The History of the Pratley Surname

The First Pratley

The origins of the Pratley surname are clear to see, but not so easy to explain. The very first Pratley was originally William Spratley, who came to Leafield, Oxfordshire from a town near Banbury in around 1620. During his life in Leafield, the surname in the records fluctuates between Spratley and Pratley, but after his death in 1660, the family permanently took the surname Pratley.

The change in surname from Spratley to Pratley is likely to be due to an old linguistic habit of adding and dropping 'S's to the start of words beginning with a consonant. (For instance, Bridlington used to be known as "Spridlington", and Nottingham was originally "Snotingaham".) There were many Pratt families in and around Leafield, so the locals may have assumed that "Pratley" was a more likely surname than "Spratley". But of course, this is just guesswork!

What we'll probably never know is why William should have decided to come to Leafield, a small village surrounded by forest, with a poor water supply and inhabitants with a reputation for lawlessness and independence. But come he did, and within two hundred years the Pratleys made up almost a quarter of the village, by far the largest percentage of any surname.

William's Spratley Ancestors

The origins of the Spratleys in Oxfordshire are rather reminiscent of William's story. The first Spratley in Oxfordshire was originally Thomas Sprotley, who came to South Newington, Oxfordshire from Maids Moreton in Buckinghamshire in around 1540. For the next fifty years, the surname in the records fluctuates between Sprotley and Spratley, but settles down by around 1600 to permanently become Spratley.

This time, however, the shift in surname wasn't just isolated to this branch of the family. The remaining Sprotleys in Buckinghamshire, as well as the Sprotleys in London and the traces of the family in the north of England, had all became Spratleys by the mid-late 1500s. Was this "The Great Vowel Shift" in practise, or just a dialectal interpretation (after all, even nowadays "cross" is pronounced more like "crass" in Buckinghamshire)?

The Sprotleys hadn't been long in Buckinghamshire before Thomas had left - in his father's time, there had been only a small handful of Sprotley households scattered in the villages around Buckingham. Prior to this, the surname had been firmly rooted in Yorkshire, most heavily in the area around Beverley. Sprotleys had been Governors of Beverley, and responsible for the upkeep of the Minster there, with some in the Church in the surrounding area. Just south-east of Beverley is the village of Sproatley (then called "Sprotley"), where the holders of the surname had originated.

The fortunes of the Sprotleys don't seem to have held - by the sixteenth century they had all but disappeared from Yorkshire (whether through plague, or from having too many members of the family in the Church!), and the majority of the family was now in Buckinghamshire. They were no longer focal members of a town community, though they were better off than most (paying more tax than others, making wills, and holding positions of note in the places where they lived). Thomas himself was churchwarden of South Newington, though it would be a few more generations before his descendants would hold such posts again.

William's Pratley Descendants

The first few generations of Pratleys are easy to trace from parish registers and wills. William married twice, producing a dozen children, four of whom were boys who went on to continue the Pratley line. After a few generations, each branch of the family became quite distinct - not only were Pratleys marrying other Pratleys, but Pratley gamekeepers were arresting Pratley poachers! But it was still more than a hundred years before more than a few Pratleys left Leafield and started families in other villages.

By this time they filled all strata of working society - from paupers living on parish relief to farmers of a couple of hundred acres. At first they migrated to neighbouring villages and counties, but with the advent of the railways, and a couple of notable events in Pratley history, they spread across England and off to America, Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand.

Today there are more than a thousand Pratleys around the world - not a large number as surnames go, but not bad for just three hundred and fifty years! And there are still Pratleys living in Leafield today, all these years after William first arrived.