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About the study

If your surname is Dunsford, it is almost certain that some of your ancestors lived in the small Devon town of Bradninch. Its parish registers record their baptisms and marriages and burials in the Church of St. Disens (pictured above), as far back as 1561. A stained glass window in the church hall commemorates the family. So, if you want to know more, read on.

My grandfather, who died before I was born, claimed he was from Bradninch in Devon. Curious to discover if I had Devon origins I tracked down a copy of his birth certificate, which confirmed Bradninch as his birth place. I then traced my great, and great, great grandfathers, also in Bradninch. I had been warned that family history can be compulsive, and so it proved. After several interesting and very productive visits to Devon Record Office I had traced my ancestors back to the 1560's, still in Bradninch. I had also found half a dozen or so family trees, pedigrees and a set of memoirs, some going back hundreds of years, relating to different branches of the family. They all had one thing in common. Every single one traced a line of ancestors back to Bradninch. Could it be that all people with the Dunsford surname can trace their ancestry to Bradninch? In an attempt to answer this question, I started the one name study.

The earliest British census in 1841 records some 50 families of Dunsfords in England and Wales. I have traced 49 of these back to Bradninch. I have recently been in touch with a number of people who have independently traced their Dunsford ancestry back to Bradninch. I believe that all this, together with the family trees and pedigrees makes it highly likely that all Dunsfords can trace their ancestry back to Bradninch.

An enduring mystery concerning the earliest Dunsfords I have traced in the Bradninch parish registers, is that several of them were involved in legal disputes in the Courts of Chancery and Star Chamber concerning land ownership. Quite where they acquired the legal expertise and knowledge, and money, to pursue these disputes, is, for the moment, lost in the mists of time.

Information contained in almost a dozen legal cases fought in the late 1500's and early 1600's in the Courts of Chancery, Exchequer, and Star Chamber, shows that up to the mid seventeenth century most, if not all the Dunsfords in and around Bradninch were farmers. The disputes are about a farm and land at what is now Park Farm in the parish of Uffculme, some 7 miles from Bradninch.  Some of them are described as Yeomen farmers. It is not clear how a family of farmers in rural Devon had the means and knowledge to bring such cases to court. In a later dispute the Lord of the Manor of Bradninch sued  Jeffrey  Dunsford (baptised 28.5.1562) and Robert Dunsford (buried 14.4.1631) for not grinding their corn at his mill in 1626. A Parliamentary Survey carried out in 1650 showed that almost all of them were no longer farming. Most of the extended family had left Bradninch and settled in Tiverton, some 8 miles away. Their early years in Tiverton were marred by persecution for their Puritan beliefs, two of them being imprisoned for an entire winter. Their treatment in Tiverton may give a clue as to why so many left their ancestral home of Bradninch. By 1642 Civil War had broken out between the King and Parliament, led by Puritans. Most of the land in the Manor of Bradninch was owned by the King's eldest son, who probably did not not want Puritans farming his land. (The current Prince of Wales still owns over 3,000 acres on 13 farms in Bradninch.) Exactly when they left the land is not known. They were still farming well after the start of the Civil War in 1642 because the 'Memoirs of the Family of Dunsford' by Martin Dunsford (see below) recount ' During the civil wars the children almost constantly attended the cattle and were obliged to use many stratagems to prevent them being seized and driven away by the numerous parts of soldiers, royalists and republicans, as each in their turns succeeded and scoured the country for provisions and forage.'

Whatever the reasons for this exodus from the land, the impact on later generations of our ancestors was profound. They were forced to find other ways to earn a living, and many were remarkably successful. The trades and professions on which they made their mark include:- cloth makers, cloth merchants, wine merchants, cutlers, bankers (the former Dunsford Bank in Fore Street, Tiverton is now a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. A framed document in the assistant manager's office records the origins of the branch as 'Dunsford and Company'.), sea captains,a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, (Midshipman George Dunsford, later Lieutenant, served aboard H.M.S. Leviathan at the Battle of Trafalgar), pilots in the Royal Air Force, coastguards, lighthouse keepers, (George Henry Dunsford served as assistant lightkeeper in the famous Bishop Rock Lighthouse, the most south westerly bastion of the British Isles), surgeons, nurses, vets, jewellers, innkeepers, carpenters, woolcombers, cordwainers, blacksmiths, accountants, printers, chemists, florists, tailors, miners (owners and hewers),policemen, railway policemen, journalists, barristers; and at least one master dredger; and a general in the Bengal Army. The efforts of some at least did not go entirely unnoticed. Decorations include the D.S.O.; C.B.;V.O.; and M.B.E. My father was made a Chevalier of the  Legion of Honour by the French government, for his role in storming Sword Beach on D-Day.

