Thursday, April 30, 2020

What Are the Origins of the Ackley Surname?

As is often the case with genealogy, my research for this topic took me down the rabbit hole, so to speak. What I thought would be a quick post got me into William the Conqueror, English history, the etymology of English surnames, and even a little linguistics. Come down the rabbit hole with me!

Image from

Presumably anyone reading this blog is doing so because they have an interest in the Ackley surname; probably you are an Ackley or have Ackley ancestors. Indeed, most of our research as amateur genealogists is guided, and perhaps driven, by the fact that we know our ancestors carried the Ackley surname, or some minor variation of it. The fact that our surname has remained relatively constant for at least the last 500 years or so has allowed us to discover that Nicholas Ackley was our first American ancestor, and hopefully will eventually help us discover our English forebears as well (see this post for a discussion of that topic). But where did the Ackley surname come from?

We Can Thank William the Conqueror

Up until the Norman invasion of England in 1066, most people did not use a hereditary family name to help identify themselves. In some cases people used bynames or nicknames to distinguish themselves from others who had the same first name in their area, but these were not necessarily passed on to future generations. After William the Conqueror invaded and all the land essentially belonged to him, he began to distribute the land to those that were loyal to him and supported him. It is believed that surnames began to be adopted at that time to create family ties to the land they had been given. Others adopted surnames that described the jobs they did, such as Smith, Cook, Taylor, etc., while nicknames or descriptive names such as Redhead, Black, Fox, Little, and Armstrong were also common [1].

There is quite a bit written about the etymology (historical development) of surnames. I found a useful source for British surnames in a book by Charles Wareing Bardsley called "A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, with Special American Instances" [2]. In this book, Bardsley attempts to categorize surnames in one of five broad groups: (1) baptismal or personal names, (2) local surnames, (3) official surnames, (4) occupative surnames, and (5) nicknames. Here is what he had to say about the Ackley surname:

A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, with Special American Instances, p. 39

There are a number of interesting points in this small entry. Bardsley categorizes Ackley as a "local" surname; i.e., it comes from a location, namely an oak meadow. He says that it is the exact equivalent of Oakley, and gives some examples of people throughout history who have had the name. Note that he allows (as I am sure we have all seen), spelling variations from the now standard Ackley spelling. The "A" after Ralph de Ackle refers to the reference material from which Bardsley extracted Ralph's record; it is the "Hundred Rolls, 1273", which were a survey of land ownership conducted in England and Wales in 1274-5 and 1279-80. "Hundred" refers to an administrative division that is part of a larger geographical area, such as a county. One further item of interest is the q.v. after Oakley; this stands for the Latin quod vide, which translates literally to "which see". This is just a way to tell us to go look at the entry for Oakley for more information. Here it is:

A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, with Special American Instances, p. 565

We don't really learn much more about the meaning -- an oak meadow is pretty straightforward so there isn't much more to it. However, we do learn that there were a lot of places named Oakley, and some people named Oakley (or variations) also.

So, our name seems to come from the fact that the family (or families) who originally took the name lived in a clearing surrounded by oak trees. That could be almost anywhere, but I think it is reasonable to consider that maybe there is an actual place named Ackley (or Oakley) that got its name in the same way; i.e., it was an area surrounded by oak tress. With that idea in mind, I thought about the idea mentioned above, that the use of surnames in England was introduced in 1066, the year that William the Conqueror invaded. And that led me to the Domesday Book, which was completed in 1086 at the direction of William the Conqueror.

What is the Domesday Book?

The Domesday Book (domesday is a Middle English spelling of doomsday) was the record of a detailed inventory taken of England in 1086 at the direction of William the Conqueror. The effort was an attempt to catalog every location in the land he had conquered in 1066 for the purposes of determining the amount of taxes William could collect from the land owners. The survey included everything you could think of about each location -- how much land there was, the people occupying the land, buildings, enclosures, animals, fish, ploughs on the land, and the amounts of woodland, meadow, etc. There are over 13,000 locations listed in the book. It has been studied and analyzed by historians, genealogists, and lawyers, and as recent as the 1960s was still being used as evidence in land disputes [3]. Even though England's rulers spoke French at the time (William was from Normandy, which is in France), and the people spoke English, the book was written in Latin. There are two reasons for this: (1) government documents were typically written in Latin, and (2) the scribe who wrote it was a churchman, and Latin was the language of the church [4].

You may be asking -- why is it called the Domesday Book? "The Domesday Book Online" describes it like this:

It was written by an observer of the survey that "there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out". The grand and comprehensive scale on which the Domesday survey took place, and the irreversible nature of the information collected led people to compare it to the Last Judgement, or 'Doomsday', described in the Bible, when the deeds of Christians written in the Book of Life were to be placed before God for judgement. [3]

That's some pretty heavy stuff, but luckily for us the Domesday Book has been well preserved and there are numerous sources online that can help us find places and people that were mentioned in the book, as well as translations of the Latin text. A website that I found especially useful is called; it allows you to search for places and people that appeared in the Domesday Book. For places, the location is plotted on a current map that can be zoomed in and out so you can see exactly where that location is today. For each location a list of relevant information from the Domesday Book is also displayed, including the hundred, the county, owners of the land, households, and resources (including ploughs, animals, buildings, etc.). A scan of the original page from the Domesday Book in Latin is also included. For people, a list of all of the land that person is associated with as tenant-in-chief, lord, etc. is displayed. Using and documents from the National Archives (UK) [4], I found the following 15 locations that translated as Ackley, Oakley, or some spelling variation of those two names.

