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 family tree 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. Barnum family history, dating back to England in the 14th century, is well documented and begins with the story of 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.
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”.