One branch of the family living in the neighbouring parish of Broadclyst appeared to escape the persecution and continued farming through the 18th and 19th centuries and some of their descendants are still farming in South Australia to this day. Other descendants of this branch were amongst the earliest settlers farming in Upper Canada (now the Province of Ontario). Family stories from the Canadian branch suggest that some of them ventured on to the 'Oregon Trail', but I have yet to trace any of them.

Bradninch has a long and unusual history. The Domesday Book records it as the largest of all the 46 manors in Devon. A castle was built on Castle Hill by the Saxons in the seventh century. Its town charter was granted by Reginald, Earl of Cornwall in 1141. During medieval times its market became one of the most important in Devon, particularly for trade in wool and woollen products. There is some evidence that some of the earliest Dunsfords were involved in this trade. In 1337 King Edward III made his eldest son, also called Edward, ( and who later became famous as 'The Black Prince'), the Duke of Cornwall, and Baron of Bradninch. Since that time, up to the present day, the Monarch's eldest son has been the Lord of the Manor of Bradninch. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, currently holds the title. A number of royal visits have been made to the town, and photographs of some of the more recent can be seen in the town's Guild Hall. A commemorative stone above the door of the Guild Hall, records that it was laid on May 17 1921 by Edward Prince of Wales, who later achieved fame and some notoriety as the uncrowned King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne in 1936. Because of the town's Royal connections, the choristers of St Disen's Anglican church wear similar red vestments as those worn by the choir of St. George's Chapel, Windsor castle.

With the help of other people researching the surname, I have traced branches of the family in the U.K., U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. I would be interested to hear from anyone trying to trace their Dunsford ancestry. There is a good chance I may have information leading back as far as the sixteenth century.

I have written a brief 21 page account of the earliest Dunsfords for which records have been found. It starts with Domesday Book (1086), but is mainly concerned with the extended family of farmers who lived in Bradninch in the 1500's and 1600's and later in Tiverton. It should be of interest to anyone with the surname Dunsford as the people mentioned in it are our direct ancestors or their close relatives. The events described, traumatic as some of them were would have been witnessed by all our ancestors. They cover the events of the English Civil War (1642 - 1648), including the persecution of the Dunsfords for their religious beliefs and their eviction from their farms. I am happy to email a copy of the account. Please contact me by email.

Variant names

The registered variants of the name are Dunsford and Dunsforde. The name Dunford which occurs in Dorset and the North of England is not considered to be a variant. A number of families and individuals with the surname Dunford appear to have changed their surname to Dunsford. It is not clear why. I have found no instances of Dunsfords changing their name to Dunford or any other variant.

Name origin

There is overwhelming evidence that the name can be traced back to Devon, which does not necessarily mean that the name originated in that county. The latest research, currently being undertaken suggests it may have a Yorkshire origin.The IGI ( International Genealogical Index compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, the 'Mormons') records over 600 Dunsfords in Devon, 22 in Cornwall and 59 in London. No other county has more than 8. The parish registers for Bradninch have not been transcribed on to the IGI. If they were, the number of entries for Devon would exceed 1,000.

Lists of taxpayers in the Devon Lay Subsidy Returns for 1524 and 1543, and the Devon Protestation Return for 1641 show the name to be concentrated exclusively in and around Bradninch.

Of 50 families of Dunsfords identified on the 1841 census, 49 have been traced back to Bradninch.

