Fearnley Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Fearnley Surname Meaning

The Fearnley surname originates from the place-name Farnley, a village in the Harrogate district of north Yorkshire. The root of the name is the Old English fearn leagh, meaning “the farm in the clearing in the fern.”  An early spelling of the village and the family was Thomas de Farnlay, a deed witness there in 1238.  The word “de” here may mean “from” rather than “of.”

There were two Farnley Halls with different origins, but neither was held by a Fearnley. However, during the 13th century early versions of the Fearnley name had spread to the Peak District of Derbyshire and to Cheshire.

Fearnley Surname Resources on The Internet

Fearnley Surname Ancestry

  • from England (Yorkshire)
  • to Norway and Australia

England.  One Fearnley genealogist has commented:  

“It is tempting to think of the spread of the Fearnley family from that first known Henry de Farnlay, born possibly before 1205 in the village of Farnley in Yorkshire, then spreading down to the High Peaks of Derbyshire to settle at Fernilee in the Goyt valley. A further spreading could have been to Rostherne near Tatton Park and from there to Great Budworth and Warrington in Cheshire.”

The Fearnley line from Farnley in Yorkshire to Fernilee in the Derbyshire Peak District may have happened at an early time. Still, Yorkshire did account for 67% of all Fearnleys in the 1881 census, with Lancashire a further 23%.

Yorkshire.  Fearnleys in the Cleckheaton area of Birstall near Leeds have been traced back to George Fearnley, born there around the year 1530. Later Fearnleys were yeoman farmers. In 1835 James Fearnley, at the age of 20, was convicted of cattle stealing and sentenced to transportation for life in Australia. He was the forebear of the Tasmanian Fearnleys.

Benjamin Fearnley, a well-connected lawyer in Leeds, bought Oakwell Hall in Birstall sometime in the 1750’s. However, his elder son Fairfax Fearnley, heavily indebted, had to sell the estate in 1789. He later fell asleep at a concert at Harewood House and died there. This Fearnley line continued through his younger brother Benjamin.

Robert Fearnley departed Birstall for America as a teenager in the 1850’s. There he became a railroad engineer and started a real estate business. He died in 1900 a rich man. His body was embalmed, transported from Denver to New York and by ship to Liverpool. There a special railway carriage was requisitioned and the coffin arrived at Birstall station. Then Robert was laid to rest in the family plot.

Lancashire.  Fearnleys from Cheshire appeared in the village of Ashton-in-Makerfield near Wigan in the late 1600’s. One family line descended from Edward Fearnley who was born in Ashton in 1753. There were 78 Fearnleys recorded there and in nearby Lowton in the 1881 census. John Fearnley from Ashton was a survivor of the Arley coal mining disaster in 1932.

London.  The Fearnley name was also to be found in London. The Rev. John Fearnley from Yorkshire was a master at King’s College from 1831 until his death in 1869. He was known as “Infernal Jack” as he was a strong disciplinarian.

Edmund Fearnley had been a “beast” salesman at Smithfield market in the early 1800’s. He inherited a brewery in Watford from his cousin in 1822 on the basis that he changed his name to Fearnley-Whittingstall. He held Langley Bury House in Hertfordshire until his death in 1856.

Among his 20th century descendants have been:

  • the portrait painter Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall
  • the garden designer Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall
  • and her son the chef and food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, best known for his River Cottage TV series and brand.

Norway.  Thomas Fearnley, a merchant from Heckmondwike in Birstall parish, emigrated to Halden in Norway in 1753. His son Thomas Fearnley was the father of the romantic painter Thomas and the astronomer Carl Frederik.

The next Thomas founded a small ship-broking and agency business in Oslo in 1869. By the mid-20th century the Astrup Fearnley family had expanded beyond their original shipping base to become one of the business elites in Norway. The Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, opened in 1993, is their legacy.

Australia.  Jack Fearnley emigrated to Australia from Yorkshire with his brother Harry in 1924 under the Dreadnought Scheme. They were assigned to work at the outback town of Carcoar, NSW. Jack’s son Terry made his mark as a rugby league player and coach. Another descendant was the Paralympian Kurt Fearnley.

Fearnley Surname Miscellany

Fearnleys from Farnley and Fearnleys in the Peak District.  Was there a connection between the Fearnleys from Farnley in north Yorkshire and those in the Goyt valley of the Derbyshire Peak District?

A Henry de Ferneley from Farnley near Otley in Yorkshire and a Richard de Weston from Weston near Otley probably traveled together to the Peak forest in 1250, but we cannot know if they settled there; unless perhaps that Henry was the same Henry who had been granted ten acres of Peak land between 1227 and 1233.  There is just possibly enough data to suggest that this Henry was the Fearnley who migrated.

The Fearnleys in the 13th century appear to have been nibbling away at the Peak forest, making their own assarts or clearances. This perhaps helped the growth of Fernilee and other communities in the Goyt valley.  Some Fearnleys who had been fined in the Peak forest lived at Rostherne.  There is a long but unsure structure to the family tree of about seven generations in Rostherne from about 1250 to 1340.

The Fearnleys at Oakwell Hall.  In the 18th century Oakwell Hall in the parish of Birstall in Yorkshire passed through the hands of several tenants, but was eventually bought by the lawyer Benjamin Fearnley.  His son Fairfax Fearnley inherited his father’s debt as well as creating much of his own. He was quite an eccentric character with good connections amongst the Yorkshire elite. But eventually he had to sell the house in 1789 to help settle some of these debts.

