a guess I would say it's about 2. Unfortunately he does not give any figures for KENT.

In 1890, H. B. GUPPY published Homes of Family Names of Great Britain based on farmers in the Post Office Directories of 1890. He lists figures per 10,000 of popu­lation but excludes all with 7 per 10,000 or fewer. Amazingly SOLE is not listed at all, not even for Kent, so even then their number cannot have exceeded 7 per 10,000 anywhere. SOLLEY or SOLLY yielded an amazing 27 per 10,000 in Kent and yet is not listed for any other county.

McKinlay comments on his two tables as follows:

These (COSTADEL, EIGHTACRE, FORBENCH, FURLONGER, SOUNDRY, WATERER and WISTER) are instances of rare topographical terms that were probably not in use outside the county during the period when heredi­tary surnames were being formed. There are, however, some more common topographical surnames that were much more frequent in Sussex than elsewhere, and in these instances it is difficult to explain the early distribution of the names concerned either on the basis of dialect or on the grounds of the county's topography. The distribu­tion of some of the surnames in question has been set out in the tables above. It can be seen that there are some surnames which in this latter group are very common proportionately, in Sussex and in one or two other counties, such as Surrey or Kent than in other parts of England. These include, for in­stance, the names ALDRET, BIRCHETT, SANDE, SOLE and TYE (with the variant forms of these names). In addition there are several further surnames (COMBE, FIELD, DOWN, OAK and TOWNE, for example) which were widely distributed but which were more numerous in Sussex and the adjoining counties than in other regions. Most of the names in this further group are ones which like FIELD or TOWNE, are derived from words that are not limited to southeast England.

In some cases, circumstances can be found which may explain why several of the surnames in this group were exceptionally common in Sussex and adjoining counties. The surname FIELD for instance, is derived from field, the original significance of which was a stretch of open country but which by the time surnames were being formed was being used for open fields of arable in contrast to woodland or hill country. This is a term that might be commonly em­ployed in a county like Sussex where there were large areas of forest with tracts of arable land in­terspersed with woodland. COMBE is found as a place-name element much more frequently in the south, and especially the south‑west of England than in other regions. In the case of some of the other surnames involved, however, it is not easy to see why they should be more common in Sussex, and in some instances in contiguous counties as well, than elsewhere. The distri­bution of some of the surnames involved is not readily explicable either in terms of local dialect, or of the county's geography. It must be assumed that there were local or regional practices in the formation of surnames which influenced the situation. In view of the rich crop of topographical names to be found in Sussex, it is not surprising that some names in that category were exceptionally common in the county.

This passage epitomises the great weakness of all McKinlay's work. Everything is done from the two dimensions of counting names in tax lists and finding their popularity, distribution and linguistic analysis. McKinlay is much weaker on the latter than the former. COMBE, for example, is more frequent in the West Country because the Ancient British word for valley (Welsh cwm) for historical reasons survived there longer than elsewhere. But the genealogical di­mension is totally lacking. When we have traced the genealogies of Sussex SOLE families the probability is that none of them will derive from SOLE meaning a muddy place. This is just an assumption on McKinlay's part. There will probably prove to be few separate stems and these have flowed into Sussex either along the coast or inland across the Kent‑Sussex border. They may ultimately derive from SOLES in Nonington parish, Kent or from SOLE STREET or both: only time will tell. The compilers of surname dictionaries ‑ and McKinlay is in that tradi­tion ‑ tend to have ignored the work of genealogists. Who knows whether or not there was a 13th century Sussex FIELD who had six sons? David Hey in his brilliant Family History and Local History in England, 1987 ‑ perhaps the best book on family history ever written in this country, because it does provide a guide on what to look for in the historical and local context that is so often lacking in other books ‑ has pointed out how extraordinarily few stems there are for what might seem to be common topographical surnames. His own surname, HEY, meant an enclosure and there must have been many thousands of heys (small h) in Yorkshire and other counties. Yet all the HEYs seem to go back to one hamlet.