Most, but not all Devon parish registers can now be searched on the Find My Past website. A search of the earliest registers found further compelling evidence that all Dunsfords can trace their ancestry back to Bradninch.  Between 1558 and 1658, a total of 53 baptisms of Dunsfords were traced in the registers.  Forty three of them took place in Bradninch.  Of the remaining ten, nine of the fathers baptising the children, were themselves baptised in Bradninch. Such a close distribution ofthe name in and around one town is unusual. Surnames developed some 200 years earlier, so a wider spread of the name might be expected.

P. H. Reaney in "A Dictionary of English Surnames" states that the name originates from both the village of Dunsford in Devon, and the Yorkshire villages of Upper and Lower Dunsforth. The name could originate from the picturesque village of Dunsford which lies in the Teign valley, where it descends from Dartmoor, some 15 miles south west of Bradninch. Professor David Hey, formerly of Sheffield University, in his book 'Family Names and Family History' states that surnames which originate from place names, even to this day display a concentration within a 20 mile radius of the place of origin. Distribution of the name certainly falls within this pattern.

The Domesday Book lists the village of Dunsford under 'Lands of the King's Thanes'. A Thane was an Anglo Saxon nobleman who held land given by the King in return for military service. The Thanes holding Dunsford are named as Saewulf (pronounced sea wolf) and Alsi. George Lichigaray Dunsford in his 'Pedigree of the Family of Dunsford' claims Saewulf was the earliest known ancestor of all Dunsfords. Unfortunately he offers no evidence to support his claim, which is a pity as it would be nice to think that all Dunsfords are descended from someone with a name like Sea Wolf.

  As mentioned earlier in this section on the origin of the surname, recent research seems to point to Yorkshire as the county where the surname arose. No record of the surname has been found in Devon earlier than 1524. In recent years many medieval documents have become searchable online at many websites such as the National Archives (T.N.A.) and Devon Record Office (D.R.O.) , and many others such as British History Online. Many universities in the UK and USA   have also put transcripts of such documents online. Extensive searching of such sites has found 18 records of the surname before 1524 in only one county, namely Yorkshire, and 16 of them were in the city of York. This finding was very unexpected. The records found are set out below in date order

1302 Henry de Dunsforth (Dunsford), merchant of York, creditor of John le Procratour. TNA refC/241/36/82.                                       1306 Henry de Dunsforth (Dunsford) named as an executor of Henry de Ryedale deceased in a case involving William, son of Robert de Stavelay of York. TNA ref C241/49/286.

1306 Henry de Dunsforth (Dunsford) of York, creditor of Robert de Plompton. TNA ref C/241/49/278.

1334 Henry de Dunsford re tenement of Robert de Wald in Petergate, York. Lancashire Archives ref RCHY3/2/37.

1348 John de Dunsford, in Feet of Fines, York. Oxford Dictionary of Family Names

1350 John de Dunsford of York, creditor of William de Acaster TNA ref C/241/128/55.

1355 Thomas de Dunsford, tanner, admitted to the Freedom of York.

1379 Petrus de Dunsford in Poll Tax, Knaresborough, which is 16 miles from York. Oxford Dictionary of Family Names.

1381 Robertus de Dunsford, wolleman (woolman), admitted to the Freedom of York.

1381 Thoma de Dunsford in Poll Tax, York. Oxford Dictionary of Family Names.

1393 Robert de Dunsford. Probate granted in York 11.11.1393

1426 John Dunsford was appointed vicar of Stainton 30 miles from York,in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, and now in South Yorkshire.

1427/8 Henry Dunsford. Probate granted 5.2.1427/8. Buried York St Denys.

1429 Richard Dunsford, fishmonger. Probate granted 7.10.1429. Buried St Michael Spurriergate.

1439 Johanes Dunsford, chapman (itinerant dealer), admitted to the Freedom of York.

1453 John Dunsford, baker. Probate granted 18.7.1453. Buried St Martin's Micklegate.

1454 Thomas Dunsford re third tenement outside Mikillyth (Micklegate) 2s 6d per for Pentecost and Martinmas terms. York Bridgemasters' accounts.

1457 Thomas Dunsford re the third tenement at Mikillyth (Micklegate) between 1592 and 1599 2s 6d for Martinmas term. York Bridgemasters' accounts.

