Historical Notes

The purpose of this part of the web site is to give some historical background on the Woolgar name and an idea of its geographical distribution.

The Meaning of the Name

Many people have the idea that "Woolgar" means "wool gatherer". I think that the idea comes from the "gar" bit at the end of the name. In reality, "gar" is a Saxon word meaning "spear". Woolgar, or rather the original spellings of Wulfgar, Wlgar and Vlgar, is a Saxon name meaning "wolf-spear".

I have seen many ways of spelling the name. These include WOLGAR, WOLGER, WOULGAR, WOOLGAR, WOOLGER, WOOLLGAR and WOOLLGER. There are also double-barrelled versions, of which WOOLGAR-GOLDS is the most often found. You can't even rely upon a standard way of spelling the name within a single family. In Bramber churchyard there is a double headstone to a man and his wife and their surnames are spelt differently. Presumably the mason made a mistake when carving the second name and no one noticed his error.

The spelling of surnames did not become standardised until about 1910. By then the mass education of children had been in place for a generation, so most could write their own name correctly. Before then, the parish priests would complete their registers by spelling a name phonetically, so expect to see a wide variation.

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Origins and Development of the Surname

In “A Dictionary of English Surnames” by P. H. Reaney & R. M. Wilson (Pub Routledge 1991 ISBN 041505737X), the entry reads as follows :

“Woolgar, Woolger : Wlgar, Vlgar 1066 DB ; Wlfgarus de Cokesale 1252 (Colch (Ess); Brixi Wulgar 1188 P (Nf); . Teobald Wolgar c1250 Rams ©; OE Wulfgar ‘wolf-spear’.”

The references quoted are as listed below. I has not yet been able to investigate any of them and none refer to Sussex:

Wlfgarus de Cokesale 1252 (Colch Ess = Colchester, Essex) : Cartularium Monasterii S. Joh. Bapt. de Colecestria, 2 vols, Roxburghe Club 1897.

Brixi Wulgar 1188 P (Nf = Norfolk) : Pipe Rolls, Record Commission, 3 vols, London 1833 - 44 “The Great Roll of the Pipe for the twenty-sixth year of Henry the Third”, ed. H. L. Cannon, Yale Hist Pub 1918.

Teobald Wolgar c1250 Rams (C = Cambridge) : Cartularium Monasterii Rameseia, Rolls Series 79, 3 vols, 1884 - 94

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Anglo-Saxon Naming Patterns

Dr. Susan E. Kelly, until recently a Research Fellow at the British Academy and an acknowledged scholar on Anglo-Saxon charters, has provided me with the following information on Anglo-Saxon naming patterns:

 “… As far as we can tell, most Anglo-Saxon men and women had only one formal name, such as Aethelstan (male) and Wulfgifu (female). There is some evidence for the use of a supplementary nickname or patronymic to distinguish different individuals. For instance, in the mid-10th Century there were two men in the Royal Council called Wulfgar, one of whom is sometimes called Wulfgar Leofa (meaning something like ‘beloved’, ‘dear’, ‘friendly’). … I suspect that such nicknames were very widely used, but the type of documents which are preserved from the Anglo-Saxon period tend not to include them …”

 “Because of the nature of the evidence, we find it very difficult to distinguish individuals in Anglo-Saxon history (apart from kings and the very highest grade of nobleman) and next to impossible to make out family ties. For what it is worth, it seems that a son would typically be given a different formal name from his father. So a Wulfgar would not call his son Wulfgar. There is some reason to believe that there might sometimes be a practice of “mixing and matching” the separate elements of the compound formal name. So perhaps a Wulfgar would call his sons Aelfgar and Eadgar, or perhaps he would plump for Wulfred and Wulfhere. But such patterns were by no means compulsory - for instance (a man called) Aelfheah is known to have had a son called Godwine. Some of these names may reflect the preferences of the wife’s family.”

 “What this means is that you can trace certain Anglo-Saxons called Wulfgar, but you almost certainly will not be able to say much about them as individuals … and there is no hope of tracing family connections.”

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References in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles

Firstly, a little background information about the Saxon period of English history. According to the "History of Sussex" by J. R. Armstrong (Pub Phillimore 1984 ISBN 0850333164) the Saxon Ælle (or Ælla) landed in Sussex in AD 477 with his three sons, Cymen, Wlenking and Cissa. The Saxon's were in control of Sussex from AD 477 until 1017; but this period was interspersed with raids by the Danes, most notably in AD 852, 994 and 1000. In 1016 the warfare ended when the Saxon King Æthelred the Unready died and the Dane Cnut was chosen as King.

I have found the following references in "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles" Translated and collated by Anne Savage (pub Tiger Books 1995 ISBN 1855016869):

1.1 :981 AD "..... archbishop Ælfstan of Winchester passed away, and his body lies in the monastery in Abingdon: Wulfgar received the episcopal see."

1.2 990 AD : "Sigeric was hallowed archbishop, and after went to Rome for his pallium. Abbot Edwin passed away, and Wulfgar succeeded him."

1.3 1016 AD "....abbot Wulfgar passed away in Abingdon, and Æthelsige succeeded him."

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Domesday 1086

According to the leading authority on English surnames, the late P. H. Reaney, the earliest reference to Woolgar appears in Domesday in 1086. One Domesday reference to Woolgar appears in the Sussex section for the place of Burgham which used to be a hamlet quite close to Ticehurst, right up on the border with Kent. The entry says:

"In BURGHAM Wulfgar held half a hide of King Edward. It has never paid geld. There Reinbert has 2 villains with 2 ploughs.  TRE, as now, worth 12s."

"Geld", in this context, is an old Saxon term for money paid as a tax on land holdings.

