This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 26th January 1998, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

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 BEASLEY?

Although "Beesley" is the original spelling of this surname, the form "Beasley" is most frequently encountered. It is derived from a place-name in Lancashire. Although it is often merely shown on most Maps as "Beesley" larger scale versions reveal that it is, in fact, two places: Higher and Lower Beesley. The first is the bigger and, is linked with its counterpart by a footpath, ¼ mile long. They stand to the East of the M6 Motorway, the nearest locating-point being Inglewhite, 8 miles North of Preston. About 2½ miles West is "Beesley' Farm" a small settlement, somewhat isolated, in the vicinity of Bilsborrow and between the M6 and A6 Highways.

The second unit of "Beesley" (-ley) occurs in countless English place-names and can be traced to an Old English word "loh" which means a "grove". In much earlier times the greater part of the landscape was shrouded in dense woodland beneath the shadows of which little could grow or be cultivated. Where thinning had taken place, either naturally or by felling, light was admitted and vegetation flourished. Penetration of light was so very exceptional that it influenced the creation of the vocabulary which was related to "open spaces".

This is particularly so in Latin, where the words for a "grove" and for "light" are seen to be closely related: "grove" is "lucus" and "of light" is "lucis". In English the word "light" can easily be seen behind the word "leigh" - though rather less so in "lea" and "ley" although they are all related.

However the meaning of the first unit of "Beesley" is much less easy to explain. The interpretation of most place-names is rendered more positive if the older spellings have been preserved, and in this respect, the Domesday Book is very much relied upon. Unfortunately "Beesley" is not included and the earliest reference occurs some 200 years later. It takes the form "Besley" which would not itself be very helpful were it not for the lucky coincidence that the name "Beeston" (West Riding: 2½ miles, South-West Leeds) provides a convincing parallel. In the Domesday Book (1086) it appears as "Bestone" and so it is not too fanciful to assume that had "Beesley" been included, it would have appeared as "Beesley". Working backwards and following the established patterns of development in word formation, it can be demonstrated that the Old English form of "Besstone" was "Beostun" so it must follow that "Besley" was in Anglo-Saxon times, called "Beos-leah".

This preliminary unit (Beos-) is a very ancient expression and now survives only in place-names. It made its way into Anglo-Saxon from the Old Germanic word "Binuz" which now is preserved in Modern German as "Binse" meaning "the Rush Plant". "Beos" had several meanings but they all related to the notion of coarse grass, reeds, rushes, heath, and rough-grazing land.

Reconstructing the place name, it suggested that "Beesley" was originally "Beosleah" and meant: "The open-space suitable for rough pasturage". At the time of the Domesday Survey it is quite possible that it was merely a field-name of no precise location, and that might account for its omission from that Record.

The earliest mention of the name dates in fact from 12456 [sic - maybe the Assize Rolls of 1246 mentioned in Tunnicliffe - Ed] and is found in the Records for Lancaster - Thomas de Besley. Note that the inclusion of "de" is no indication of any aristocratic connections. In the old writings "de" is often a scribal short-form meaning simply "from" or "belonging to". It is very likely that such a small settlement would have been unable to support any increase of population and many of the early inhabitants would have migrated further afield. They would have been identified by their new neighbours as "The folk from Beesley", which ultimately they adopted as their surname. It is certainly well-represented in the North of England and, curiously, in the West Midlands.

It is merely guess-work but it is quite possible that the Lancashire people pronounced their name as "Bee-ars-ley" (This duplication of vowels is still a characteristic of Lancashire diction). This might go some way to account for the intrusive "a" in the spelling of "Beasley". As it is, however, other variations include "Bisley", "Beazly" and even "Beazleigh". It might be noted that there is a place in Somerset called "Beasley" but it does not appear to have made any significant contribution to English Surnames, though it may have a more localised application. It is about 5 miles south of Minehead, just below Timberscombe.

The most celebrated bearer of the name is George Beesley (otherwise Bisley) who is known to have taken his name from this place because he was born in Goosnargh, a village only 2 miles to the South. He was a valiant Catholic Missionary during the religious upheavals of the 16th Century and died for his Faith in 1591. Almost as well- known is Lawrence Beesley, who survived the wreck of the "Titanic" (1912) and whose graphic description of that event is a minor classic of its kind.

The name is also borne by one Ray Beasley, a long-standing friend of the present writer who offers him this feature in compliment on account of his forth-coming Birthday.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 26th January 1998.

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