The villages of Upper and Lower Dunsforth lie 10 miles north west of York, and would seem to be the origin of the name in York, having first been in the form de Dunsforth (i.e. a man from the village of Dunsforth); then de Dunsford; and finally Dunsford. It seems that the "th" and "d" sounds were interchangeable in this period. The above records seem to show convincing evidence that the surname arose in York in the 1300s and 1400s. The question is, did the surname have another separate origin, probably in Devon. So far no evidence of a Devon origin has been found, which is puzzling and unexpected. If anyone finds a record of the surname in Devon earlier than 1524, I would be very interested to hear of it.

  I have found no records of the surname in Yorkshire later than 1457. The surname seems to have died out in Yorkshire after 1457. Is it possible that some or all of the York Dunsfords moved to Devon in the late 1400s. At first this seemed unlikely, but a number of facts have come to light which make it more likely that this could have happened.


During the later 1400s, York entered a period of serious economic decline, resulting in a large drop in population. There is evidence that some families moved out of Yorkshire.


York was an important centre for the wool trade, as were Exeter and Bradninch. At least one of the York Dunsfords was engaged in the wool trade.


York was a port in the Middle Ages as was Exeter, some 10 miles from Bradninch. It would be possible to travel between them by boat, probably with changes at Hull and London.


The distribution of the surname in York in the 1300s and 1400s, and then in Bradninch in the 1500s is consistent with a family moving to from York to Bradninch in the late 1400s or early 1500s.

  It has never been clear how a family of farmers living in rural Devon would have had either the knowledge or the means to bring  nine legal cases to the Courts of Chancery, Exchequer and Star Chamber in the late 1500s. If their ancestors had been merchants, then this could possibly provide an explanation.


Family name historians have compiled lists of surnames which appear to have originated in Devon. Perhaps the best known is “Guppy's list” compiled in the 1890s, and updated by Max Hooper, and then by Brian Randell in 2016. It does not list Dunsford as a Devon surname, so these well respected researchers seem to have found no early records of the name. Similarly Brian Postles in “The surnames of Devon” makes no mention of the surname. Finally the website lists over 2200 Devon surnames, but does not include Dunsford.

Historical occurrences of the name

John de Dunsford paid 3 shillings annual rent for a house towards North Gate Exeter, Devon in 1260-1. He may be the earliest known Dunsford ancestor, but it has not been possible to trace a link from him to the earliest proven ancestors.

The earliest record of the surname found to date is in 'A Biographical Register of the University of Cambridge to 1500' by A.B. Emden, which records the admission of Robert Dunsford to King's Hall (now part of Trinity College) on 8 January 1398. He gained a B.A. in 1409 and an M.A. in 1414-15. King's Hall was founded by King Edward II in 1317 to provide chancery clerks for his administration.

The author, sergemaker, antiquary, and political and religious reformer, Martin Dunsford (1744 - 1807) in his 'Memoirs of the Family of Dunsford' describes the family as 'remarkable for a long mediocrity of station in the useful employments of life'. In his roles as churchwarden, portreeve and overseer of the poor at Tiverton, he promoted interdenominational Sunday schools, and the introduction of free seating in the parish church. He also wrote "€œHistorical Memoirs of Tiverton"€ (1790); "€œMiscellaneous Observations during Two Tours in the South Western Part of England"€ (1800); He merits an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in Volume 17, page 337.

Richard Dunsford B.A. (1604 - 1659) was appointed schoolmaster of Bradninch school on 24 May 1638, and Public Registrar for Bradninch with responsibility for recording baptisms, marriages and burials on 8 October 1653.

Thomas Dunsford (1635 - 1719) and his brother Martin Dunsford (1632 - 1710) spent an entire winter in Tiverton gaol as punishment for their non conformist beliefs. There are records of informers rushing into their houses on Sunday mornings and emptying pots of cooking food onto the floor and carrying them away to pay fines for non - conformity. Martins' son, also called Martin (1662 - 1713) built the Baptist church in 1704 in Kingsbridge, Devon, where he was one of the earliest Baptist pastors. Prior to this date the Baptists had not dared to meet in Kingsbridge for fear of arrest. Instead they met at remote rural locations such as Tacket Wood Quarry, half a mile south of the town or even on Salt Stone Island in the Kingsbridge Estuary, 3 miles south of town. The Baptist dead were refused burial in the church yard, and were buried with the farmer's permission in a field at Venn, near Lodiswell, grid reference SX 6946.

