Forebears: Cambridgeshire

My last post began an exploration into the early English origins of Our Casbon Journey. I presented data from parish (church) records from 1560 through 1699, showing where baptisms fitting a particular spelling pattern were reported throughout England. Baptisms in Cambridgeshire were recorded earlier and far outnumbered those of any other county. This post will examine Cambridgeshire baptisms in more detail.

Let me begin by explaining a little bit about England’s counties and parishes. Counties can be defined in several ways, but for the purposes of this discussion, they are considered historic administrative and geographic divisions that date back many centuries. The word shire is an older term for county and we frequently see it used as a suffix in the formal names of many English counties. Thus, Cambridgeshire means Cambridge County.

The historic counties of England; Cambridgeshire is highlighted in yellow; this image made use of data provided by the Historic County Borders Project ( (Click on image to enlarge)

Parishes were the basic geographic and administrative unit of the Church of England (and the Roman Catholic church before that). Parishes were associated with individual towns or villages, except in cities, where there could be multiple parishes. Parishes carried out both religious and basic governmental functions within their boundaries. They were responsible for tasks such as law enforcement, maintenance of roads and highways, and relief of the poor. In the nineteenth century, civil parishes were created to take over the secular responsibilities previously carried out by the ecclesiastical, or church-related, parishes. Both types of parish coexist today.

In 1538, during the time of Henry VIII, parishes were required for the first time to record every baptism, marriage, and burial that occurred within their boundaries. Before this, there had been no universal or systematic method for recording vital events. The earliest records were kept on paper and many of them have been lost. In 1558, Queen Elizabeth ordered that the records be written on parchment. These were more durable and more of these have survived. During the time of the English Civil War and Commonwealth, 1642–1660, many records were lost or destroyed. These gaps often make it difficult to trace family connections beyond the mid-to-late seventeenth century.

In Cambridgeshire, most parish records are available online, either as transcriptions or actual digital images (copied from microfilm). I have tried to find and save a copy of every record with the Casb___ spelling pattern that is available. As mentioned in the previous post, I found records of 255 baptisms that occurred in Cambridgeshire between 1560 and 1699. Let’s look at these in further detail.

The following map and table show the parishes where these baptisms are recorded. In addition to the name of the parish, the number of baptisms (in parentheses), earliest year of baptism, and predominant spelling(s) of the surname are provided.

Interactive Google map showing the parishes in Cambridgeshire where Casb___ baptisms are recorded. The red outline is the approximate county border during the 16th and 17th centuries. Click on a marker to see more details. See below for descriptions of color coding and different markers

Parish (# of baptisms)Earliest baptismPredominant Surname(s)
Babraham (2)1595Casbolt(e)
Balsham (1)1691Casbout
Barrington (4)1682Casbolt
Bartlow (1)1699Casebolt
Bottisham (4)1672Casbone
Burwell (52)1565Casburn, Caseb(o)urn(e), Cawsb(o)urn(e)
Cambridge (6)1613Casboll, Casbone, Casbolt
Ely (8)1622Casborn, Cas(e)bo(u)rn(e)
Fowlmere (21)1582Casbolt(e), Casbourne
Fulbourn (3)1661Casbon
Grantchester (2)1584Cas(e)bowle
Great Abington (4)1685Cas(e)bolt
Hildersham (6)1571Casbolt
Isleham (23)1567Cas(e)born(e)
Linton (57)1560Casbo(u)lt(e)
Little Wilbraham (4)1673Causbone
Littleport (3)1686Cas(e)bo(u)rne
Melbourn (34)1578Casbold(e), Cas(t)bolt, Catsbold
Orwell (1)1580Casbold
Stow cum Quy (2)1696Cazborn, Caseburn
Stuntney (1)1653Casborne
Thriplow (15)1575Cas(e)bo(u)lt
Wendy cum Shingay (1)1563Casbolde
A table showing parish (# of baptisms), year of earliest baptism, and predominant surnames

While summarizing this data, I noticed that there are regional differences in how the surname is spelled, and identified four distinct areas. The names always begin with the same Cas(e)b– pattern, but the ending is different in each area. These areas are depicted by the four marker colors on the map.

I’ve selected an “epicenter” for each area. This is the parish where the greatest number of—and usually the earliest—baptisms were recorded. The epicenters are represented on the map by the markers with stars.

Here are the four patterns and areas:

