Oswestry's odd Oswald omission

Now here's a puzzle. Oswestry's name is thought be derived from St Oswald, king of Northumbria and a Christian martyr.

Oswald's Well.
Oswald's Well.

Why, then, are so few children in the Shropshire town given the name Oswald?

In fact, according to local historian John Pryce-Jones, for hundreds of years nobody at all in Oswestry was recorded as having that name.

John explores popular names in the town as part of the latest in his series of books on the history of Oswestry, called "A Second Oswestry Miscellany."

It is his eighth book on the town's past, the first being published in 1982. The latest publication comprises 26 chapters, each of which focusses on a particular aspect, ranging from such topics as the Black Death through to civic life in Tudor and Stuart times and a detailed review of the ancestry of the Great War poet Wilfred Owen.

St Oswald's Church in Oswestry

He highlights baptism records for St Oswald's Church for the years 1580, 1680, 1780, and 1880, which reveal the fashionable names for those times. In 1580, more than half of Oswestry boys were named Richard, John, or Thomas. Henry does not feature at all, no doubt being mud after the reign of Henry VIII. For girls, most popular were Elizabeth, Elinor, and Anne.

In 1680, it was Elizabeth, Anne and Mary for girls, and John, Edward and Richard for boys. 1780 – Mary, Sarah, and Ann, and John, Thomas and Richard. No children then received more than one Christian name, but in 1880 almost two-thirds had two or more first names. Mary and Ann or Anne remained most popular, and now for boys it was George, William and Henry.

For all those sample years there was not one Oswald baptised at St Oswald's Church, and John's researches have shown that it was not some quirk of those particular years.

King Oswald – after whom not that many folk in Oswestry are named

"Checking hundreds of local deeds and documents from medieval times to the 16th century failed to locate a single Oswald, and our church registers with just one exception have no examples of baby boys baptised with the name Oswald right through to early Victorian times," he writes.

"The exception, from May 1709, is an interesting one, and shows the parish officials giving the name Oswald to a foundling, 'a child found in Mr John Price's porch in Church Street the 27th, baptised the 28th'."

The earliest example of the name Oswald being chosen by Oswestry parents was a baptism at Christ Church in 1838.

St Oswald's Parish Church in Oswestry

Slowly, says John, the name grew in popularity in the town, he thinks perhaps due to rising awareness of the story of King Oswald and his links to Oswestry.

Between 1875 and 1900, there were 17 Oswalds baptised at St Oswald's and another five at Holy Trinity.

"Of those 22, fully 17 were given Oswald as their middle name. It was perhaps a way for parents to acknowledge or celebrate their links with Oswestry and with St Oswald, while still being able to choose a family name or a more popular name as their son's first name."

"A Second Oswestry Miscellany" is published by Llanforda Press and costs £6.50.

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