Thomas Dunsford (1666 - 1735) was amongst the first to greet William Prince of Orange at Exeter in 1688 at the start of the Glorious Revolution.

The following were at various times, part owners of the Dunsford Bank in Fore Street, Tiverton:- Henry Dunsford (1768 - 1856); Henry Dunsford (1802 - 1858); Captain William Dunsford (1771 - 1849); William Henry Dunsford (1813 - 1892); and Francis Dunsford (1818 - 1886). The first three were also Mayors of Tiverton.

Harris Dunsford (1808 - 1847), surgeon, was called to attend both Queen Adelaide and the King of Prussia. John Dunsford (1807 - 1853) was one of the earliest members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Henry Frederick Dunsford (1817 - 1887) joined the Bengal Army in 1835, and became a General in 1877. He succesfully fought in a number of campaigns and was personally thanked for his services by the Secretary of State for India.

George Lichigaray Dunsford (1843 - 1913) published a 'Pedigree of the family of Dunsford' in 1886. A copy can be seen in the Tiverton Museum. A copy is also held at the Devon and Exeter Institution, Cathedral Close, Exeter.

Frederick Aubrey Dunsford, born 1856 was elected Mayor of Southampton in 1901.

As might be expected in a maritime county like Devon, many Dunsfords became sailors. The collection of Masters and Mates Certificates in the National Maritime Musuem in Greenwich London show that eight Dunsfords became ship's captains between 1850 and 1927. They include John Dunsford (1790 - 1880) who became a master mariner of high repute. He was held in high regard for his sailing knowledge and gave evidence to the Commissioners for Harbours of Refuge. His evidence is presented in a Parliamentary Paper on Harbours of Refuge, 3 February to 15 April 1859. He comments on the safety and suitability of harbours on the coasts of north Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and South Wales. His preferred harbour is Clovelly Roads - 'one of the best places in the Channel for a harbour of refuge as it is sheltered from winds from the south east all the way round to the north west'. His house, No 2 The Quay, Appledore can still be seen today at the southern end of the Quay. He probably moored his ship some 50 yards from his front door. John Teed Dunsford (1841 - 1899) seems to have experienced a little local difficulty in the Bay of Bengal, where his ship the 'Ann Armitage' sank on 6 March 1885. The cash box and most of the ships papers were stolen and the boats crew were tried at Mauritius but discharged for want of sufficient evidence'. John's luck finally ran out in 1899. The Deaths at sea register 1781-1968 records "John Dunsford, master of the Matilda Meadows Vessel sailed from Teignmouth on 9 December 1899 and not seen or heard of. Supposed drowned".

Lastly, no family would be complete without its black sheep. In 1820, Henry Dunsford (1777 - 1842), wine merchant, of Penryn, Cornwall, was sentenced to one year in Bodmin gaol for bribery at the Penryn election, despite a letter from his acquaintance Lord de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall, pleading for leniency. However, Henry's great grandson, Reuben Dunsford (1876 - 1935) went some way to redeeming the reputation of this branch of the family. In 1903 he emigrated to Lowell, Massachusetts, U.S.A where he established a very successful business making insulated electrical wiring. Much of his output was sold the Ford Motor Company, making him a very wealthy man.

Name frequency

The name is uncommon. The earliest records going back to the sixteenth century suggest there were no more than a couple of dozen Dunsfords living in and around Bradninch. 236 Dunsfords were recorded in the 1841 U.K. census. By 1881 the number had increased to 447. The 1911 U.K. census records 583 Dunsfords, but 124 of them trace back to a different surname, by far the most common being Dunford. If anyone tracing their Dunsford ancestry hits the proverbial 'brick wall', it may be worth considering whether there was a change in surname. The Canadian census for 1881 has 62 records of the name, and the U.S. census for 1880 has 85. There are currently about 600 Dunsfords across the U.K. with concentrations in Devon, London, and Greater Manchester. There are about 300 in the U.S.A; 200 in Canada; and 100 in Australia and New Zealand, giving a worldwide total around 1200.

