Work of Dr. Mike Sheldon - Sheldon surnames

This page is part of an archive of the work of Dr. Mike Sheldon from his closed website.

The Sheldon Surname

Most surnames have come from two main sources – either the name of a tribe or clan or from a place name where people lived around 1000 years ago. Of course many place names came from the name of the original settler, so is also a sort of tribal name.

Looking in textbooks of surnames (such as “Surnames of the United Kingdom” by Henry Harrison, published by Genealogical Publishing Company in Baltimore in 1969) you will often see this sort of entry –

SHELDON – belonging to Sheldon (Warwks, Devon, Derby etc). Earliest record 13th cent. Of the original name of Sceldon. The earliest form of the name was Scelfdun as seen in the charter of Offa, King of the Mercians, to the Church of St Albans. The first element scelf or scylfe denotes a shelf or ledge (also a crag), and the second being Old English Dun for a hill.

However there is a different slant on the origins of Sheldon in the book “English Surnames and their place in the Teutonic Family” by Robert Ferguson, published by George Routledge, London and New York in 1858. Here we read –

The Scylfingas or Scilfings are a Scandinavian tribe – probably from Sweden – as mentioned in Beowulf. Their name must be derived from a hero Scelf or Scylf. In the Fornald Sog the father of the Norse Skiold is called Skelfir. Scelf and Scylf is from the Old Norse Skelfa, to strike with fear, and Skelfir is one inspiring fear. Shelley in Suffolk (Anglo-Saxon Scelfleah) and Shelton in Bedfordshire (Anglo-Saxon Scelfdun) are probably from the same name Scelf. This also applies to Sheldon and possibly Skelding, Shelf and Shelver which come from the same source.


There are several ways of researching surnames, and two contributions below indicate the different ways in which the Sheldon name may have originated. Be aware that opinions differ and there is much speculation but few facts in this area of genealogy.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (ed. A. D. Mills, 2nd edn, 1998) has slightly different derivations for all the major Sheldons, deduced from their earliest appearances (which is what you're supposed to do nowadays). Sheldon Derbys (Schelhadun in DB) is 'Probably "healthy hill with a shelf or ledge"'; Sheldon Devon (Sildene) is 'Valley with steeply shelving sides'; Sheldon Warwicks (Scheldon) is 'Shelf hill'.

This article below was written by Kenneth Sheldon on the Facebook page of the Sheldon surname. I suspect that we shall never know how the name started although Kenneth seems to be suggesting that there were several different ways the name started in different parts of England. Any other contributions welcome.

Notes on Facebook by Kenneth Sheldon
Origin of the surname: Sheldon

Anglo-Saxon (Origin Cornish British) Locality. The spring in the valley, from schell, a spring, and dene, a small valley.
Although it it generally regarded as a Derbyshire name, Sheldon is not unique to this area. It is to be traced in the West Riding and located in Birmingham, Wiltshire and Devon. The choice of the expression "traced in the West Riding" is deliberate since it is now reduced to a district name in the vicinity of Ledston just north of Castleford and ten miles beyond Leeds.

The unit "-don" except in the Devonshire name signifies "high ground". During the perilous times during which our ancestors struggled for existence, settlements on elevated sites were desirable - you always needed to he on the lookout in case the enemy crept up on you unawares!

The nature of the high ground on which early habitations were located, although uniformly called a "Dun", varied considerably according to the local lie of the land - that is ranging from merely a broad mound or a small plateau. It seems strange that the word "dun" never passed into the language. Although it is one of the most frequent units in place-names, it is now found only in special contexts such as "sand-dunes" and "down-land".

The exception aforementioned for Devon lies in that the unit "-don" is a more localised term which is applied to long winding narrow valleys.

When we investigate the meaning of the unit "Shel-" we need once again to shuffle the pieces and this time it is "Sheldon" near Leeds which drops out. There the unit is believed to refer to the shape of the mound and that it bore a fancied resemblance to a shield. Hence it means "The Shield-shaped Hill". Possibly a few old families in that region might be able to trace their surname to that source.

Otherwise in all the other cases the meaning of "Shel" is the same. If we perceive that it is the origin for modern words such as "shell" and "sill" (e.g. "window-sill") then it is easy to realise why it came to describe those features in upland country which geographers term "shelves".

The meaning of the Devonshire "Sheldon" is obvious from the way it was written in 1086 - "Sildene". Referring to its location, a recent Guide describes it as being "on a terrace poised above a steeper slope". So it may be interpreted as "The narrow valley with steep and shelving side". What is noticeable though is that it has not generated many surnames: the local Directories list only a few.

Sadly later development has obscured the original features of the site in Birmingham. However the earliest mention is "Scheldon" and this can mean only "Shelf Hill". A modern survey mentions the early settlement as having been established on a broad spur. Although it is not certain it could be that the rather heavy concentration of the name "Sheldon" in the local registers might be connected.

The Sheldon in Wiltshire seems to be disappearing from recent maps. However a road atlas for 1968 shows a place even then decidedly isolated on the side of Lan Hill just south of the A420, some 2 miles west of Chippenham. No further information is available.

The local directories contain only a couple of entries under "Sheldon" which suggest that it has not created a noticeable number of corresponding surnames.

So that leaves us with our local "Sheldon" and it has been stated by those who have researched the topic in depth that it is the source of the largest number of names. There is also a curious slant to the word which renders it more interesting than any of the four previously discussed. To begin with, it isn't merely "Shel-Don" but "Shelf Haddon". This is revealed from the way it appears written in old records: "Scelhadun". The name "Haddon" is made up from the units "Haeth-" and "Dun". In modern spelling the unit "haeth" appears as "heath" and is descriptive of any wild uncultivated area. In early translation of the Bible the word "heath" was used in places where we would now read "wilderness". In addition to "Shelf Haddon" there is "Over Haddon" and "Nether Haddon". Respectively those prefixes mean "Upper" and "Lower". Heathland covered a wide area and probably "Haddon" was a district name in the past and it was only later that individually named settlements emerged taking some local feature to distinguish them. An excursion to the site of "Shelf Haddon" or a study of the current Ordnance Survey shows it to be situated on a comparatively flat limestone hill rising to about 1000 feet. Looking at the map one should note how closely the contours are grouped on the north side where Shacklow Wood drops down into the river valley. Note also the steep gradients indicated on the roads running down into Ashford. So one can see how it came to be distinguished amidst all the other "Haeth" places and its name may be interpreted as "The settlement in the heath country which is on a flattened hill top".

In the Middle Ages when farming was just about the only way most people could scratch a living in such inhospitable sites as "Shelf Haddon" would seem to have been only a limited population could be supported. Hence it was necessary as numbers grew for many a young person to move away and seek a living elsewhere. In the records for Staffordshire (1189) mention is made of a Robert de Scheldona. Additionally the area was once an important centre for lead-mining and it could have been that men moved to adjacent regions to engage in fresh workings. In their new places such recent arrivals would have been identified from their place of origin such as "the lad from Sheldon" or "that Sheldon couple" and eventually end up with the name "Sheldon" alone.

The local directories support claims for this source of the surname since they list nearly 500 entries.

The most distinguished bearer of the name was Gilbert Sheldon (1598-1677). He was associated with Derbyshire. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1663 and Chancellor of Oxford University in 1677. It was there that he built and endowed the great Theatre named after him - the "Sheldonian''

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