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.

What’s in a Name?

Our name wasn’t always Casbon.

What I should really say, is that our name wasn’t always spelled ‘C-a-s-b-o-n.’

As you go back into our early family records, the ways our name is spelled varies dramatically.

The earliest I’ve traced my ancestors is the marriage of William Casbolde to Margrett Saybrocke in 1577.[1] Here is a sampling of spellings from parish and census records of my relatives, with dates they were recorded[2],[3],[4].

Spelling variants(Click on image to enlarge)

There are many records with spellings similar to those above in other parts of England, but the records are concentrated most heavily in the general vicinity of Cambridge. If you’re interested, check out this map I created showing the distribution of births and christenings with similar surnames in England between 1560 and 1825.  The map allows you to select individual surnames, locations and ranges of dates to see how these factors affect the distribution.

Judeth dtr of John Casbold and Joan 1613Learning to read old records can be a challenge. This says, “Judeth Daughter of John Casbold & Joan february vii.” [Church of England. “Parish registers for Melbourne, 1558-1877.”](Click on image to enlarge)

The spelling Casbon appears as early as 1617 in Isleham, Cambridgeshire[5], but thereafter it only appears infrequently in diverse locations. It makes its first appearance in my family line is 1769 when Thomas Casbon married Jane Wilson in Melbourn.[6] The Casbon spelling did not become more widespread until the early to mid-1800s.

Samuel Clark Casbon, born in Meldreth 1851 to William and Ann (Clark) Casbon[7], was recorded in the 1881 England and Wales Census as Samuel Casban[8]. His descendants have continued to use the Casban spelling. Reuben (b. 1847[9]), another son of William and Ann Casbon adopted the spelling Casben for himself and his descendants. Reuben’s son Arthur Casben (b. 1886[10]) emigrated to Australia in the early 20th century. Now almost all of the living Casbens are in Australia.[11]

The main reason spellings of these names changed is that very few people could read or write. Many of our ancestors did not know how to spell their names. This can be seen on marriage records where bride and groom often signed with their “mark,” An x or +.

1835 James Casbon Elizabeth Waller M Meld
When James Casbon married Elizabeth Waller in 1835, he signed his name with his “mark,” as did one of the witnesses. Apparently Elizabeth was able to sign her own name. [Church of England. “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877.”](Click on image to enlarge)

This means that the spelling was determined by whichever church or government official was responsible for writing the name in an official record. They simply had to make their best guess.  I’ve noticed in these old records that when the person keeping the records changes, so does the spelling.

Imagine going to the DMV for a driver’s license and not knowing how to spell your name…what do you think would end up on the license?!

Literacy rates gradually increased throughout the 1800s, although elementary education did not become compulsory in England until 1880.[12] Once our ancestors learned to write, they were able to take control of how the name and how it was spelled.

This means that today’s spelling of names is somewhat arbitrary. As seen with Casban and Casben above, people who are related may not share the same surname. Conversely, not everyone with a given surname is related. It’s tempting to believe that all the Casbons are somehow related, but there is little reason and no evidence to support it.

It doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, though!

[1] “England Marriages, 1538–1973.” FamilySearch [accessed 31 October 2015]
[2] Church of England. “Parish registers for Melbourne, 1558-1877.” Microfilm of original records in the Cambridge County Record Office, Cambridge. FHL Microfilm #1040540. Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, [1980]
[3] Church of England. “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877.” Microfilm of original records in the Cambridge County Record Office, Cambridge. FHL Microfilm #1040542. Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, [1980]
[4] “1871 census of England and Wales.” FamilySearch [accessed 24 July 2015]
[5] “Cambridgeshire Burials.” FindMyPast [accessed 8 September 2016]
[6] “England Marriages, 1538–1973 .” FamilySearch [accessed 30 September 2015]
[7] Church of England. “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877.”
[8] “1881 census of England and Wales.” FamilySearch https://familysea [accessed 6 October 2015]
[9] Church of England. “Parish registers for Meldreth, 1681-1877.”
[10] “England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008.” FamilySearch [accessed 11 November 2015]
[11] “Casben Surname Meaning and Statistics.” Forebears [accessed 8 September 2016]
[12] “The 1870 Education Act.” UK Parliament [accessed 8 September 2016]