By Don Steel
This article was originally published in the April 1995 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Geoffs SEWELL distribution map reproduced in a previous number does not correspond at all with the second derivation of the surname given in Reaney’s Dictionary of British Surnames as from places called Sewell (Beds), Seawell and Sywell (both Northants), Showell (Oxon), and Sowell (Devon). In fact not one of these counties figures in Geoff’s top eleven places for Sewell entries in the IGI.
What is most marked on Geoff’s map is the strong concentration of SEWELLs in Cumbria, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire. The first derivation given by Reaney is from the Christian name SEWAL, a name which lingered on until the 16th century, and it may be that the name was particularly strong in these counties, all areas of Viking settlement, because there the Anglo‑Saxon name SAEWEALD was reinforced by the Old Norse SIGVALDIR both yielding a Middle English form SEWAL. McKinlay’s Norfolk and Suffolk Surnames of the Middle Ages notes that in the 1328‑9 court rolls for Wymondham, Norfolk (quite close to Norwich), one of Geoff’s top 11 places, four different men called SEWAL are listed, and SEWAL appears again as a personal name in the Norfolk 1329‑30 subsidy.
When Geoff reported my work on the Medieval London SEWELLs in a previous journal he also recorded my belief that although the London wills gave clear indications that almost all the early London families were SEWALEs, they were submerged by an influx of SEWELLs derived from place‑names. I now think I was mistaken, and that the majority of SEWELLs everywhere derived their surname from the personal name.
There are various indications pointing in this direction. Among the Norwich wills 1370‑1550 are:
9 SEWALEs (1381, 1422, 1429, 1442, 1453, 1474, 1481, 1496, 1497),
14 SEWALLs (1466, 1472‑7, 1502, 1504, 1514, 1536. 1513, 1514, 1522, 1524, 1535, 1542, 1543, 1544),
1 SWALL (1514),
1 SEWELL (1549),
1 SUEL (1438, 1545),
1 SAWLE (1526).
Here we have a trend from SEWALE to SEWALL. SEWELL barely registers and then only at the very end of the period covered.
In the Wills at Chelmsford Index Library volume covering 1400‑1619, which includes parts of Hertfordshire and Suffolk as well as Essex, we have:
4 SEWALLs (1494, 1504, 1569, 1589),
1 SAWALL (1566),
10 SAWELLs (1504, 1552, 1555 (2), 1567, 1572, 1589, 1595, 1600, 1602),
10 SEWELLs (1557, 1566, 1568, 1588, 590, 1597, 1602, 1604, 1609, 1619).
But although there are only four SEWALL entries, half of them are prior to the first SEWELL one which again is around 1550.
In the next period 1620‑1720 there are: 1 SEWALL, 17 SEWELLs, 1 SEYWELL, 5 SEAWELLs, 1 SAWILL, 5 SAWELLs, 1 SAYWEL, 1 SOWELL.
Between 1721 and 1858 there are: 47 SEWELLs, 1 SEYWELL, and 1 SEAWELL.
The trend is unmistakable: from SEWALE to SEWALL c.1460‑1500 to SEWELL around 1550. Why this should be so, is a linguistic question to which I have no certain answer but can hazard a guess. At an early date, SAEWEALD or SIGEWEALD was probably pronounced “se” (as in the French reflexive verb) and “wailed”. The “J got dropped before the surname forming period, leaving the “se” plus “wail”. The next change was to “‑wall”, doubtless originally pronounced to rhyme (as the word still does) with ‘Tall” and, call”. This may have been because the w” was getting tacked on to the “se” to give sew” rhyming with “new” and “su ‑ale” was hard to say. We know this change started at least as early as 1438 because that is the date of the first of the two Norwich SUEL spellings. “All” then slid into the vague “If” sound at the end you have in “bicycle” or “disciple”. When the vicar or clerk came to write this sound down, he used “ell” to represent it.
Not so long ago I had my car serviced. When I collected it my mechanic said, “How come you have a document with my mums name on it?” It turned out that I had left in the car a batch of journals and application forms and he had seen his mother’s maiden name, SEWELL, on the latter. “So your mother was a ‘Su ‑ ell’,” I said. “No,” he replied, correcting me, “She was a ‘Soo‑oo. He pronounced the first oo almost as in “wood” and the second almost like the “oo” sound in “moo”. In fact, after the “s”, the rest sounded rather like the noise you make when your sunburn is rubbed too vigorously. Like me, my mechanic came from South London where the accent is not so very different from Essex, with cockney as the extreme, more socially unacceptable version. Eliza Doolittle would have said it much the same way. Those unfamiliar with an Essex accent might like to listen to World record holder Sally GunnelI’s accent next time she is interviewed after winning a race and particularly to the word “hurdle which has the ‘I’ at the end coming out as “oo‑oo” (first ‘oo’ as in ‘wood’, second as in ‘moo’).
I have recently abstracted all persons of our” names from Hyamson’s Dictionary of Universal Biography. This is a kind of omnibus biographical dictionary listing people (just one line on each with no detail) who appear in a host of general biographical dictionaries like the Cyclopedia of American Biography or specialised ones like Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. So it includes most people with some slender claim to fame. Of the SEWELL entries 13 are English, one New Zealand, one Canadian, one American, one American‑Canadian and one Dutch-English. Of the SEWALL entries 11 are American, one is English‑American (born in 1652) and none is English. This seems to suggest that the United States has tended to preserve the more archaic spelling, and eventually genealogical research may well show that the distant English cousins of most of these American SEWALLs are now SEWELL. The transatlantic preservation of this spelling may reflect the retention in America of an earlier pronunciation. Do Americans tend to say Su ‑ all (as in the word “all”) whereas the English say “su ‑ull,’ (as in “full”)?
There was one oddity in the Wills at Chelmsford list above: the popularity from an early date of the spelling SAWELL. The last one was in 1718: there were no more right up to 1858. Clearly this must reflect 16th and 17th century Essex pronunciation: probably “sa” (as in “saf’) plus “well” rather than “saw ‑ ell”. But whether or not the SAWELLs became SEWELLs after 1718, 1 don’t know. They might have been SAVELLs or SAVILLEs. Dickens lovers will recall that the Londoner Sam Weller had a habit of pronouncing most v’s as w’s. Some time I will abstract the SAVELLs and SAVILLES and see with which group the SAWELLs seem to have had most in common geographically.
Some of the SEWELLs were SOWELL in the 18th century. As with SAYWELL, the more common name has tended to assimilate the less common. There are still SOWELLs around though proportionately fewer than in the past. We now know that the ancestry of David Sole the Scottish Rugby international goes back to SOWELLs of Willingham, Cambridgeshire. His ancestor was probably a William Sowell born at Bottisham, Cambs, a few miles away where the mixture of SOWELL and SEWELL spellings soon settled down as SEWELL and is one of the families Geoff has concentrated upon. If this is established it will be the first known example of SOLE-SEWELL kinship.
So the rarer name, SOWELL, seems to have gone both ways. SOWELL may have come from a place‑name meaning “seven springs”. Bottisham is only a few miles from the edge of the chalk ridge along the southern boundary of Cambridgeshire where no doubt springs are common, but The Place Names of Cambridgeshire doesn’t mention one.
Although one might expect rare names like SOLE, SAUL and SOLLEY to have comparatively few stems, surely this cannot be true of SEWELL, particularly if I am right that most SEWELLs derive their surname from a personal name which was not uncommon in the eastern counties in the Middle Ages! Of course there must be more stems than for SOLE or SAUL but even so, as Geoff has said, the pieces of the jigsaw are coming together. Clearly there are significant separate stems in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire (Geoff’s and David Saywell’s line), Rutland (Nigel Sewell’s line), and Lincolnshire, but once we have identified all of them (and through Geoffs 40,000 strong database we are in sight of that), we should be able to deal out the hordes of SEWELLs like a pack of cards into suits, though we shall always have the odd joker or two which doesn’t seem to fit.