His sister Susannah accompanied her husband Benjamin Carlile, an artillery officer, to the American War of Independence. There he fought with distinction from Bunker Hill to Yorktown.  Having lost Susannah and two of his three children to fever in Boston, Benjamin returned to Oakwell with his only surviving child.  Some old American sycamore stumps in the Oakwell grounds might well have been brought there by him as seedlings.

Aelred Carlyle, aka Benjamin Fearnley Carlyle, was a descendant. Schooled in the Oxford Movement, he founded in 1895 the first Anglican Benedictine community for monks in south Wales.

Edmund Fearnley and the Watford Brewery.  William Smith is believed to have started a brewery on Watford High Street around the year 1655. Continuing under family ownership, his brewery underwent modest expansion until 1790 when it was sold to George Whittingstall.

George Whittingstall instigated more significant expansion of the brewery and tied estate until his death in 1822 when he left the brewery to a cousin, Edmund Fearnley, on condition that he change his name to Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Expansion again continued.  However, upon Edmund’s death in 1856, the brewery estate become liable for debts arising from his other business ventures. So the decision was made to lease the brewery and tied estate to William Sedgwick, starting from 1862.  The brewery remained with the Sedgwick family until they sold it in 1923.

Fearnleys in Oslo.  Fearnleys dates back to the year 1869 when its founder, Thomas Fearnley established a ship-broking and agency business in Christiania as the city of Oslo was known in those days.  The little company soon prospered and engaged in, among others, the trade in lumber, wine, pitch and ice.

In connection with its trading activities the company bought shares in vessels and chartered vessels. Although the company began by chartering sailing vessels, by 1880 the age of the steamship had clearly begun.  In 1881 the partnership of Fearnley & Eger established the Christiania Steamship Company which contracted for two newbuildings at the Kockums shipyard in Malmø.

Over time Fearnley & Eger became a ship-owning company and invested in more and more units. The company engaged in both liner and tramp activities and survived the two world wars.

In addition to these ship-owning activities, the firm continued to engage in developing its skills in the area of shipping services, primarily in dry cargo ship-broking. As the tanker industry started to develop at the beginning of the 20th century, Fearnleys became involved here.  Later on, when the transportation of gas by sea became an important area of commerce, Fearnleys developed a broking department which specialized in this new commodity.

The company became involved in car carrier transportation in the 1960s, offshore and rig broking in the 1970s, coinciding with the onset of the development of the Norwegian continental shelf offshore oil fields, and energy trading and financial services in the 1980s.

Today the Astrup Fearnley Group is a leading, independent and global provider of brokerage, research, financial and advisory services to investors and companies involved in the maritime industries.

John Fearnley and the 1932 Arley Coal Mining Disaster.  One of the early volunteers of the rescue workers, John Fearnley aged 25 years, a collier of Old Road in Ashton-in-Makerfield in Lancashire, had an amazing escape.  He had rushed from the Arley mine when news of the disaster spread.  When the first volunteers retreated from a wall of gas it was discovered that he was missing.  His family was waiting at the pit head. He was last seen in the early hours of Sunday morning.

As the day wore on it was four o’clock when the news came that Fearnley had been discovered alive. A doctor went down the pit and took a bottle of brandy and the ambulance took Fearnley to Wigan infirmary.

It appeared that he went to the scene of the explosion and was overcome by the gas and became unconscious.  He remembered nothing more until he found he was sitting up against a pit prop with the debris of the roof around him. But he was too weak to move and it was very quiet in this region of the dead.

He saw a glimmer of lamps and his sprits rose. He called as loudly as he could in his enfeebled state and was rescued.  At the infirmary he had little recollection of what had happened.

Duncan Fearnley and His Cricket Bats.  Duncan Fearnley was born in 1940 in the cricket hotbed of Pudsey in Yorkshire.   His father was a woodwork teacher and his grandfather a cabinet maker who had worked with the grandfather of the ex-England cricket captain Ray Illingworth.  So it seemed destined that this young Yorkshire cricketer would also follow a woodworking career.

In 1955 he had just played for England Schoolboys and hoped for a career in professional cricket.  However, during the winter months he needed to supplement his income.

Fearnley decided he wanted to make bats.  Within the boundaries of Yorkshire there were many small bat-makers. Duncan was fortunate to get an apprenticeship with Senior Counties of Bridlington and made bats whenever he could around his cricket commitments.  The first bats he made were branded Tudor Rose, but soon they became known as Fearnley of Farsley. In the winter months Duncan would sell these bats onto his friends to supplement his income.

In the early 1970’s, as his cricket career was phasing down, Fearnley established his highly successful bat-manufacturing company. He got many of his ex-playing colleagues and opponents to use his products and built up the brand around these friends.  By the early 1980’s Fearnley had become the dominant brand within the market throughout the world.  At that time it seemed that everyone was using or wearing its 3 wicket symbol.

Today the brand still operates from its Worcester base, with the factory there producing by hand up to 5,000 bats per year.

Fearnley Names

  • Thomas Fearnley was the founder of the Fearnley shipping business in Norway in 1869. 
  • Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a British chef and food campaigner, best known for his River Cottage TV series and brand. 
  • Kurt Fearnley from  the Australian outback was a three-time Paralympic marathon gold medallist in the early 2000’s.

Fearnley Numbers Today

  • 2,500 in the UK (most numerous in Yorkshire)
  • 800 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Fearnley and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Yorkshire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.




Click here for return to front page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *