1.1   Localisation of the variants of Thornber to Four Counties

Modern telephone directories show that the vast majority of Thornber entries for the British Isles are in Yorkshire and Lancashire with the Blackburn area having the greatest number.  A survey of the Probate Index for three decades from its commencement in 1858 shows that almost all the Thornber wills related to people living in either Lancashire or Yorkshire.  These would be people born in the late 18th or early 19th centuries.  Similarly an exercise to abstract all the birth and marriage records from the GRO indexes from 1837 to 1851 showed that Clitheroe, Blackburn, Burnley, Settle and Skipton were the main areas, with very few outside East Lancashire and the Craven district of Yorkshire. Entries for the name John Thornber from the GRO burials index from 1837 to 1851 showed that all the deaths were in Lancashire and Yorkshire.  The 1881 Census on CD ROM shows that the vast majority of Thornbers living at that time were born in Lancashire or Yorkshire.

The 1992 version of the International Genealogical Index (I.G.I.) was examined for the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Westmorland and Cumberland.  The latter two were included because they include variants such as Thornborough and Thornbarrow.   The I.G.I. is known to be incomplete.  Taking England as a whole, only half the records have been indexed according to an article in Family Tree magazine in 1998.  Some parishes have not been indexed or only partly indexed.  In some cases the earliest registers have been lost or destroyed.  However, the index is the most comprehensive yet available.  Lancashire and Yorkshire are probably better served by the I.G.I. than some counties because of the number of parish registers transcribed by their respective county parish register societies.

It is was possible to examine the distribution of surnames from the 1881 on a National Trust Website which is no longer accessible. The maps I obtained when it was available confirm the overall picture from my own earlier work.  Thornborough is confirmed as a Westmorland and Yorkshire name with separate group in the Midlands, whereas Thornber is confirmed as an East Lancashire and West Yorkshire name.   Another variant, Thornberry, is shown to be mainly in Yorkshire in 1881 with a smaller concentration in the South West.


distribution map distribution map distribution map
Thornber in 1881 Thornborough in 1881 Thornberry in 1881



1.2    Two major groups of variants

All the names related to Thornber have been considered.  They fall into two basic groups.  The first is a two syllable version written as Thornber in the vast majority of cases.  There are variants such as Thornbor, Thornbar and Thornbur sometimes with a letter "e" after the "n" or at the end.  Bearing in mind that people spelled words however they wished before the middle of the 19th century, all these variants can be considered to be the same name.

The second major group has a variant which can be pronounced as three syllables of which the most common is probably Thornborough with the occasional variant Thornbrough.  It is possible that the latter was pronounced as Thorn-ber-rough in the same way that Edinburgh is pronounced as if it were spelled Edinborough.   There are also variants of such as Thornburgh.  While the latter is a two syllable form and indistinguishable in pronunciation from Thornber, I have included it with Thornborough as in the earliest records the two are used interchangeably in the records of the family at Cartmell.  There are many variants of spelling such as Thornberry, Thornbury, Thornbarrow, Thornborrow, and Thornburrow.  At a time when most people were illiterate, church ministers could depend only on the pronunciation of the name and then use their particular approach to spelling.  It is inconceivable that all these variants represent distinct families.  Indeed, some of the variants appear only once or twice in two or three centuries of records.


2.1   Thornber and variants.

In the Yorkshire I.G.I. there are about 1060 entries under the name Thornber and its two syllable variants.  The vast majority are spelled Thornber.  Of these about 330 are after the date of 1800.  They fall into three geographical groups.