"TRE" is a Latin abbreviation for "tempore regis Edwardii", meaning "in King Edward's time". This is a reference to the reign of King Edward The Confessor, a Danish King who ruled England from 1042. It was Edward's death in 1066 that led directly to the assumption of the throne by Harold Godwinson and to the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066.

There is another reference in the Hampshire section for Milford which is on the South coast, overlooking the Solent and the Isle of Wight. This reads:

"Wulfgar has 1 virgate of land in MILFORD from the King. He himself held it from King Edward. Then it answered for 1 virgate; now for three parts of a virgate.  There is nothing there; however, the value is 3s. The King has the woodland in the forest; value 12d."

A "virgate" was a measurement of land. It depended more on the quality of the soil rather than the linear measurement of the plot. A virgate could vary from 15 to 60 acres in size, but was generally around 30 acres. Sometimes it is called a "Yardland".

So, confirmation that the Woolgar's were here pre-Conquest; but, as you have seen, I have found references to them much earlier than that!

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Other Early References to Woolgar in Sussex

The Woolgar's were Copyhold tenants of the Manor of Streatham which held land in the parishes of Henfield and Cowfold. The Lord of the Manor of Streatham was the Bishop of Chichester for the time being and the surviving records are held in the Episcopal records series at the West Sussex Record Office.

Three manorial surveys have been identified so far, in 1373, 1552 and 1647

Customal Of The Manor Of Stretham On 13th March, 1373 [1374]

"Robert Wolgard holds in fee by socage a house and a caracute of land, formerly of John de Pokerle and earlier of Matilda Pokerle, rendering 15d each at St. Thomas' Day, Lady Day and Midsummer Day and 3s 3d at Michaelmas. He shall render to the first of the lord's boonworks 26 wastells, price 6d, for a certain pasture called brok; and he shall come to the great boonwork and shall ride there and oversee that the reapers reap the lord's corn well and fairly, and then shall have his food at three meals, and his horse likewise. He shall fence in the park of Aldyngbourne as much as two yardlands of the homage of Hanefeld." (Sussex Record Society Vol 31)

Subsequent research has revealed that :

"socage" was a free tenure of land without the tenant being obliged to undertake military service. The heir paid a fee to enter into the tenancy of the land on the death of his father.

"boonwork" was another name for harvest.

"caracute" should be spelt "carucate" and is a local word for a "hide" which was originally the amount of land which could be ploughed in a year using one plough with an eight-ox team.

Most of the Lords of the Manor in the area had to contribute to the maintenance of the fences around the park of Aldingbourne and they passed this duty onto their tenants.

Survey Of The Manor Of Stretham On 26 January 1552 [1553]

"Joan Woolgar, widow of John Woolgar freely holds the same as her husband John certain lands and tenements, rents and services situated, lying and being in Henfield, with appurtenances, called Pokerles, containing by estimation 100a. with the appurtenances of the said deceased, to remain to the heirs or debtors of John and Joan legitimately procreated and failing any such issue, to the right heirs of the said John, as by charter here shown, dated 16 November 23 Henry VII [1508], more plainly appears, rent per annum 7s 6½d." (WSRO EPVI/4/1 from a mid-17th Century copy of the mid-16th Century original, now lost.)

Customal Of The Manor Of Stretham On 16 April, 1647

This is sometimes known as the "Parliamentary Survey" because it was commissioned by Parliament on 16 November 1646 to authorise the sale of lands held by the Bishops. This is a very detailed document and it mentions :

Steapham Wolgar of Sweanes; William Woolger of North Pokerlye, a Freeholder; William Wolger holdeth a tenement called Mans; Edward Woolger holdeth a tenement called Cuttles Croft; and Thomas Wolger holdeth two cottages called Leaches and Downings. (WSRO MP 1298 - copy made by Messrs Vinalls May 3rd 1958 from an 1893 manuscript copy. I have not yet examined the original document.)

William Wolgar, Lord Of The Manor Of Havant, 1647 to 1674

During 1996, I stumbled upon the Court Baron of one William WOLGAR, Lord of the Manor of Havant in Hampshire. The Manor of Havant was purchased by William WOLGAR under the Act of the Commonwealth for the sale of the lands belonging to the Bishop of Winchester [Close Rolls 23 Chas I, pt xi, 16 = 1647] and he retained the lease of it after the Bishop's restoration in 1660. The first account starts in 1639 and the last in 1674. In due course, I will transcribe the document and try to translate it from Medieval Latin into English. More recently, I have obtained copies of some Wills which were Proved in Winchester and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury which might relate to this branch of the family.

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So, who were the Woolgar's anyway?

This is the question that I am asked most often by researchers contacting me for the first time.

In short, they were Yeomen and mostly of Sussex. Despite being frequently described in parish registers and census returns as "Ag Lab" or just plain "Lab", on the whole, they were not men who toiled on the land with picks, forks and shovels.

They were predominantly farmers, carpenters, wheelwrights and blacksmiths. Under the Manorial System of land ownership, they held their land directly from the Lord of the Manor - today they would own their land "freehold". They were businessmen, who were able to work with both wood and iron, and so had a trade that was always in demand.

There was a Woolgar wheelwright in Storrington who stored his wood for 25 years to allow it to mature before making a cartwheel from it. Imagine making a financial investment today with no prospect of a return on capital for 25 years! Of course, in those days, skills were handed down from father to son much more than they are today and so the tradesman had the confidence that the accumulated wealth of the family would remain in the family for generations to come.

Today, these "engineering" skills still crop up in the male members of the family with amazing frequency. During the 20th Century there were Woolgar men folk who were carpenters, wheelwrights, millwrights, railway engine drivers, chartered electrical engineers, civil engineers, heating and ventilation engineers, and shipwrights.


Last updated 24 March 2014
© Marion Woolgar