A'Bear Family History

Introduction & Overview

 

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Introduction

The surnames A’Bear and Abear have long aroused interest. Most people outside the family simply remark “That’s an unusual surname!” and go on to ask “Is it French?” Those who were born with the surname usually want to know more. This fascination for tracing one‘s ancestry has been popularised in recent years through easier access to records via the internet. Indeed, this resource has opened up communications between like-minded people generally, and sharing information in genealogy has also contributed to the success of those researching their family history.

The following Overview has been written in an attempt to satisfy those who seek quick answers to questions about the family name and our history. This is followed by an in-depth series of articles that analyse all the relevant records, mostly extracted from the National Archives, in an attempt to unravel the truth of our past in the period 1066 to circa 1500. The second volume of work relates to the period between 1500 and the start of our current family branches and then the third volume continues from this time until the turn of the twenty-first century. A further volume of articles has also been written investigating certain key aspects of our family's history.

 

Overview

The surname has been traced with certainty back to the earliest Parish Records of Wargrave in Berkshire, which were begun in 1538. It also appears from as early as 1478 in the early listings of land occupation for this village. From the time of these earliest records the surname was spelt in several ways including A Beyre, Abere, A Bere and A Beare. The family lived in and around this village working as farmers with certainty from the fifteenth century until 1901, when the family home “Hill Farm”, built in the early seventeenth century, was sold, and the last remaining A’Bears sadly moved away from the area.

However, as early as 1325 there is a Warfield record of a John Atte Bere living at, or very near to Wargrave. Later, in 1340, 1367 and 1413, atte Beres appear in deeds also relating to Wargrave. But in 1478 the name appears as Abeare. Thus it is generally accepted that the two names are one and the same, and that the longer version took its shortened form around 1450, perhaps because English usage increased as society modernised at this time.

“Atte Bere”, particularly in southern parts of England, is Saxon for “At or near the swine pasture”, a bere being a copse where pigs foraged. Thus, on the face of it, it would seem our very early ancestors were originally pig farmers. The apostrophe in the surname only appears much later, presumably signifying the missing letters ‘tte’, and continues in most but not all of the current branches of the family to this day.

 The fourteenth century was a time of great social change, due mainly to the Great Famine in 1318 and the Black Death of 1348. As a result a new class of yeoman farmer arose and serfdom began to disappear. Men began to exercise their rights and farm their own land, and so the scene was set for our family to farm Wargrave (and the surrounding area) continually for nearly six hundred years. The family name remained John and, through good husbandry, each successive generation survived, sometimes acquiring more land. Around the turn of the seventeenth century the Head of the Family assumed the name “John Abere on the Hill, near Harehatch”, a title which passed down through subsequent generations but adapted to become "John Abere of the Hill". The relevance of this remains uncertain, though it has long been considered that the family once lived at Bear Hill in Wargrave. By this time, however, they do not appear to have lived on any prominent hill, but merely rising ground. Living at the same time, though, and in the same village, a cousin of a similar age and also named John Abere assumed the name "John Abere of the Porch", suggesting the need for them to be able to distinguish themselves clearly.

Through good marriage in the eighteenth century the Abears became “gentleman farmers”, and at their peak in the mid 19th century owned and farmed no less than three hundred acres of land, centred about the family home, then named “Hill House” in Hare Hatch. Clearly their association with a Hill remained important to them. By this time the family had also spread out and were farming substantial acres in nearby areas. Their demise came about mainly due to the great agricultural depression in the late 19th century, when lack of profit in farming left them no alternative but to begin selling off their land. Even so they succeeded at their occupation further afield, farming in Gloucestershire during the 20th century and, in one form or another, even to this day.