The first group is by far the largest and contains the adjacent parishes of Waddington, Gisburn and Slaidburn.  Waddington registers have the most entries for the name Thornber, with records from the beginning of the registers in 1599.  There are mentions of Thornbers in Gisburn from 1576 and in Slaidburn from 1635 but the parish registers for the latter parish do not start until 1600 and all the records for the years between 1600 and 1631 are missing..  Smaller numbers of entries come from parishes or chapels nearby such as Tosside and Bolton by Bowland, and those to the east and north such as Gargrave, Giggleswick, and Long Preston.  A few occur beyond in parishes such as Clapham, Kirkby Malham and Bentham. The second Yorkshire group is in Heptonstall, Bingley, Leeds and Halifax.  There are a few examples of Thornbers in Heptonstall and Bingley in the early 17th century.  A very small group of entries is found for Kildwick and Silsden in the late 18th and early 19th century but these seem to relate to a single family.   There are examples of the name Thornber in wills made by people resident in Mitton from the late 16th century.  This was prior to the commencement of the church records in that parish in 1610.  The I.G.I has indexed Mitton only from 1720 onwards but Phil Marsden and I have transcribed the records from 1610 and all the Thornber records have now been abstracted. Giles Thornber and Robert Thornber are mentioned in Craven in 1545 and 1543 respectively in Lay Subsidies (Yorkshire Archaelogical Society, YASRS 145). The muster roll of Henry VIII in 1539, shows that there were 4 men of military age called Thornber in the Bowland and Craven areas.

2.2    Thornborough and variants.

There are about 450 entries under various three syllable variants of which Thornborough is the most common.  They seem to come from a geographical area distinct from the two syllable variants.  Only about five come from the main Thornber area in Craven - two from Giggleswick and three from Gargrave - and these seem to be for families sometimes given the name Thornber.

The main concentration of Thornborough entries is in Sedbergh and Thornton in Lonsdale with the adjacent areas of Dent, Askrigg and Ingleton.  In most of these parishes there are records dating back to the late 16th or early 17th centuries.  Additional parishes are further east such as Snaith and Drax at the eastern side of the former West Riding, Howden on the western edge of the East Riding, and York.  There are examples to the south of the West Riding around Halifax, and Leeds and in the north at Ripon.  In addition we have examples in a few parishes in the North Riding such as Thornton Steward and Thirsk.

About 35 examples of Thornby, Thornabie and Thornbee occur mainly in Halifax, Heptonstall, Sheffield, Rotherham, Ingleby Greenhow and Almondbury.


3.1  Thornber and variants.

The findings for Lancashire are particularly interesting.  There are about 670 entries of which about 350 are for events after 1800.  The parishes with entries in the 16th century are Whalley, from 1540; Burnley, from 1589; and Padiham from 1574.  In the following century these three are joined by Colne, from 1624, Clitheroe from 1661; and Downham from 1688.  The I.G.I. has one entry for Clitheroe in 1581 then an 80 year gap which may be related to which periods have been indexed.  Blackburn and Preston records for the name Thornber do not occur until the 18th century.  Once again this may be an indexing problem as few of the 18th century Blackburn records are included in the I.G.I.

However, from this data one forms the impression that at the earliest period of records, the name of Thornber was in the part of Lancashire immediately adjacent to the high concentration across the county boundary in Waddington, Slaidburn and Gisburn.  Almost all the Manchester entries relate to the 19th century.  One can imagine why this should be as the population moved from the countryside to the towns as the industrial revolution gathered pace.

3.2    Thornborough and variants

There are about 500 entries in this category.  Among the earlier examples are Preston from 1611; Blackburn from 1619; Walton le Dale from 1623.  This section includes many records of the Thornboroughs at Cartmell in the days before church registers began in the middle of the 16th century.  The information has probably come from the Lancashire Visitations of the Heralds which recorded the pedigrees of families with the right to bear arms.  The family of Sir William Thornburgh or Thornborough at Cartmell was in this category and members married into other land owning families. They had a stained glass window in Cartmell Priory which after the Reformation they removed to the St. Martin's church at Bowness on Windermere, where I photographed it in September 2011. It is a small section of the East window at the lower left hand side.

Thornber window

Thornber window at St. Martin's, Bowness on Windeermere

This group of entries has only a small overlap with the parishes adjacent to the Craven District with three for Whalley and two for Burnley. However there is some overlap in areas of Lancashire to the west such as Preston and Lancaster.  The two groups of variants are both found after 1800 in Manchester and Liverpool when people were moving there in large numbers from across the county.


4.1  Thornber and variants.

There are about 65 entries for Thornber in Westmorland, mainly in the 18th century from the areas of Kirkby Stephen, Kirkby Lonsdale, Dufton, Cliburn, Brough, Great Musgrave, Morland, and Ravenstonedale.