The place name listed in the first column is the translated English name of the location, while the second column is the Latin place name from the original Domesday book. The only place that doesn't seem to fit our purposes is Eagle; I included it in the list only because some of the Latin names referencing that place matched the Latin names of the Ackley/Oakley locations. Just as we've all seen in other records, even the Latin names are spelled slightly differently from one another, but for the most part you can see that they appear to be referencing the same name -- an oak lea (lea is another word for an open area of grassy land).

To give you an idea of what the data for a location looks like, let's look at the first location in the list, which just happens to be Ackley. The map (zoomed in a little bit) looks like this:

Ackley Map from

The blue marker indicates Ackley, while the little red dots are other locations from the Domesday book. The heavy gray dashed line just to the east of Ackley is the border between Wales and England; Ackley is actually in what is now Wales, but when the Domesday data was collected it was considered to be part of Shropshire County in England.

Here is the original page from the Domesday Book that discusses Ackley; the text in the red box is the Ackley section:

Domesday Book page for Ackley from

It is hard to read and is in Latin, so here is the information from the Open Domesday website that summarizes the text:

Ackley data from

I won't repeat the data for all of the other locations here -- if you'd like to see it and play around with it, use the link provided below and enter a location and see what you get. I should point out that there were no people with the Ackley/Oakley surname in the data.

So what do we do with this information?

Well, we didn't get lucky and find only one place named Ackley/Oakley. Even though there is only one place with our current spelling, we know not to assume that is the right one and all of the others are incorrect. So we have 15 places that could be the potential origin of our Ackley ancestors; on the other hand, they might not be related to our name at all. But now we have a manageable list of places that we can at least start with if we want to try to figure out where to look for records for our ancestors.

An interesting fact about the place named Ackley -- it is only about 22 miles from Hopton Castle. If you'll recall from the post called "The (Supposed) Ancestors of Nicholas Ackley", there are some records for possible Ackley ancestors in Hopton Castle (that I expressed some skepticism about). This could be pure coincidence, or it could be that the proximity of these two places is an indication that the Hopton Castle records might actually be relevant. As pointed out in that original post, a lot more research and study is needed before we can draw any conclusions.

Some Other Thoughts About Our Surname and Searching for Ancestors

While reading portions of Bardsley's book on surnames, I ran across some other information that has made me reconsider something I wrote in that previous blog post. At the bottom of that post I posed the following discussion question:

The research requires us to accept that Hackluite = Hackley = Acheley = Atcherley = Hagley = Ackley. Surnames evolve over time, and spelling was highly variable, but is this reasonable?

I asked this question because the research we were examining in that post had found records for each of these surnames and claimed they were all the same family. I was skeptical at the time, but Bardsley's book has caused me to at least rethink parts of the equation. In a discussion about the variations in surnames over time he says the following [2]:

A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, with Special American Instances, p. 4

I had to look up the term "aspirates" as it relates to language, and it turns out it refers to letters that are pronounced with aspiration; i.e., breathing out. Certainly the letter "h" is such a letter, and the point he is making is that many surnames that begin with a vowel have been altered by throwing an "h" in front of them (see the many examples above), and those forms can be considered equivalent. So, equating Ackley and Hackley (two of the names in that discussion question above) seems like a reasonable possibility according to Mr. Bardsley.

Bardsley also points out that some variations in surnames over time are due to what he calls "lazified" pronunciations of what are known as stop consonants [2]. Stop consonants are produced when airflow out of the mouth is stopped. The letters "p", "t", "k", "b", "d", and "g" are stop consonants. There is also the notion of "voiceless" (letters formed without vibration of the vocal chords) and "voiced" (letters formed with vibration of the vocal chords) consonants. The voiceless and voiced stop consonants actually come in pairs: "p" (voiceless) and "b" (voiced) go together, as do "t" and "d", and "k" and "g". Bardsley uses the "k" and "g" pair (lucky for us because Ackley has a "k" sound formed by "ck") as an example of this "lazification". He says that the surnames Hick, Hicks, and Hickson can be associated with the "lazified" Higg, Higgs, and Higson [2]. So, it is not unreasonable that Hackley could have been "lazified" to Hagley, and we now have at least part of the equation above that seems somewhat reasonable; i.e.,

Ackley = Hackley = Hagley

I haven't seen anything yet in Bardsley's book that would show us how to get to Hakluite, but I have a lot more reading to do. At any rate, I have at least opened my mind to the idea that when looking for ancestor records we may have to look beyond just minor misspellings. Having said that, I still contend that there are other problems with some of the claims, having to do with a lack of records linking the various generations together.

Discussion Questions

How would you answer this question now that you know more:

The research requires us to accept that Hackluite = Hackley = Acheley = Atcherley = Hagley = Ackley. Surnames evolve over time, and spelling was highly variable, but is this reasonable?

Link of the Day

Today’s link is to the Open Domesday website put together by Anna Powell-Smith.

This is a great site and was helpful for putting some of this information together. There are a number of good sites on Domesday -- I would encourage you to google Domesday if you want to learn more.

Quote of the Day

"Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere."

-- Albert Einstein


1. "Research the origins and distribution of your surname." British Surnames. (Accessed 4/28/2020).
2. Bardsley, Charles Wareing. A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, with Special American Instances. London, New York: Henry Frowde, 1901.
3. "Frequently Asked Questions." The Domesday Book Online. (Accessed 4/28/2020).
4. "Take a closer look." Focus on Domesday. (Accessed 4/28/2020).
5. Powell-Smith, Anna. Open Domesday. (Accessed 4/28/2020).

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