Barnham Family History & Genealogy

Updated Apr 16, 2015

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Barnham Surname History

Sir Walter Barnham, L.C.B., was born prior to 1350 in County Kent, England and flourished during the times of Edward III (1312-1377) and Richard II (1367-1400). He is reliably believed to be the scion of the family from which was descended the immigrant American ancestor, Thomas Barnum (1625-1695). [Note: the initials L.C.B. after his name designate Sir Walter as the Lord Chief Baron of England].

It is believed that Sir Walter took his surname from his residence in the village and civil parish of Barnham, in the Saint Edmundsbury district of Suffolk, England. Barnham is about 3 miles south of Thetford. According to the scholar Bror Oscar Eilert Ekwall, the meaning of the village name is “Beorn's homestead”. The Domesday Book records the population of Barnham in 1086 as 36 persons.

The patent of nobility (coat of arms) granted to Sir Walter is the oldest of four such patents known to have been granted by the English Crown to members of the Barnham family who were his descendants. According to Sir Bernard Burke, Extinct and Dormant Peerages of Great Britain, all four have since lapsed in default of male heirs.

Noah G. Barnum, in both the 1904 and 1907 editions of The Barnum Family, states that Sir Walter was probably the father or grandfather of Sir Nicholas Barnham (about 1455-1485). Although the dates involved make such a close relationship unlikely, the information given above does seem to indicate that there was a relationship by descent. The Genealogical Record of the Barnum Family(1912) also indicates that the branch of the family headed by Sir Nicholas and his father (whose given name is not known) is probably descended from Sir Walter. In spite of the probable line of descent from Sir Walter to Sir Nicholas, the names of Sir Walter’s wife (or wives) and child (or children) are not known, and there are apparently several additional generations between him and Sir Nicholas for which no documentation has yet been found.

The published Barnum genealogy begins with the father of Sir Walter’s descendant Sir Nicholas Barnham (whose given name is not known) and continues without interruption down to the present time.

The immigrant ancestor (to the American Colonies) Thomas Barnum was born in 1625 in County Kent, England and died on December 26, 1695 in Danbury, Connecticut Colony. Noah G. Barnum, in The Barnum Family, 1517-1904, states that Thomas was the 15th child (11th son) of Sir Francis Barnham and his wife the Honorable Elizabeth Lennard, Baroness Dacre of the South. Noah Barnum also states that Thomas left England in 1640 to come to the American Colonies, where he first settled in what is now Bethel, Fairfield County, Connecticut. Although none of this can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, many family genealogies do include it as documentation for the origin of the Barnum famliiy in North America. What is certain is that all the Barnum families for which a complete and well-documented family tree has been prepared are directly descended from this same Thomas Barnum.

Barnham family history, dating back to England in the 14th century, is well documented. While the surname still exists in England, the great majority of Barnham descendants now live in North America and spell the surname Barnum. The story begins with Sir Walter Barnham. Sir Walter was the ancestor of Thomas Barnum, who emigrated to the United States of America (then the American Colonies) in the 17th century.  Continue reading for much more information on the Barnum family.

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Barnham Country of Origin, Nationality, & Ethnicity

It is believed that Sir Walter Barnham (fl. 1350) took his surname from his residence in the village and civil parish of Barnham, in the Saint Edmundsbury district of Suffolk, England. In any case, that is where he lived and the surname which he passed down to his descendants is of English origin.

The original members of the Barnham family were English. Subsequent to the arrival of the immigrant ancestor in North America, about 1640, the vast majority of Barnhams were born and raised in the British colonies of North America and in what later became the United States. Most of them spelled the surname Barnum. As of mid-2012 there were about 5,800 members of the Barnum family residing in the US, while 28 Barnhams (the original spelling) and 532 Barnums still resided in England.

Barnham Meaning & Etymology

Sir Francis Barnham, M.P. (1576-1646) discussed in his journal the origin of the surname and family of Barnham. He stated that, “Our Name as we have it by tradition, strengthened with probable circumstances, and some good records (which I have heard some of my friends say they have seene) was first gentilized, or at least advanced, by Sir Walter Barnham, a Baron of the Exchequer in the time of Richard II, and soe continued in a flowrishinge estate (at a place called Barnham in Suffolke not far from Thetford, where divers descents of them lye now buried) till the time of Henry VII, all which I have received from my grandmother, father, and uncles, who spake it with much confidence, as being deliverd to them, by theire friends of the former age, and the truth of it assured by divers records, however it is not that which I will binde on as an infallible truth, because I my self have not seene that which may soe absolutly assure it, and because I for myne owne parte care not to fetch a pedegree farther then from the certaine memory of a grandfather that was rich and honest, and a father that was virtuous and wise….”