4.2   Thornborough and variants.

There are 780 entries for variants of Thornborough with a great many of the type Thornbarrow, Thornborrow or Thornburrow.  They are mainly from the 18th century but there are some from the 16th century or earlier with references to Kendal, Orton, Ravenstonedale, Warcop and Brough under Stainmore.  The Thornborough family of Cartmell seems to account for the references in Cartmell and Kendal.


The I.G.I. for Cumberland has only two entries for Thornber.  However there are 75 for the three syllable variants of which 34 are for the 19th century.  Of the remainder, there are some early examples relating to the Thornboroughs of Cartmell, Hampsfield and Selside and a number of 16th and 17th century examples from Penrith.


While there seems to be a difference in the distribution of the two main classes of variants, there is also evidence of people using both forms for the same family or person, even within a single document.  For example, Ralph Thornber of Sandy Syke in Gisburn Forest appears with this spelling at the baptism of his children and in his will.  However on his marriage allegation he is described as Ralph Thornborough even though he signs himself Thormber with an "m".

Another good example of the confusion is shown in the following baptism records for Walton le Dale, which almost certainly relate to the same family:

Anne d. of John & Catharine Thornborough bapt. 21 Sep 1788
Betty d. of John & Catharine Thornborough bapt. 28 Mar 1790
Henry s. of John & Catherine Thornborough bapt. 25 Mar 1792
Catharine d. of John & Catharine Thornber bapt. 14 Dec 1794
William s. of John & Catherine Thornber bapt. 4 Jun 1797
Anne d. of John & Catherine Thornber bapt. 26 Aug 1798

This ease of confusion suggests it is POSSIBLE but BY NO MEANS CERTAIN that there could be a single source for the name.  If that is the case, then gradually two major variants developed and these were already established by the time church records began.  Some confusion of spelling and pronunciation continued to occur until spelling settled down with the introduction of birth certificates in 1837 and the spread of education.  Given the low level of literacy among the general population it is remarkable that the form Thornber has been in use since church records began in the middle of the 16th century.

The earliest records for any variant of the name relate to "John Thornborough son of Rowland fits Eustace de Bergh of Thornbrough" said to be born about 1170 (information from International Genealogical Index probably abstracted from court rolls).  Even in this case the same name was spelled differently in a single document.  Thornbrough is between Ripon and Leyburn. This family became prominent in Cartmell, and at nearby Selside and Hampsfield Hall.    They are said to have moved to estates in Westmorland and settled at Cartmel from about 1263. The manor at Knaresborough was taken over by Henry III. This branch of the family remained in that region for several centuries, and may be responsible for the variants Thornborrow, Thornbarrow, Thornburrow which are mainly in Westmorland, but which could conceivably have a separate origin in the name of a landscape feature. The Thornber family at Cartmel remained Catholic after the reformation and were persecuted as recusants.

Thomas Whitaker in his History of Richmondshire in the North Riding of Yorkshire, published in 1823, speculates about the site of Roman cities and forts in the region. On page 22 he states ".....the fortress was undoubtedly at Thornborough, on the south bank of the Swale, scarcely a quarter of a mile upwards from the present bridge and partly washed away by a sudden deflection of the river from the opposite bank. The Thornborough mentioned above is not on the Swale but near a tributary of this river.

There was a Bishop Thornborough whose tomb stands in Worcester Cathedral. He was born in Salisbury in 1551 and was Dean of York, Bishop of Limerick and Bishop of Bristol, becoming Bishop of Worcester from 1617 to 1641. I know nothing of his origins. He was interested in alchemy. On his tomb is the inscribed dum spiro spero - while I breathe I hope. Examination of the National Burial Index, which still has very incomplete coverage, shows that there were Thornborough but not Thornber families in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