Though no Atte Bere records have been found prior to the Warfield document of 1325, recorded in and around Wargrave from the slightly earlier date of 1318 the De la Bere surname begins to appear. De la Bere is the French-sounding equivalent of Atte Bere, “De la” meaning, of course, “of the”. Records culminate with a John De la Bere of Wargrave in 1341, just one year later than the 1340 John Atte Bere record, and the coincidences of the same forename, similarity of surnames and both people or possibly the same person being in the same place at around the same time provides enough evidence to satisfy most people that the families are indeed one and the same, recorded in French or English according to either the whim of the scribe or possibly the social suitability of the name used. Several earlier records certainly verify that the two surnames were interchanged, perhaps because the Saxon form was more socially acceptable to local people and the French form was considered correct amongst the Norman nobility. If this is true, then it seems likely that the colourful history of the De la Bere family becomes part of our history, and to trace our ancestry even further back in time we should consider the De la Beres; for it is alleged that Sir Richard De la Bere invaded England with William the Conqueror in 1066.

A detailed study of the De la Bere family has been undertaken by David Nash Ford, but here we will concern ourselves only with a possible link. By the mid thirteenth century Richard De la Bere owned Stretford Manor in Herefordshire and went on in 1316 to become MP for Oxfordshire. He is known to have collected the lay subsidy tax in Shiplake just across the Thames from Wargrave, and in 1318 was appointed Sheriff of Berkshire. He was MP for Oxfordshire again in 1325. Richard was therefore very much in the locality at this time, and would have had a comfortable residence in the area, possibly Bear Place on Linden Hill, originally named Bear Hill, near to the later A’Bear family homestead at Harehatch. It is a close relative of his, possibly his son or brother, who is believed to be the most likely candidate to have settled in or around Wargrave in the early fourteenth century and then appear in records as John Atte Bere in 1340 and/or John De la Bere in 1341. Furthermore, it seems likely it was another close relative who, as family legend has it, helped to save the Black Prince at the Battle of Crecy only five years later in 1346. It is believed he was appointed Chamberlain to the Black Prince, and for such bravery was knighted and awarded a Coat of Arms (or his Arms were at least endorsed). Soon after the battle he was made Constable of Emlyn Castle in Wales, home of the Black Prince.

The question of our relationship with the De la Beres is not a recent one. Interest in the A’Bears right to wear the Crecy Coat of Arms dates back to a copy of it found on a map in our family’s possession dated 1790. Earlier than this in the 17th century certain members of our family aspiring to good connections were using the names Dellabere, de Beare and Delabeare, presumably to improve their social standing.

Belief in our De la Bere connection seems to suggest that our surname derived from this Norman surname, and we are therefore of Norman descent. However this may not be true. It could be, for example, that a Saxon Atte Bere went over to Normandy prior to 1066 and came back with the invading army assuming the French name. Alternatively, an Attebere farming Wargrave as a Freeman prior to 1325 would have had the right to put his son in the King's army where he may have won the King's favour and assumed the more acceptable alternative French name as he mixed with Norman nobility.

If we choose to believe the Norman origin the word bere would derive from a French meaning. According to one source, it is accepted that Delaber or De la Barre derive from La Barre in the Cotentin, and were constantly abbreviated to De Bere or Bere. [The Cotentin Peninsula is the Cherbourg Peninsula in Normandy]. One cannot rule out the notion that the Saxon name was introduced deliberately to make some distinction between family groups, perhaps through the embarrassment caused by the birth of an illegitimate son to a Norman nobleman. Such a birth is, in fact, known to have occurred in the thirteenth century. 

On the other hand, if we consider Saxon to be the origin of our name, it could have originated in other parts of the country where bere had alternative meanings. In Wales, for example, it meant a high place such as a hill. It is tempting to believe that John Abere “of the hill” was trying to spell out to his villagers (and perhaps his descendants) something important he learned about his ancestry; if so, was it in fact Bear Hill nearby, or perhaps a Welsh hill from even further back in time? Given the recent discovery that John was first named "on the hill, near Harehatch", however, this notion seems unlikely.

Whatever the truth, the prestigious De la Bere name all but disappeared after 1341 in and around Wargrave, but spread in other regions to become Delabere, a name which continues in Geneva and elsewhere to this day.

 

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