Select Fearnley Surname Genealogy

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.

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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. 

.  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. 

.  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.

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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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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.

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

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 900 surnames.

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