Distribution of the name

From Bradninch the distribution of the name has expanded steadily over the centuries to populate much of the English speaking world. Even in the late 18th century the name was still heavily concentrated in East Devon, principally in Tiverton, Bradninch and Exeter. Britain's expansion as a seagoing power in the eighteenth century attracted branches of the family to ports in the West Country, including Bristol, Barnstaple, Saltash, East Budleigh, Exeter, and Plymouth. The growing industrialisation of the nineteenth century drew many Dunsfords to the north of England, especially Manchester and Liverpool, and also to London, and South Wales. Opportunities in the Empire and U.S.A. encouraged emigration during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the more adventurous went to Uruguay, Mexico, India and Burma, but I am not aware of any still living in these countries. Today there are about 1200 Dunsfords worldwide, half of them living in the U.K., and the rest in the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The U.K. electoral register for 2003 lists some 450 Dunsfords  aged 18 and over.  The Australian electoral rolls for 1980, list 45 Dunsfords.

The U.S. census for 1880 lists 85 Dunsfords, of whom 12 state that both their parents were born in the U.S.A. Based on the ages of the people in the 1880 census, I estimate that their parents were born in the U.S.A. between 1780 and 1830. This almost certainly means that some of their ancestors emigrated to America before the War of Independence, and must make them some of the earlier settlers.

This supposition is borne out by earlier U.S.censuses, which suggest a family of Dunsfords was living in Virginia at the end of the 18th century. The 1870 census shows a Philip T Dunsford living in Richmond City Virginia, and born in Virginia in 1794. The 1860 census records a Solomon Dunsford living in Kentucky, but born in Virginia around 1790. The 1850 census records a John Dunsford in Kent County Virginia, born in Virginia in 1792, and a Robert J Dunsford in Richland, South Carolina, born in Virginia in 1802. Finally Rodham Dunsford married Clement Ball at Fauquier, Virginia on September 20 1786. They could be the parents of the 4 boys born in Virginia between 1790 and 1802, but this is by no means certain. If anyone has any information on these Dunsfords, or any early Dunsfords in North America, I would be very interested to hear about it. The early records are incomplete, to say the least, so it will be quite an achievement to put together family trees for this period.


I have obtained all the Dunsford entries in the G.R.O. for births and marriages between 1837 and 1911. Of 50 families of Dunsfords identified on the 1841 census, I have traced 49 back to Bradninch. I have traced almost all the families from the 1911 census back to 1841 and earlier. If you know your ancestry back to 1911, there is a very good chance I have information enabling it to be traced back much further, possibly to the 1500's.  A growing number of branches of the family with descendants in the U.K., U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have been traced back to the 16th century.

  No records of the surname have been found in Devon earlier than the year 1524, despite extensive searching. Recently, records of the surname have been found in the city of York in the 1300s and 1400s. The significance of these discoveries is currently being investigated.

The National Archives hold legal papers concerning cases fought by Dunsfords in the Courts of Exchequer, Chancery, and Star Chamber, going as far back as the sixteenth century. They give a fascinating insight into some aspects of the way of life in those distant times. The fact that a small extended family of Devon farmers had the knowledge and capabilty to bring such actions suggests they were no ordinary farmers. Quite where they acquired such knowledge is, for the moment lost in the mists of time.

The Burnet Morris card index in the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter is a treasure trove of references to Devon family and place names.

Despite the Luftwaffe's destruction of most Devon wills in an air raid on Exeter in 1942, a few have survived, mainly via the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and they provide valuable evidence of family relationships, and give some idea of their wealth and status. Further glimpses into otherwise vanished lives are to be found in the British Library's website of old newspapers.

I have amassed a growing database of information on Dunsfords throughout the world, including old family photos. Some of the information is almost impossible to access independently, as it has been given to me by other family history researchers, and has been obtained from family stories handed down the generations, diaries, old family trees, family bibles, and photo albums.


If any one wishes to carry out a Dunsford DNA project, I would be interested to hear about it. Personally I do not understand DNA analysis, and remain to be convinced about its usefulness. I do however retain an open mind.