Coming to the Craven area we find that the muster roll of Henry VIII in 1539, shows that there were only 4 men of military age called Thornber in the area around Slaidburn and Waddington.  They occur in two pairs suggesting that they may have been father and son or possibly brothers.  The muster roll of Richard II for the same area (end of 14th century) has no mention of the name.  This suggests that the name Thornber and its variants did not originate in Bowland but came in from outside between about 1400 and 1500.  There are some Thornber place names in Craven. On the O.S. Forest of Bowland and Ribblesdale Outdoor Leisure Map, East Sheet at reference 812542 there is West Thornber and just to the east lie North Thornber and Lower Thornber. This area is just south of Wigglesworth. My correspondent Ian Roberts notes that "-ber" placenames are common in the upper Ribble valley, being a reference to the glacial hills (or beorgs) there. (The Place Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire, by AH Smith, Vol VI, page 157). The areas mentioned are part of the Parish of Long Preston and in the parish registers the place name crops up from the early 17th century. Ian Roberts has also found in the 1379 Poll Tax in Halton West Township that Richardus de Thornbargh ex ux paid iiij d. in tax (Craven and North West Yorkshire Highlands by Harry Speight). This is the earliest reference to this type of variant and may indicate that Thornber and Thornborough have two separate origins with the former arising near Settle, just north of the later concentrations in Bowland and Craven.

We know that a Christopher Thornber (written in abbreviated Latin as Xpoferus) was the third last abbott of Whalley so the name was in that area as early as the beginning of the 16th century.   There were clearly Thornbers in the Bowland area BEFORE those at Cartmell finally left their home, so if the two groups were related, the Bowland group must have been descended from younger sons of earlier generations at Cartmell.  Another possibility is that the Bowland group has a separate origin.

On the Blackburn and Burnley 1 inch to the mile OS mile, the place name "Thornber's" can be found on the road from Waddington to Newton at reference 722452. This may refer to a farm formerly occupied by a Thornber family as may Thornber Barn just south of Settle at reference 821621.

The variant Thornborough is most widespread suggesting that it may be the more ancient. It covers the areas involved in spreading out from Cartmell and some districts in North, South and Central Yorkshire.  The variant Thornber may be from a separate source near Wigglesworth. It covers a smaller but very distinct geographical area with particular concentrations on the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire encompassing Slaidburn, Waddington, Gisburn, Whalley and Burnley. The earliest references to the name in West Yorkshire are to Richardus de Thornbargh of Halton West in the Poll Tax returns of 1379 and then in Henry VIII's muster roll of 1539 and lay subsidy rolls of 1543.

Genetic Data

It is now possible for men to purchase an analysis of their Y-chromosome which is passed on from father to son generation after generation. Thus all male Thornbers with a common ancestor should have the same Y-chromosome unless there has been adoption, illegitimacy or change of name. For the record, my own Y chromosome has been analysed as belonging to the R1b1a2 group which belongs to the ancient Britons long before the Roman conquest. The more detailed designation is as follows: R1b1a2a1a1b4. The R1b1a2 is very common in the British Isles and extensive analysis of men across the world indicates initial migration from a region near modern Turkey, which is where agriculture first developed. I summarise and simplifiy below a small section from a paper that appears on the following site:

From Anatolia the carriers of the R1b1a2 type from 6,000 plus or minus 800 years ago continued to move westwards towards Europe by two routes. One went through the Balkans where the group R1b1a2 are identified by a pattern of mutations in their Y-chromosome at about 4,000 years ago. Another route went through the Middle East where there are modern carriers of the R1b1a2 group in Lebanon dating back about 5,300 plus or minus 700 years. Migration continued across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean and across the Straits of Gibraltar to the Iberian Peninsula (4,800 years ago) and up the Atlantic Coast northwards to reach the British Isles about 3,600 years ago. This is the movement of the Beaker Culture (so called because of the nature of their pottery) from the Iberian Peninsula to the British Isles and on to the European continent. The peopling of Europe by the carriers of the R1b1a2 group occured between 4,800 and 3,300 years ago and they were the ancestors of about 60% of the population of Europe.

We have to recall that Britain was uninhabited during the last Ice Age, when ice up to 2 Km thick covered the northern part of the area. Britain was repopulated as the ice receded from about 10,000 years ago. No doubt many new findings will be made in the years to come which cast further light on the migrations of our ancestors. The article mentioned above goes on to say:

Between 10 and 5 thousand years ago Europe was populated (although with low density in those times), by bearers of haplogroups R1a1, G2, I1, I2 and J2. The last four probably came to Central Europe in Upper Neolith, in the pre-glacial period, and R1a1 came from Asia around 11-9 thousand years ago. It was much earlier than the arrival of R1b1a2 about 4,800 years before present.





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