In tracing my own family name in the West Riding I got back ten generations to John Hey of the township of Shelley within the parish of Kirkburton, who died in 1633. Gaps in the parish registers prevent my proving an earlier line with certainty, but many HEYs lived in the township of Shelley during the sixteenth century. Thomas Hey of Shelley who was recorded in a manor court roll of 1505 and the Lay Subsidy Rolls of 1524 was probably my ancestor though I can not be sure. Before that time, I am on even more uncertain ground. Another court roll of 1476 mentions a Thomas Hey of Shepley, the next village to Shelley, but I have not yet discovered any further information about the surname in this locality. A century earlier, however, the West Riding Poll Tax Returns of 1379 name only one HEY, a certain Robertus Del Heye or Robert of The Hey in Barkisland township, a dozen miles or so away in the huge parish of Halifax. The site of the medieval hey or enclosure that ap­pears to have been the ancestral home of everyone who bears my surname is now occupied by a seventeenth century Pennine farm­stead with mullion windows known as Over Hey House or 'ey' us in the local dialect. The name of the farmhouse is pronounced in exactly the same way as Yorkshire people have pronounced my surname over the centuries.

(Family Historv and Local History in England, l987 p. 37)

Later, Hey deals with the APPLEYARDs:

One might reasonably expect the surname APPLEYARD to have had multiple origins. Surely, one may think, there must have been nu­merous yards where apples were grown or stored. But the present geographical distribution of the surname is intriguing. It suggests that only one appleyard gave rise to a surname. The current Sheffield Telephone Directory has 64 entries for the name, whereas the Brighton Directory has only 9 and the Bristol Directory as few as 4. If we search the returns of those people who paid The Poll Tax in 1379 we find that a Thomas De Apilyerd was living in Thurlstone township some 15 miles north of Sheffield. In a document dated 1297, APPLEYARD is re­ferred to as a minor place-name in the same township. This place-­name is now lost, but as no rival candidate has appeared, it seems this was the particular orchard that gave rise to the surname.


For BULLAS,  Reaney (A Diction­ary of British Surnames) gives John De LaBulhouse (Hampshire 1224), Henry De Bolus (Derbyshire 1327), William Bolehouse (Somerset 1327), Tomas Bulluse (Shef­field 1478), etc. and explains the meaning of the surname as 'one employed at the bull‑house'. This fails to take account of the present geographical distribution of the name in and around Sheffield and its frequent appearances in the early Sheffield parish registers. The surname seems to be derived from the hamlet of Bullhouse. The place‑name is still pronounced BULLAS locally, like the surname, and it was written in the form BULLOUS in 1574. The meaning may be either bull‑house or bole­house, i.e. a place where iron was smelted, but it is unlikely that the surname was attached to 'one em­ployed at the bull‑house'. Rather it was probably attached to the family that resided here. The attribution is more specific than Reaney sug­gested.

Hey concludes:

In recent Years it has become abundantly clear that many sur­names have a single origin. The historian who is interested in an area of scattered settlement, where each farm has a distinctive name, can make a real contribution to our understanding of how surnames began.

Although HEY rates two references in George Redmond's Yorkshire West Riding volume in the English Surnames series (1973) and APPLEYARD seven, there is no reference to the place‑name origin of either.

Hey's examples exactly parallel SOLE but most of those working in the surname field seem imprisoned by a tradition which looks for generalised origins whereas one ancestor with a place‑name may be quite sufficient to explain all the instances found.

In my application to the trustees of the Mare Fitch Fund in 1965, I proposed if I was appointed, to try and enlist the support of a multitude of amateur genealogists in the project. I do not know if it would have worked ‑ there were not so many genealogists in those days and those there were not so family history minded ‑ but without the ge­nealogical dimension, McKinlay's work ‑ and particularly the glosses and explanations he makes ‑ must, like Reaney's "man who worked at the bull‑house” be regarded with a great deal of caution. Alone among surname workers Hanks and Hodges (Dictionary of Surnames, 1988) enlisted the support of genealogists, in their case, of the members of the Guild of One Name Studies. But they were working on such a scale they could not hope to reproduce the detail of a county by county survey. McKinlay has now retired. It is to be hoped that as work continues on other counties, the genealogical dimension will be brought in much more. Meanwhile we like David Hey and researchers into thousands of other surnames will continue with our own researches. In another ten years or so we may be able to give a really authoritative answer about the origins of the Sussex SOLEs, and for those in other parts of the country too.

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