Surname Saturday: Lythell

The Lythell family name is this week’s Surname Saturday theme, focussing on Stretham and Little Downham in Cambridgeshire.

The Lythell surname, which has many variants in Cambridgeshire during the 19th century, is this week’s ‘Surname Saturday’ theme focus.

My most recent ancestor to carry this surname was my maternal Great x4 Grandmother Rebecca Lythell. She was born in about 1821 in the village of Stretham in Cambridgeshire, and was the third of at least five children to John Lythell and his wife (possibly his 2nd or 3rd wife) Frances Howard.

This couple had five children between 1817 and 1827 (Sarah, William, my Rebecca, Eliza, Ann).

Their daughter Rebecca, gave birth in 1840 to a son called William. She wasn’t married at the time, but soon married William Dewsbury of Stretham. William jnr adopts the Dewsbury surname at his baptism in 1842, taking Lythell to be his middle name. The newly-weds go on to have eleven children, with my Great x 3 grandmother being born in 1851.

John Lythell – serial dad

A few years earlier, Rebecca’s father John (c.1772-1830), appears in the Stretham baptism register with his daughter Alice in 1808, and her mother is noted as ‘Francess’. I’m guessing that this woman was probably my Gtx5 grandmother named above, and if it is, then this baptism occurs seven years before they married in 1815.

Earlier still, John appears in the baptism register this time in 1806, where he is noted as the ‘reputed’ father of Elijah. Interestingly, Elijah is named as ‘Elijah Lithell’ (so confirming the surname when it’s only ‘reputed’) and there’s no mention of the mother’s name. Whether this was an earlier child with Frances, I will never know as his birth is far outside that of the certification. Either way, Elijah grew up to marry and raise his own family of ten children – but more about that in a moment.

But, before all of this, John appears in the baptism register with his first wife Mary (Taylor of Soham, i think!), and they bring five children into the church between 1791 and 1800 (William, Miles, Elizabeth, Thomas and Mary). Mary’s baptism in 1800 seems to be the earliest appearance of the modern spelling of the surname – ‘Lythell’.

In total, John seemingly fathered at least twelve children from a potential 4 relationships.

John’s own parents were John Lithell (bc.1746) and Mary Finch (bc.1748), and appear to have had eight children themselves between 1769 and 1788 in Stretham. John and Mary died within weeks of each other in 1814 and were both buried in Stretham church yard.

Variants of the Lythell surname

Whilst looking at the Stretham parish registers, between 1769 and 1800 I’ve noticed six different spellings for the surname in this village alone. Here’s the full list that I’ve spotted in Cambridgeshire records:

  • Lythell
  • Lythall
  • Lithwell
  • Lithewell
  • Lyther
  • Lither
  • Liles (potentially)

19th Century Surname Distribution

In 1891, the main location for Lythell family groups is Cambridgeshire – claiming 67% (43) of the total 64 families noted on’s analysis of the 1891 census. The nearest rival is Yorkshire, with 20% (13 families). Lythell name-bearers continue to live in modern-day Cambridgeshire.

In the 18th century the surname certainly appears many times in Stretham, and a few times in nearby Little Thetford, Wicken, and Little Downham.

‘The Lythell Loop’

Walter and Rebecca Martin
Rebecca Ann Martin (née Lythell) holds her son on the left of this family photo. Rebecca and her husband Walter (far right) are both my maternal and paternal relatives.

A relationship loop has been caused – i’m calling it ‘The Lythell Loop’.

The son of the illegitimate Elijah Lithell mentioned above, was named Murfitt Lythell. After marrying, Murfitt and his wife Mary had at least six children – the penultimate being a daughter named Rebecca Ann Lythell, born in 1879.

Murfitt and his wife settle the family in Little Downham by 1881, and here is where Rebecca meets and marries Walter James Martin in 1901. The couple have six children, including one that’s partly named after her father – a James Murfitt Martin – although sadly he died at less than a year old in 1913.

Walter James Martin was my paternal Great Grandfather’s older brother. So whilst the loop is not genetic (only via marriage), the many relationships of John Lithell would eventually become connected up.

Standard or News?

Guest blogger Jane Freeman writes about using local history sources in print and online to research her Stretham roots.

Ooooh, this is a bit scary …. my first “guest” blog. Let’s start with the fact that I’m nearly related to Andrew, via a chap called Francis Yarrow, of Little Thetford, who married Anne Langford in Stretham, back in the mists of time. So, Andrew & I are related in a rather tenuous way best described by my maternal grandmother as “their cat ran over our doorstep”.

My maternal grandmother, that is, who came from Stretham, and whose wedding photo started me on my genealogical travellings. Kate Langford was born in 1889 and left the village, as girls her age did, to go into service. Her brothers mostly stayed there and my visits to Stretham as a child were to see “Uncle Bill”, her older brother, by then a widower living with two of his step-daughters. Cis & Ethel – one of them was an excellent cook and to this day I remember her mince pies & sausage rolls at Christmas!

