How did Westerly get its name? Popular wisdom and common sense both dictate that the name was derived from the town’s position as the westernmost point in Rhode Island. Westerly’s geographic position almost certainly was the main reason the name was chosen. There is, however, another possible, albeit lesser-known source. The roots of our town’s name can be traced to South Gloucestershire, England, to a village of just 4,000 residents by the name of Westerleigh.
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On May 18, 1669, “a list of the free inhabitants of the towne of westerle” was drafted, and the very first name of the list was John Crandall. Crandall was an important figure in the early history of Westerly, serving as the first elder of the town’s Baptist Society. It has long been known that the first confirmed appearance of John Crandall in Rhode Island was on September 8, 1643 when he served as a grand juror in Newport.
On August 27, 1661, Crandall, along with William Vaughan and Hugh Mosher, petitioned the Rhode Island Assembly for support when attempting to settle in the area then known as Misquamicuck. Crandall remained on the land, before returning to Newport for a time, dying there c. 1676.
For nearly 60 years, it was largely believed that John Crandall originated in the town of Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales, although the support for this theory was considered tenuous. It was not until the mid-1990’s when a record was found for the baptism of John Crandall, son of James Crandall, in the village of Westerleigh, just 15 miles from Chepstow.
Overall, the Crandall surname is relatively rare in England, and It is believed to have originated in the county of Worcestershire. There, a man named Hugh de Crundel was mentioned in a court case dated June 8, 1230. Over time, branches of the family migrated into parts of Shropshire, Warwickshire, and Gloucestershire, where the surname was recorded as Crandell, Crondell, and Crendell.
John Crandall’s earliest confirmed ancestor was a man named Edward Crondall who was included on a list of free tenants in the town of Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire in 1539-1540. Edward is believed to have had a son, Nicholas Crundall (born c. 1525), who served as the parish clerk of Tewkesbury. This Nicholas Crundall had a son, Nicholas, who was born c. 1555 and married a woman named Elizabeth.
Nicholas and Elizabeth had a son, James (1589-1662), who was married to a woman named Eleanor. James Crundall was listed among Westerleigh residents in manorial books as early as 1624, although he likely was living there by 1617, when his son, John was born there. James’ son John Crandall was almost certainly the same man who was later a founder of Westerly, Rhode Island.
The hometown of John Crandall has a history which extends back more than 1,100 years. The village of Westerleigh was first mentioned in Anglo-Saxon documents in 887 A.D. By 1086, several of the surrounding communities were recorded in the Domesday Book, a survey of England ordered by William the Conqueror. The largest nearby community at the time was Pucklechurch, which contained 53 households which was considered “very large.”
It was Westerleigh’s relationship to Pucklechurch which inspired its name, as ‘ley’ signifies the ‘up-hill pasture’ which was west of the main settlement. The church of St. James the Great in Westerleigh village was consecrated on April 16, 1304 and celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2004.
By 1600 the village was thriving, as it was home to numerous businesses including “a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a sawyer, a flour mill, a malt house and two public houses, both brewing their own beer.” In 1660, coal was discovered in Westerleigh and the surrounding communities. For the next several centuries, coal mining provided employment for locals. This continued until the 1930’s when the local supply of coal was exhausted and many of the mines were closed.
Although it remained relatively small throughout the 19th-century, Westerleigh was often featured in railroad atlases, as it served as a junction where the Great Western Railroad (which ran east to west) and the Midlands Railroad (which ran north to south) met. Tragedy befell the church of St. James the Great in 1863, when the building was struck by lightning and caught on fire destroying much of the original architecture, which was subsequently rebuilt.
In 1876, there were still numerous businesses and occupations in the village including: “farmers, a bootmaker, shopkeepers, innkeepers, butchers, a plasterer, a blacksmith, a wheelwright, a market gardener and a carrier.” By the turn of the century, many of these trades began to die out and a number of the old houses in Westerleigh were demolished.
Early in the 20th-century, the railroad and coal mining provided much of the work for locals, but in recent years, residents have found employment in the nearby communities of Yate and Bristol. While few know of the connections between Westerly, Rhode Island and the village of Westerleigh, the historic English village likely provided our town with not only its name, but also one of its founding fathers.