Guild of One-Name Studies
One-name studies, Genealogy
Like many other members of the Guild, I began a one-name study because, soon after I started visiting archives to investigate my family history, it seemed easier to collect all the data related to my maiden name and sort it out later rather than struggling to decide there and then whether it was relevant to my family. Having collected it, it seemed a waste to discard a lot of it so I registered a study with the Guild. Many years later I am still collecting and trying to fit it all together accurately.
Initially I thought the very rare surname of Burnish was a variant of Barnish but after a number of communications with a member of the Burnish family who had done a lot of research into her family we decided it was not. Though my name was occasionally misheard as Varnish when I was a child I did not think of Varnish as a variant of Barnish until I visited the Norfolk Record Office in Norwich in 2002. I wanted to confirm four records I had seen on the International Genealogical Index (IGI) dating from between 1600 and 1612 and to look forward from those dates. I found a few more mentions of Barnishes in Norwich as the century progressed and then the name suddenly disappeared. With the help of a member of staff, who even fetched original parish records for Norwich from the stores for confirmation, I was able to discover why. By the late 1600s Barnish was being written as Varnish, hence my adoption of it as a variant.
Many dictionaries of surnames do not include an entry for Barnish. Those that do tend to agree with Hanks, Coates and McClure’s explanation in The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland that was published by OUP in 2016. They say it is a ‘nickname from Old French barnage ‘qualities or attributes of a baron’, a contraction of Old French baronage’. I am not at all sure I agree. As a result of my studies I think the surname Barnish is derived from the place name Barnish Roding in Essex. Barnish Roding itself had many variants (Barnish Roothing, Barnish Rothing, Barnish Robing, Barnish Rothinge, Barnish Roothinge, Barnish Roothine and Barnish Rooden) before becoming Berners Roding. (The photograph at the top of this page shows the church in Berners Roding. It was deconsecrated in 1985 and it is now privately owned and very dilapidated.) My reason for this view is that the earliest Barnishes I can find come from Essex. You can read more about this in the next section of this page.
There is a small place (area 0.25 square miles) called Barnish in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. It is said to take its name from the Irish word bearnais meaning a gap or pass. It dates back to at least 1637 when it was written in records as Bernish but so far I have failed to find any connection between this place and the surname Barnish.
The first Barnish I can find is William Barnish who appears in a report of Assizes held at Chelmsford, Essex on 25 July 1580:
INQUISITION taken at Wethersfied before William Vernon gent., corner, upon the view of the body of Wm.Cranford. 14 jurors say upon their oaths that Wm.Baker of Thaxted barber, 11 May about 4p.m., assaulted the said William Cranford at Thaxted with a "pykestaffe" 10 feet long worth 6d., and struck him upon the left side of his head giving hima mortal wound 3 inches deep of which he died within 3 hours. And that Alexendar Walford senior and junior of shalford yeomen procured the aforesaid William Baker to come from Thaxted to Wethersfield to take possession of a parcels of land, formerly in the possession of Wm.Cranford, to the use of and drink into his father's house wherewith to feed the said William Baker 3 hours before the murder. Also William Barnish of Finchingfield gent., before murder said "Thomas Cranford there are com those nowe that will kepe possession and I can tall yt will cost knockers. And the same William Barnish did send the same daye in which William Cranford was slayne by a boye of his called Fraunces Edwardes, a black horse to the gorund then in varyance, and did deliver unto the same Baker over a hedge a longe pycke staffe, sayinge take staffe the yt is better then thyne owne, with the which staffe the said Baker kylled the said William Vranford". And after the said murder Alexander Walford senior sent 5s. to Wm.Baker by Geo.Bennett and told him to "byd hym be of good chere". Baker pleads not guilty; guilty of homicide but not of murder; clerk. Barnyshe pleads not guilty; not guilty. (Calendar of Essex Assize File: Ass 35/22/T/36.)
In an extract of the Office of National Statistics database for 2002, the name Barnish is ranked 19266, with 234 instances. The name Varnish is ranked 42906, with 66 instances. US census data for 2010 shows Barnish ranked 58735, with 345 instances and fewer than 100 instances of Varnish. The Forebears website put the number of Varnishes in the US at 77 and the number in Australia at 22. There are very few Barnishes or Varnishes anywhere else in the world.
In the UK, by 1841 almost all Barnish entries in the census were confined to Lancashire and Staffordshire. There was just one household in Shropshire and potentially (impossible to be sure from the writing) one individual in Derbyshire. There were just five Varnish households in the same census: one in London; two in Gloucestershire; and two in Norfolk.
Registered births, marriages and deaths for the Barnish and Varnish surnames have been extracted and transcribed from the General Register Offices indexes for England and Wales (since 1837). Other details that have been extracted and indexed include the IGI, UK census returns 1841-1911, 1939 Register, US Federal census 1930 and 1940, parish registers, burial records and wills and grants of probate in England and Wales. Data is also available from military records, newspaper articles, trade directories and some passenger and immigration/emigration records.
Some of this data is available from the Barnish archive on the Guild web site
Please contact me for data that is not available via this site.
You may find our other Guild websites of interest: