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Chapter 4

The earliest BRUSH entries

No one knows, and it seems probable that no one will now ever know, when or where the name BRUSH first appeared as a surname. The very earliest reference, to BRUSCH, appears in the 14th century but no useful record exists until much later. In general terms, the modern form of single word surname as we now know it appears in England around 1400.

English Parish registers, the basic raw material of the English genealogist, begin for the most part only in the mid 16th Century(1). In some parishes records may voluntarily have been maintained earlier but the earliest date encountered is likely to be 1538 when they were first legally required (2) though for many the surviving record does not begin until later. This was the century of the Tudors; Henry VIII was on the throne from 1509 to 1547 and Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1603. England had emerged from the medieval period but was still an agricultural country in a pre-industrial age.

It will never be possible for the great mass of the population of England, below the aristocracy, to produce any sort of comprehensive genealogical history before the start of these essential records. The BRUSH family, or families, form a part of this great mass. There is no indication of any grand aristocratic or royal connection in this history (3). The raw source material for a comprehensive genealogical record just does not exist even though there are various earlier records of other kinds often associated with legal affairs of one kind or another.

During the 15th and 16th century the BRUSH name is scattered along a 300 mile crescent running from Cornwall in the South West to the east coast of Suffolk. Although this is a long line, we do not have a random scattering of the name across the country as a whole; just localised pockets.

The earliest fully documented reference to the BRUSH family is to the will of "John BRUSCH or BRUSSH" of Gippco proved 1438 in the Norfolk Record Office. "Gippco" was Ipswich in Suffolk, which is right at the eastern end of the crescent on the Suffolk coast.

In A dictionary of English surnames by Reaney & Wilson, 1991, a reference is made to "Alice Brusch, 1327" but I do not know the source for this reference (4). If it is identifiable it would be the earliest known reference by more than a century.

In a similar book about surnames in Flanders (Belgium and Northern France)(5) there are a number of references under the dual heading "Brus, (de) Brusche" which lists apparently earlier, very early, entries.

Brusche: Mnl. broosch, Wvl. brusch: broos, breekbaar, zwak. 1220 relicta Waslini Brusch, Gent (GN); 1170 feodum Reineri Brusch, Slijpe (LEYS1957', 115); 1276 Henric Brusch; 1397 Pieter le Brusch, Ip. (BEELE).

The meaning is said to be "weak, brittle or fragile". So not terribly flattering for 'Peter the weak'.

Which could reasonably link to early entries in Ispwich just across the North Sea. Possibly as a consequence of the wool trade:

"In Britain, the woollen industry had from the Middle Ages become the major industry in the land. As far back as the 14th century ... surplus wool was exported to Europe through the network of traders known as the Hanseatic League. Imports included wine from the Rhineland and finished textiles from Bruges. Edward [3rd] realised that more revenue could be gained by exporting cloth and so he encouraged expert weavers from Flanders to settle here....." (6)

Half way along the line from Cornwall to Suffolk we have another of the earlier references - to John BRUSSHE of Reading in 1493. This is a completely isolated record.

The early BRUSH groups present the tantalising prospect of a single point of origin -one single family somewhere back before the 15th century. But this is idle conjecture and, I increasingly suspect, may be a false prospect.

There are also two very early references well away from the southern crescent. Willelmus BRUSSHE, tyler was admitted as a freeman of the City of York in 1444 (7). These records also contain a reference to a "Thomas BRACHE, yoman" in the following year 25 Hen VI, 1445/6. This is well outside the geographic band I have just described and there is a century and a half before the next reference in Yorkshire. One, possibly two, isolated references will not for the moment overturn the general theory that BRUSH roots lie in the South Midlands of England. It seems entirely plausible that a building craftsman from elsewhere in England should have ended up in a major medieval city such as York.

About ten years later in '33 Hen VI' (1 September 1454 - 31 August 1455) there is a reference to Walter BRUSSH of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, which may prove to be one of the most significant as a possible root for the substantial Gloucestereshire group of families..

"Walter Brussh of Cheltenham to Pershore Abbey (William Newnton, abbot): Two messuages and land in Pershore (appointment of attorney to deliver seisin): (Worcs.)"

Pershore reappears as a location nearly two centuries later when the deceased father of John Brush, freeman of Tewkesbury in 1631, is identified as having been 'of Pershore'.

Although there are earlier individual references to the name of BRUSH, the earliest identifiable and substantial family grouping is in Gloucestershire. It is from Gloucestershire that my own family descends, though there is some doubt from exactly where. The second main early grouping of the BRUSH name in England is in Cornwall. If there is a link between the BRUSH family of Cornwall and the BRUSH family (or families) of Gloucestershire it is lost in the mists of time prior to 1550 and I regret to say there seems no prospect of establishing a link - subject only to the possibilities which DNA testing may open up. Other BRUSH households within the 16th century, i.e. Tudor England, appear in Suffolk, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and London.

One faint possibility is that the BRUSH families are connected to (or stem from?) the BRUCH family of Bruche near Warrington in Cheshire. On balance I suspect not but their well documented early history back to 1523 is covered in Section 13.

There was also a significant BRUSH family group in Ireland, which falls within our title "…. of the British Isles". It appears that this was part of the English colonisation of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries and that the Irish families were descendants of a single individual, John, who had moved there (presumably) from England (8). In time some of his descendants would move back to England and on to more far flung colonies.

Chapter 5


Why highlight 1558, 120 years after the earliest BRUSH reference? It was certainly a significant year for England when Queen Elizabeth I came to the the throne.

More parochially for our own story, it was the year in which two significant and useful BRUSH wills were made. These wills, made by Nycolas of Swallowfield and Richard of Tewkesbury, show the existence of established BRUSH families in Berkshire and Gloucestershire as the first Elizabeathen era begins.

There had been earlier wills - five in Suffolk between 1438 and 1536 but the BRUSH family of Suffolk seem to be dying out at that point rather than founding a dynasty. There is just one more Suffolk will in 1588 and no significant parish register entries. We will return to the Suffolk material below, in section 2.

Before 1558 the records throw up only a few references to BRUSH (or BRUSSHE or BRUSCH or BRUSCHE or BROUSHE or BRISH) (9) as a surname. We will discuss these early references later but it is difficult to build any sort of narative from them.

In the ten years either side of 1558 we have sketchy evidence of a number of families elsewhere in Gloucestershire and by 1558 we also have evidence of families in south-east Cornwall and in Oxfordshire, all of which will develop. And that is all. Twenty years after parish registers began to be kept in England there is no evidence of any presence elsewhere, unless we conclude that the Bruch family of Cheshire are connected (see section x).  By the end of Elizabeth's reign in 1603 all these groups will have become established, and have begun the process of fanning outwards into Yorkshire, Devon, Somerset, London, the Midlands and Ireland.

Two, three, four or five branches from a single root - or separate origins? Documentary research is I'm afraid unlikely ever to provide an answer. Maybe DNA testing will, though my first experiences of it have not been encouraging.

Errors? More information? Comments? Please do get in touch: brushdw@gmail.com

NEXT: Section 1, Introduction; Chapter 6, The origin of the BRUSH name?

(1) A-Z of BRITISH GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH by Dr Ashton Emery from www.genuki.org.uk : A bishop's diocese comprised parishes. Many parishes were villages with a church and a clergyman (or incumbent). Larger towns and cities would contain several parishes. Records of British baptisms, marriages and burials have been maintained by law since 1538. Not all churches date back to 16th century and not all clergymen kept proper records in the early years. The early baptism, marriage and burial records were usually jumbled together and some of them were written in Latin but by 1732 all registers were required to be written in English. During 18th century the baptisms, marriages and burials were maintained in separate registers or on separate pages. ….. From 1598 the clergy had to send a copy of their entire year's parish register to the local bishop. These copy entries are known as the Bishops' Transcripts or BTs. back to text

(2) In 1535, by virtue of the Act of Supremacy, Henry the Eighth appointed Thomas, Lord Cromwell,* at that time Privy Seal, to be his Vicar-General. Three years after his appointment, in 1538, Cromwell issued Injunctions that a book and a coffer with two locks should be provided for each parish in England and Wales, and the parson of the parish was ordered to write every Sunday in the presence of the churchwardens, or one of them, and record in the book all the baptisms, marriages, and burials of the immediately preceding week. In case of neglect a fine of three shillings and fourpence is imposed, to be applied to the repair of the church. {more at www.archive.org/stream/keytoancientpari00burkuoft/keytoancientpari00burkuoft_djvu.txt} back to text

(3) Just some fanciful references. back to text

(4) The full entry reads "Alice Brusch 1327, John Brosche, Robert Brusshe 1524 SRSf; Richard Brush 1665 FrY."    SRSf designates the Subsidy Rolls for Suffolk but it is unclear if this relates just to Robert Brusshe or to all the three previous names. FrY designates the Register of the Freemen of the City of York published by the Surtees Soc. as the source. back to text

(5) Frans Debrabandere, Verklarend woordenboek van de familienamen in België en Noord-Frankrijk (1993), grondig herziene uitgave (2003). The entry is reproduced at belgian-surnames-origin-meaning.skynetblogs.be      back to text

(6) http://www.e4s.org.uk/textilesonline/content/6library/ report2/history.htm        back to text

(7) 23 Hen VI From: 'Admissions to the Freedom of York: 21-39 Henry VI (1442-61)', Register of the Freemen of the City of York: Vol. 1: 1272-1558 (1897), pp. 160-81. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=50494. back to text

(8) There is a suggestion in one source that he came from Holland but I suspect this is unlikely. See section 15       back to text

(9) Or even BRUCH ? or BRACH?……or, just possibly, BUSH? A-Z of BRITISH GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH by Dr Ashton Emery from www.genuki.org.uk : "Care must be taken in reading copies of the old parish registers. There are numerous surname variations and, as many of our ancestors were illiterate, the surname was written phonetically."      back to text

The BRUSH Families of the British Isles        © David Brush 2006 to 2020

The BRUSH Families
of the British Isles
© David Brush 2006 to 2020