This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 9th October 2000, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called KERSEY?

A reader in Matlock has expressed an interest in this surname. It comes from a village in Suffolk (10 miles west of Ipswich). Up to the middle of the 19th century "Kersey" was widely recognised as a serviceable cloth, extensively used for rough wear and army uniforms. Even as late as the 1870's working-men often wore trousers called "kerseys" - c.f. the "corduroys", "denims" and "jeans" of today. It has now gone out of fashion, having been superseded by man-made fibres.

As a surname, it is not very common and is largely established in an area east of a line from Cambridge to London.

Textiles rarely go into the formation of surnames. Of the 50 or more types of fabric, known in the Middle Ages, no significant examples emerge. The most likely reason is that cloth-making was largely a household industry and so to have described a particular family after the name of a commodity in the making of which many of their neighbours also participated would have been meaningless. The name "Silk" provides a marginal exception but would have been to indicate that the bearer was an importer of that luxury foreign fabric. No positive examples can be traced to "Wool". It might also seem that "Cotton" could be unchallenged but in fact that substance did not make much headway in the manufacture of textiles much before the mid-1400's and by which time surnames had become pretty-well established. Families called "Cotton", are more likely to have originated in one of the several places of that name, as near Cheadle Of Stowmarket.

Although doubt is now expressed as to whether the actual process of weaving the coarse practical cloth with its characteristic ribbed texture originated in Kersey itself, it was certainly a centre of production as far back as the 13th century. Two hundred years later its manufacture had been established as far afield as Yorkshire and Devon. Enormous quantities were exported to the continent. In fact the name appears so frequently in foreign writings that it was once held that it was not an English word at all. In Latin it appeared as "pannis cersegi", "drap de kersy" - (French), "kaersay" (Dutch), "kirschei" (German) and "carisea" (Spanish). The workshops of John Winchcombe of Newbury (Berkshire) were highly regarded. Sometimes called "Jack of Newbury" (c.1460-1520) he is something of a folk-hero and "Winchcombe Kerseys" were greatly admired for their quality. He is said to have been able to keep over 500 men at work.

It is possible that in a small medieval community a single individual might have been nick-named "Kersey" of account of having a simple, homely disposition. Shakespeare refers to "russet yeas and honest Kersey noes" but as evidence it is inconclusive. A person might also have been facetiously called "Kersey" from a regular adherence to wearing garments made from the material. Certainly game-keepers were dubbed "velveteens" on account of their attachment to clothes made from such material and the expression "leathers" is not unknown. But such applications date from the 19th Century and no name linked to "Kersey" can confidently be cited.

In conclusion, unless there were verifiable and exceptional circumstances, families now called "Kersey" or any of its variations, such as Kiersey or Carsey, may take it that they ultimately derive their surname directly from the village in Suffolk. It is truly significant that all the early references use forms to indicate that the bearers emanated therefrom. Hence "Sylvester de Kereseye" (Suffolk: 1273), "Ralph de Karasay" (Cambridge: 1279), "Adam de Kersey" (Essex: 1325) and "Robert de Kersey" (Somerset: 1327). In fact the first available record of the name standing alone dates from around 1600 in Banbury.

As for the place itself, it is first written as "Caersige" (995 A.D.) which was transcribed as "Caresis" in the Domesday Book (1086). It converts to "Karsee" in 1220 and shortly afterwards settles on "Kerseye."

The first unit,"Caeres-" (i.e. Kers-) describes that edible aquatic vegetable we now call "watercress". Its ability to spread rapidly across water is picked up in its Old English source "creopan" meaning "to creep" and is also echoed in the Latin "crescere" which means "to grow" (i.e. "increase"). The second unit, "-ige" (i.e. -ey) is from the Old English expression "eg". This has various meanings, centering on "island" but in this case refers to an area of dry ground rising above marshland. The village of Kersey itself is in a low-lying district and the "marsh" can be related to the short water-course which now flows through the settlement in a more defined channel and joins with the River Brett, a tributary of the Stour. Linking such 'islands' with vegetation occurs frequently in place-names, as, for example, "Ramsey" - Garlic Island. So "Kersey" may be interpreted as "the island where watercress proliferates". The site itself, protected from attack by the surrounding marshes would have an obvious choice for early British settlers. Art lovers, especially of Constable, would no doubt discern connections with his work, but otherwise the place owes its fame to having given its name to a fabric. There are no outstanding personalities associated with the name, with the possible exception of John Kersey who compiled one of the first English dictionaries around about 1700.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 9th October 2000.

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