Before the Norman Conquest of Britain, people did not have hereditary surnames; they were known by only a personal name or nickname. When communities were small each person was identifiable by such a single name, but as the population increased it gradually became necessary to identify people further – leading to the development of names such as John the butcher, Henry from Sutton, Mary of the wood, Roger son of Richard, etc. After 1066, the Norman Barons introduced surnames into England, and the practice gradually spread. Initially, the identifying names were changed or dropped at will, but eventually they began to stick and to be passed on. So, such identifiers as trades, nicknames, places of origin, and fathers’ names became fixed. By 1400 most English families, and those from Lowland Scotland, had firmly adopted the use of hereditary surnames.

When surnames first began to be used in England, several persons living in an English town named Barnham adopted the name of the town as a personal identifier. Additional research into place names has led to a clarification of the origin of the Barnham surname. It has been found to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is a locational name for any of the towns or villages called Barnham in the English counties of Sussex, Norfolk and Staffordshire. Barnham in Sussex is recorded as “Berneham” in the Domesday Book of 1086, while the two places in Norfolk and Staffordshire appear in the same source as “Bernham”. All of those place names have the same derivation.

The place name Barnham arises from a combination of the pre-7th-century Old English byname Beorn(a) [from Beorn (Old Norse Barn), a warrior] with the Old English suffix “ham”, meaning homestead or village. The name Beorn, in addition to its meaning of warrior (or freeman in Anglo-Saxon society), was also a name used by some noblemen (since “nobleman” was an alternate meaning). It is related to the Scandinavian names Björn (Swedish) and Bjørn (Norwegian and Danish), meaning bear. The word Baron also developed from Beorn. The basic meaning of Barnham in Old English, then, was “the homestead (ham) of the family or followers of a man named Beorn”.

Barnham Life Expectancy

According to our database of 31 people with the last name Barnham that have a birth and death date listed:

Life Expectancy


Barnham Family Tree

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Famous People named Barnham

  • In addition to Sir Walter Barnham, and those of his English descendants who were members of the minor nobility, Alice Barnham, Viscountess Saint Alban (1592-1650) became famous when she married the Lord Chancellor of England Sir Francis Bacon on 10 May 1606 in London, England.
  • The most well known member of the Barnham/Barnum family is, without a doubt, Phineas Taylor "P.T." Barnum (1810-1891) the famous showman and entrepreneur.
  • Among other famous members of the family in the US are several clergymen, senators, congressmen and judges, as well as three recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The latter are: James Barnum (b. 1816), Boatswain's Mate, US Navy; Henry A. Barnum (1833-1892), Brevet Major General, US Army; and Harvey C. Barnum, Jr. (b. 1940), Captain, US Marine Corps.

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Most Common Barnham First Names

According to our database of 167 people with the last name Barnham that have a first name listed, these are the most common first names:

  • Charles 4.8%
  • William 4.8%
  • James 3.6%
  • Barnham 3.0%
  • Horace 3.0%
  • Alice 3.0%
  • John 3.0%
  • Whenman 2.4%
  • Elizabeth 2.4%
  • Martin 1.8%
  • Gordon 1.8%
  • Alfred 1.8%
  • Rebecca 1.8%
  • Ernest 1.8%
  • Mary 1.8%
  • Roe 1.2%
  • May 1.2%
  • Robert 1.2%
  • George 1.2%
  • Bertha 1.2%
  • Eva 1.2%
  • Ursula 1.2%
  • Thomas 1.2%
  • Edwin 1.2%
  • Benedict 1.2%
  • Sarah 1.2%
  • William a. 1.2%
  • Elsie 1.2%
  • Philip 0.6%
  • Robinson 0.6%
  • Eve 0.6%
  • Helen 0.6%
  • Whenham 0.6%
  • Hazel 0.6%
  • Walter 0.6%
  • Cunningham 0.6%
  • Leonard 0.6%
  • Appleton 0.6%
  • King 0.6%
  • Mcnicol 0.6%
  • Louis 0.6%
  • Winifred 0.6%
  • Alma 0.6%
  • Wilh 0.6%
  • Joh 0.6%
  • Joseph 0.6%
  • C 0.6%
  • Wilhel 0.6%
  • Miriam 0.6%
  • Isbla 0.6%

Barnham Pronunciation & Spelling Variations

By virtue of an apparent connection to Thomas Barnum (1625-1695), the immigrant ancestor in North America, the ancestors of the Barnham family in Great Britain are most likely also the ancestors of those residents of North America who today bear the surnames Barnham, Barnam, and Barnum (the latter two of distinctly American origin).

In spite of the singular uniformity of descent in North America, the same can’t be said of the European record. As a result of the many linguistic changes which have affected the English language during the nearly seven centuries that have passed since the first recorded appearance of the surname Barnham, numerous other spellings have been encountered in the genealogical and historical record. References have been found to (among others) Simon de Bernham (1273), Willelmus Barnum (1379) and Stephen Barneham (1592). The current English spelling of Barnham first appears in historical documents dating from the mid-14th century. As a note of caution, it should be mentioned that no family connection has been found between the surname Barnham and the similar-sounding surnames Bernham and Burnham.

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