A thicket full of herrings

As a child, I wasn't very keen on my surname.  Herringshaw was much too different, too odd, especially once I was properly self-conscious about my bespectacled appearance, my weedy frame, my juniority and my boffinaceous reputation.  It was good to claim kinship when Dad got a picture credit in a national newspaper, but more often I wanted anonymity.

This didn't really change till I went to university.  Being in a place where individuality and intelligence were rather better-tolerated than in the parks and playgrounds of suburban Leicester made me more comfortable in my own skin.  It then became easier to possess a curious surname.  It didn't hurt to get female approval, either, when a girl I fancied at university told me she thought Herringshaw was great.  But what the heck did my surname mean?

The L. Herring shore

A bit of early investigation proved confusing.  A herring is obviously a fish, but a shaw is a copse or a small wood*.  Why would someone have been named after a thicket full of herrings?  Was it some kind of Pythonesque joke?

I was doubly curious, as although I had the name, the Herringshaw side of my family was the one I knew least about.  Mum's family, maternal and paternal, were close-knit and in regular communication, but, for various reasons, this wasn't true on the other side.  Who were the Herringshaws and where had they come from?  I didn't really know.

So thank Tim Berners-Lee for the World Wide Web.  Every so often over the years I've made tentative forays into the family tree, but I don't really care that much about building a phylogeny.  I'm only really interested in what the name means, where it comes from, and whether any Herringshaws have made their mark on the world (other than my own nearest and dearest, of course).  I don't want to pore over parish record books to add another tiny twig to an insignificant branch of a tree I won't be tending.  Intermittent internet interrogation is the way for me.

This is not the Herringshaw family tree.

Over the years, these searches have thrown up some juicy titbits, and my most interesting discovery has been Thomas William Herringshaw, who has his own Wikipedia entryJohn Percy Herringshaw, who played nine first-class cricket matches for Essex, is good too, but TW beats JP by virtue of having published Herringshaw's National Library of American Biography**, having founded mulierology, or 'the science of woman', and having built Herringshaw Hall in Lake County, Illinois.

Seeing that Thomas William was born in Lincolnshire, I decided to use my dearly beloved's love of (and password for) internet ancestry and see if he was related to me.  To my pleasant surprise, we were quickly able to prove that he was: his grandfather John is my great-great-great-great grandfather, making me and TW first cousins four times removed.

That was cool and groovy, as was finding the above portrait of him in the frontispiece to one of his books, but it wasn't till I read his own biography in volume 3 of his National Library of American Biography that I found something that really got me excited.  I knew about Herringshaw Hall, and was amused by such a prospect, but I hadn't vouched for this:

"This mansion is also named after Heronshaw hall, the ancient seat of the family built in the sixteenth century near Boston, on the eastern coast of Lincolnshire, England."

I rather suspected this was a joke, an embellishment added by a biographer to his own biography in a book published by himself, safe in the knowledge that no-one would ever check its veracity.  Except that Heronshaw Hall exists.  It's actually there on the ground just off the A52 between the villages of Old Leake and Leverton, and you can have a butchers at it on Google StreetView, should you so choose.  It is a Grade II listed building.

A Google Street View image of Heronshaw Hall.

TW clearly wasn't making it up, as I imagined, but is Heronshaw Hall really anything to do with the Herringshaws, and are the names synonymous?  At this early stage in the investigation, I can't offer much.  Heronshaw is known to be another word for the heron, especially young herons, and I've read somewhere that Herringshaw might be just one of a group of essentially contiguous names, such as Earnshaw, Henshaw, Hernshaw, etc.

A heron in a shaw.

Heronshaw Hall is not its only name either, the place being known also as Massam, Massom or Mussam Hall, and the listed building page notes that:

'Between the right hand pair of upper windows is a terracotta tiled date plaque, 1576, initials WB IB, above a shield.'

One can only assume that the initials relate to the people who had the hall built, and H for Herringshaw is conspicuously absent.  I'm instinctively sceptical about the connection, but it's all very intriguing.  I really need to get to Lincolnshire and do some proper on-the-ground investigation.

For now, though, for my own amusement, I am compiling a highly informative Google map showing the location of Heronshaws and Herringshaws in the Boston, Lincolnshire, area.  I will add updates here as and when I find something good.  Yes, something even better than the Herringshaw Beer House of Stickney.

*though the OED does note that shaw is probably derived from the North Frisian word skage, meaning the farthest edge of cultivated land, which is in turn related to the Old Norse word for promontory.  This might be a more likely origin of herring-shaw.

**which is good, but has been notably superseded by George Peasmould Herringshaw's International Library of Sporting Heroes.