  • rn(e) ending: Casborn, Casbourn, Casborne, Casbourne, Casburn, etc. These are the predominant spellings in the parishes indicated by black markers. The parishes are: Burwell, Ely, Isleham, Littleport, Stow cum Quy, and Stuntney. All are located north of Cambridge city. Both the greatest numbers and earliest records of baptisms in this area come from Burwell, the epicenter. Burwell is unique in that Cas(e)b– is usually followed by urn or urne as opposed to orn(e) or ourn(e) in the rest of this area. The –urn spelling is still associated with Burwell today. There is even a Casburn Lane in Burwell!
Number 1, Casburn Lane, in Burwell; Google Street View image
  • lt(e) ending: Casbolt, Casboult, Casbolte, Casboulte, etc. These parishes are represented by the blue markers and are found in the southern and southeastern parts of the county. They are: Babraham, Balsham, Barrington, Bartlow, Fowlmere, Great Abington, Hildersham, Linton, and Thriplow. Linton is the epicenter, with both the most (57) and earliest (1560) baptisms. The Casbolt spelling is most often seen today.
  • ld(e) ending: Casbold(e) and Catsbold; represented by grey markers, the parishes are Melbourn, Orwell, and Wendy cum Shingay in southwestern Cambridgeshire. Although the earliest record is found in Wendy (1563), many more records (34) are found in Melbourn, so I have marked that parish as the epicenter. Surnames ending in –olt are also common in Melbourn. Melbourne is adjacent to the –olt area, so it’s not surprising that there should be overlap between the areas. Linguistically, –ld is much closer to –lt than either one is to –rn, so perhaps the surname in these two areas (-olt and –old) have a common origin.
  • on(e), –owle and –oll endings: Casbon, Casbone, Casbowle, and Casboll. These surnames, indicated by orange markers, occur in Bottisham, Cambridge, Fulbourn, Grantchester, and Little Wilbraham. The parishes are in the near vicinity or a bit east of Cambridge City, which I’ve named as the epicenter. In general the surname came to these parishes later than the other areas, so perhaps the name changed as people migrated. the –n and –l endings seem to be a mix of the northern and southern areas. This area also has the smallest number of baptisms—19 total.

What does all this mean? I can only guess. One possibility is that the surname developed independently in at least two parts of Cambridgeshire—the -rn(e) variant in the north and the -lt(e) and -ld(e) variant in the south. Or maybe there was one point of origin, long before church records came into being, and the spellings and pronunciation changed as descendants migrated to other parishes. I would dearly like to know. It would take a detailed Y-DNA study to find an answer.

Future posts will look focus on individual parishes in Cambridgeshire.

“a term of reproach …”

I was pleased when I got an email from the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) yesterday, informing me that they had purchased the online version of The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland. This book was published in 2016 and is the result of the FaNBI project (Family Names in Britain and Ireland), an ongoing research endeavor “building on foundations laid by previous scholars but using new methods, new principles, and new resources.”[1] The book has more than 45,000 entries, listing every name with more than 100 occurrences in the most recent (2011) UK census, and those with more than 20 occurrences in 1881.[2],[3] The print version of the book costs $600, so I was especially happy to have access to it though my NEHGS membership.

The first thing I did was look up Casbon (sorry, there were no entries for Casban or Casben). This is what it says:[4]

  • Current frequencies: GB 71, Ireland 0
  • GB frequency 1881: 44
  • Main GB location 1881: Cambs, Herts, and Northants [Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire]

(English) : see Casbolt.

In other words, there were 71 people with the Casbon name in Great Britain in 2011, and 44 in 1881. The 1881 geographic distribution matches my data, in which the main concentrations are Meldreth/Melbourn (Cambridgeshire), Barley (Hertfordshire), and Peterborough (Northamptonshire). I assume they used the 1881 geographic distribution because people were less likely to have migrated from their places of origin at that time.

Next, I looked at the entry for Casbolt, since the first entry directed me there. Here is a synopsis:[5]

Variants: Casburn, Casebourne, Casbon

  • Current frequencies: GB 133, Ireland 0
  • GB frequency 1881: 149
  • Main GB location 1881: Cambs

English: nickname from Middle English casbalde ‘bald head’, apparently a term of reproach: ‘Go home, casbalde with þi clowte’ [thy cloth] (about 1440 York Plays). [bold print for emphasis]

Well, what do you think of that? The geniuses at Oxford think our name comes from a nickname, a “term of reproach”! Actually, I think it’s pretty interesting – a great conversation starter.

The entry gives the following additional information:

This surname became highly variable in its second syllable, despite being strongly localized to E Cambs. The variants with -n- seem to have arisen in the SE of the Isle of Ely. There is no evidence that the modern name is ever from the place-name surviving in Casebourne Wood in Hythe (Kent), exemplified by John de Caseburn, 1275 in Hundred Rolls (Kent).[6]

I’m curious why the editors chose Casbolt as the principal spelling. It’s probably because it is/was the most common variant, edging out Casburn only slightly. In my research, Casbolt is strongly associated with the village of Linton, 11.5 miles due east of Meldreth. Casburn is strongly associated with the village of Burwell, about 18 miles northeast of Meldreth and 12.5 miles north of Linton. See my map of births & christenings in the UK at

So, was there once a bald man in Linton, whose descendants kept his nickname as their surname, and gradually migrated to surrounding villages? We’ll never know, but I find the concept appealing.

There are other theories about the origin of the name. One is the idea mentioned above, that our name is related to the place name of Casebourne Wood in Kent. This theory is expressed on The Internet Surname Database.[7] I agree that this explanation is unlikely. The geographic clustering in Cambridgeshire is too strong to support an origin in Kent. Ancestry says that Casbon is “French: probably a reduced form of Casabon, a topographic name meaning ‘house in good condition’.” This explanation might apply to the Louisiana Casbons (see The French Connection), but I don’t think we can apply it to those of us whose origins were in England.

I’ll stick with the bald man theory for now. After all, I have Oxford University to back me up.

[1] “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland: Introduction,” Oxford Reference ( : accessed 27 April 2017).
[2] “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland: Introduction.”
[3] “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland,” Oxford Reference ( : accessed 27 April 2017).
[4] “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names … Casbon,” Oxford Reference ( : accessed 27 April 2017).
[5] “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names … Casbolt,” Oxford Reference ( : accessed 27 April 2017).
[6] “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names … Casbolt.”
[7] “Last name: Casbon,” The Internet Surname Database ( : accessed 27 April 2017).