The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic that occurred in Western Eurasia and North Africa from 1346 to 13531. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the deaths of 75–200 million people1, this represented 30-50% of the total population2. The Black Death arrived in England in 13483.
The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. People gathered on the docks were met with a horrifying surprise: Most sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late4.
The Black Death is widely believed to be the result of plague caused by infection with the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Scientists think the disease was first transmitted by infected rodents to humans through the bite of fleas. It then spread quickly from one person to another56.
Why bring this up now?
There are two reasons.
First, it is believed that the Black Death led to the rise of surnames in England. Before the plague, people were known only by their first names. However, with so many people dying people began to move to go where they were able to find work. The old system of everyone being on a first name basis devolved as there were new people from all over working and living their lives around you. It became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. As a result, people began adopting surnames based on their occupation, location or personal characteristics7.
Second, the Babb families of Newton Abbot/Wolborough Parish were very involved in the shipping business. We aren’t able to discern if they were already in shipping before the pandemic or got into it due to the vacuum created by the deaths of many sailors during the pandemic.
We have only two records of Babbs available in Devon, England that predate the pandemic. We can tell that the surname “Babb” was in use as early as 1150 as both records show the surname. The records are:
John de Babb (circa 1150)
John married into the Cogan family in approximately 1150. He lived in “The Close” (meaning immediately nearby) of Exeter Cathedral. This earliest known instance of a Babb in Devon was revealed in 1564 during the visitation to validate proper use of Arms. The authors of the visitation records provided no source information regarding their findings, so we have no idea if there was a written record or whether it still exists today.
However, the way it is written would indicate that his surname comes from a place rather than another characteristic. “de” means “from”. Making his name John from Babb, which is undoubtedly a shortened form of Babbacombe, which lays nearby. This feeds info the common narrative that our surname came about through a common location. This would explain the number of unique genetic lines we find in and about the area.
Thomas Babb Sr & Jr (1322)
This father son combo appears in the Devonshire Lay Subsidy of 1322. It is a tax record, so it contains no additional information about the pair who lived in Highweek, which is yet another suburb of Newton Abbot.
While the evidence is scant, we can also consider that the surname Babbacombe seems to have died out over time and by the 1841 England Census it was gone completely. Conversely, there were 3557 Babbs in the same Census as per Ancestry.com.