These are the kind of memories which I most like about family history; collecting names and occupations is fine, and satisfying in its own way, but I like to make them into “real” people again and this part of my research is being aided and abetted at the moment by the British Newspaper Archives. A brilliant resource, albeit slightly expensive – its Australian counterpart “Trove” is free. But I digress: my latest find was in the Chelmsford Chronicle, May 1844, under the heading “Awfully destructive fire at Stretham”, which described a widespread fire in the village affecting “not fewer than 25 houses, &c………including habitations of wealthy agriculturists and humble labourers….” (see below for transcription of the full article). Although these articles are very useful in telling one who was around at the time, the writing of them also fascinates me. They didn’t have photographs, of course, to show the destruction so the journalists had only words to use; and how well did they use them.

Stretham - A Feast of Memories by Beatrice Stevens

More up to date, but every bit as informative, is “Stretham: A Feast of Memories” by the late Beatrice Stevens. This book gives a portrait of life in the village in the early 20th century and is an absolute gold-mine of detail. The Cambridgeshire library has a number of copies and I recommend it highly for those who have an interest in the village! In its pages I discovered that Uncle Bill’s step-son emigrated to Canada, returning a few years later to fight in the Great War (wherein he was wounded and lost an eye – in the Ely Standard, that one) and returned once more to Stretham, this time with his wife. Because of these clues I went to the Outgoing Passenger Lists on FindMyPast, and thence to the Canadian Library & Archives for his Attestation Papers. Never mind that I’m not at all related to him – I just had to know what happened to him. He sailed on the “Tunisian” to Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving Liverpool three days after the 1911 census, and subsequently joined the Canadian Mounted Rifles when the Great War broke out.

So, while I couldn’t live without the census and parish registers, it’s the “off-piste” information which I enjoy most of all; the only problem is that I get so easily side-tracked – I mean, what’s not to like about some of the old adverts or, my particular favourite, seeing articles in the Cambridge papers of the late 19th/early 20th century which are complaining about traffic chaos!

‘Awfully destructive fire at Stretham’


One of the most awful fires which it was ever our province to record took place Wednesday week, at Stretham, near Ely. The destruction of property is enormous; and when we say that not fewer than 25 houses, &c. have been razed to the ground, including habitations of wealthy agriculturists and humble labourers, the reader will imagine for himself the extent of misery which must be the consequence of this lamentable visitation.

The fire originated in small hovel adjoining the blacksmith’s shop of Mr. John Westby. It is supposed that some sparks of hot iron were the immediate cause of the catastrophe, but this does not quite clearly appear. At any rate, about one o’clock in the day the hovel was discovered to be in flames; and although assistance was hand, and the fire seemed at first but trifling, so dry were the materials of which the hovel was composed that it was very soon enveloped in flames, which communicated with Mr. Westbv’s house on one side, and Mr. Wright’s stack-yard the other. No sooner were Mr. Wright’s extensive and well-stored premises seized upon by the devouring element, than the utmost alarm for the safety of the village was entertained. Nor was this alarm unfounded, for the flames spread with such frightful rapidity, on both sides of the street, that in a little more than an hour from the time of their breaking out twenty-five occupations, extending over about fifteen acres of ground were in a blaze. To describe the scene would be impossible. The reader will conceive the terrible fright and disorder which prevailed, and the awful character of the destruction going on. So wonderfully rapid was the spread of the names, and so great the heat emanating from the immense mass of burning materials, that many those who fancied their premises secure when the fire first broke out, and consequently neglected to take care their own furniture, clothes, &c. were unable to secure a particle. Some have lost every chip and every rag, save the garments they happened to have on at the time. There is no engine at Stretham. About two o’clock the Haddenham engine arrived, and to the good use made of it, under the most active and energetic directions of the Rev. S. Banks, incumbent of Haddenham, may be attributed the saving of great part of the village. On one side of the street, the progress of the flames was arrested at a cow-lodge, belonging to Mr. Hazel, and the other side the yard of the public-house, next Messrs. Senet and Graves’s premises. In order that the reader may form an idea the extent of damage done by this destructive conflagration, we will give a list of the premises burnt.

  1. The hovel in which the fire originated.
  2. John Westby, blacksmith.—House, furniture, and clothes destroyed.
  3. Mr. Boultentarf, miller.—House, furniture, out-buildings, hay, &c.
  4. Mr. Wright, farmer.—Mr. Wright’s premises occupy both sides the street; at present we are describing the property on the south, but we include Mr. Wright’s total loss. Two barns, stables, cart-lodges, 300 coombs of wheat, 4 wheat stacks, 3 hay stacks, 2 straw stacks, a large number of pigs and fowls, &c. destroyed. House saved.
  5. Mr. Coy, farmer.—Dwelling-house, new barn, granary, stables, machines, wagons, out-buildings, wheat stack, beanstack, hay stack, straw stack, about 12 pigs, fowls, &c.
  6. Mr. Murfitt.—House, furniture, barn, stables, hay, &c.
  7. Mr. Lester, butcher.—House, furniture, clothes, stables, cart, five £5 notes, and 40s. in silver.
  8. Mr. Jackson.—House, barn, hay stable, & building in the yard.
  9. Mr. S. Wright.—House, bam, stables, hay stack, wheat, peas, and beans.
  10. Mr. Philips, baker.—House, furniture, clothes, stock-in-trade, and in fact every thing.
  11. Alms-houses—two families.
  12. Ditto —four families.
  13. Mr. John Wheeler, shoemaker and brewer.—House, furniture, stock in trade, warehouse, &c.
  14. Mr. Hazel.—Cow-lodge. Here the fire was stopped on this side of the street.
  15. Mr. Wright.—See No. 4.
  16. Mr. R. Wheeler.—House and out-buildings.
  17. Mr. Gibbons, shoemaker.—House, furniture, stock in trade, and every thing.
  18. Mr. Dimmock.—House, buildings, &c.
  19. Mr. Langford, linen-draper.—House, furniture, stocktrade, and every thing.
  20. Mr. Baxter, harness-maker.-The same.
  21. Mr. Savidge, tailor.—The same.
  22. Mr. T. Grainger farmer.—Barn, stables, every outbuilding, haystack, straw stack, 30 coomb of beans, about 40 coomb oats, 14 pigs, a quantity of fowls, &c. Mr. Grainger’s barn was the largest the county: nothing but the walls are left, and so intense was the heat that the brickwork seems in some places to have been almost molten. The house was saved.
  23. Mr. L Langford – House, stable, barn & other buildings.
  24. Mr. Dring, veterinary surgeon – House and furniture.
  25. Messrs. Senet and Graves.—House, barn, and stables.

It will be understood from the foregoing that the desolation is heart-rending. The Church was made the receptacle of the furniture, &c. which could saved: and as to the numerous persons deprived of house and home, they were accommodated as well as circumstances would admit, and every attention paid to them by the clergyman and their neighbours. Two engines from Ely were present: and the Superintendent and some men of the isle Ely constabulary rendered great service in the prevention of depredations. It is of course difficult to speak with any thing like accuracy but it has been estimated at between £15,000 and £20,000, a great portion of the property being, we fear, uninsured.— Cambridge Chronicle.

Surname Saturday: YARROW

Surname Saturday: The Yarrow family.

An unusual surname lives on through large families and a drive for business.

My maternal great grandmother gives me my connection to this unusual surname of Yarrow. She, Maude Yarrow, was born just over 110 years ago, living to the ripe old age of 104 – an age that is not unlike those reached by her many siblings – some of whom are still alive today.

Yarrow siblings
Six of the 15 Yarrow children during the 1930s.


During the Victorian era, my Yarrow relations were concentrated in the villages of Little Thetford and Stretham, just a few miles outside of Ely, Cambridgeshire. Here they seemed to have dealings in practically every business going – pubs, shops, farms, church, school, dairy, brewing, charities for the poor, musicians, railways, parish council and even the parish’s census returns.

The Yarrow family owned and ran both The Wheat Sheaf and The Three Horseshoes pubs over the years, often alternating ownership between them and the Dewsbury family. Neither pub is operating now.

The Yarrow name, despite being unusual, was relatively common in these fenland parts due to large families. Despite riots in Little Thetford during 1833, then inclosures in 1844 benefited the family when they gained large areas of land – with William Yarrow receiving the second largest chunk of land (45 acres) after Mary Hammond (60.5 acres), and another Yarrow member receiving a smaller chunk. This event would inevitably set them up as major land owners and employers, as well as influential people in the parish.

A Victorian boy-band?

William Yarrow in Liverpool Cathedral
William Yarrow (far right) at Liverpool Cathedral.

During the late 1800s my Gt Gt Gt Grandfather, James Yarrow, is well recorded as having performed and travelled with his “fine alto voice” accompanied by his equally able brothers, Owen, William and Albert. Newspaper reports praise their regular performances and fine singing voices. I can only assume that they were some kind of early boy-band! Whilst Albert is noted as being an organist at one point, William eventually moves north, where he is a key member of the choir – performing for Kings at Liverpool Cathedral.

Both myself and my mother both have musical skills and it’s a nice thought that perhaps this is where it comes from.

Large Families

In my ancestry, it is the Yarrow family that appear to have had the largest families. My own Gt Grandmother was one of 15 live-born children – none of whom were twins, and most survived into adulthood. She claimed that there were 21 children, but church records don’t support this (although this might not cover still-born or miscarriages). Meanwhile, her aunt and uncle – John ‘Jack’ William Yarrow and his wife Amy Ann (née Howard) had a family of nine children too. Of those that did survive their first years, reaching the ages of 90 and 100 is very common, which suggests that perhaps the Yarrow genes have an air of longevity to them.

Looking at the Yarrow families of the late-Victorian era, there is a higher frequency of female births, which may suggest a reason why the surname has become uncommon/unusual, with daughters adopting married names.


It is unclear as to what is the true origin of the Yarrow surname. It could be from the Achillea plant, a river in Lancashire, a place in Scotland, or a Viking target in South Tyneside.