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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Surname Frequency

The 50 most common surnames in England and Wales in 1853 (C.W. Bardsley) are listed below. Together they constitute less than 18 percent of the population. The overwhelming majority are patronymic surnames, particularly Welsh ones. This is not surprising since there are always fewer surnames in a country like Wales, dependant largely on names derived from a small number of male first names, thus there will be a greater number of people bearing each of them. Fifteen are occupational names, but there are only 5 nicknames and 6 topographic names. Habitational names, (from a particular place), are always carried by a relatively small number of persons and none appear in the top 50.

Chart:
Top 50 Surnames in England and Wales in 1853

Name
# of Persons
 % of Population
Smith
253,600
1.37
Jones
242,100
1.32
Williams
159,900
0.87
Taylor
124,400
0.68
Davies
113,600
0.62
Brown 105,600
0.58
Thomas
94,000
0.51
Evans
93,000
0.51
Roberts
78,400
0.43
Johnson
69,500
0.38
Wilson
66,800
0.36
Robinson
66,700
0.36
Wright
62,700
0.34
Wood
61,200
0.33
Thompson
60,600
0.33
Hall
60,400
0.33
Green
59,400
0.32
Walker
59,300
0.32
Hughes
59,000
0.32
Edwards
58,100
0.32
Lewis
59,000
0.32
White
56,900
0.31
Turner
56,300
0.31
Jackson
55,800
0.31
Hill
52,200
0.28
Harris
51,900
0.28
Clark
50,700
0.28
Cooper
48,400
0.26
Harrison
47,200
0.26
Ward
45,700
0.25
Martin
43,900
0.24
Davis
43,700
0.24
Baker
43,600
0.24
Morris
43,400
0.24
James
43,100
0.23
King
42,300
0.23
Morgan
41,000
0.22
Allen
40,500
0.22
Moore
39,300
0.21
Parker
39,100
0.21
Clarke
38,100
0.21
Cook
38,100
0.21
Phillips
37,900
0.21
Price
37,900
0.21
Shaw
36,500
0.2
Bennett
35,800
0.19
Lee
35,200
0.19
Griffiths
34,800
0.19
Watson
34,800
0.19
Carter
33,400
0.18


A quick check of any easily available surname index will indicate that frequencies varies tremendously from area to area (Alan Bardsley 1996-2), and thus it is equally important to study the geographical distribution of the name.

Geographical Distribution

H. B Guppy (Homes of Family Names in Great Britain, 1890) was the first to publish a comprehensive study of the homes of English surnames. He classified the relative frequency per 10,000 of names occurring amongst the most stable population in the land, yeomen farmers listed in Kelly’s county directories of the late 1880s, in the 42 counties of England and 12 of Wales as follows:

  • Ÿ16 General names occurring in 30-40 counties
  • Ÿ45 Common names occurring in 20-29 counties
  • Ÿ122 Regional names occurring in 10-19 counties
  • District names occurring in 4-9 counties
  • ŸCounty names occurring in 2-3 counties and having their home in one of them
  • ŸPeculiar names mostly confined to one county and usually to a small part of it; these have been conveniently listed again in Dunkling (1989)

He then lists the General, Common and Regional names with a paragraph on the distribution of each. This is followed by an examination of each county with lists of the six groups of names found therein together with notes on many of the District, County and Peculiar names. These lists are most helpful to the genealogist and a summary for one county appears in Chart 10.


Chart:
Summary of Names in Kent

The list only includes names greater than .07 percent frequency amongst the farmers. * This name is characteristic of the county but is more numerous elsewhere.

General Names (in 30-40 Counties)
Brown * Martin * Taylor
* Cook Smith

Common Names (in 20-29 Counties)
Chapman Palmer Wood
* Ellis * Rogers * Young
Regional Names (in 10-29 Counties)
Austen Hammon(d) Miles * Russell
* Bates Harvey Mills * Sharp
Collins * Long Paine Sutton
Day (Maidstone) Marsh * Pearson * Wells
Goodsin * May Reeves
District Names (in 4-9 Counties)
Alexander Coleman * Kemp Skinner
Barten/Barton * Daniels Monk/Munk * Walter
Bourne Hills Philpott * Waters
Butcher Jarvis * Rolfe Weeks
Champion * Jenner Sampson Wootton
County Names (in 2-3 Counties)
Amos Collard Homewood
(Ashford
Neve
Baldock Collison
* Noakes
Bartholomew Constable Jessup Pye(Rochester)
Bassett
(Sevenoaks)
Cornes Kelsey

Craddock Kennard Sloman
Bath * Guest Ledger * Standen
Brooker Hickman Levett * Stedman
Cheesman * Hilder Marchant Tanton
Clifford Hooker Mercer Terry
Peculiar Names (Confined Mostly to Kent)
Ballard Fagg Love Scoones
Barling File
(Canterbury)
Luck Shorter
Belsey
Manwaring
(Staplehurst)
Solley
Benste(a)d
(Sittingbourne)
Filmer
Solomon

Finn Matcham Southon
Bing Fremlin Maylam Stace
Boorman Godden Maxted Stickles
Boulden Goodhew
(Sittingbourne)
Millen Stunt
Brenchley
Milne Stupples
Brice
(Canterbury)
Gower
Minter
(Faversham)
Swaffer
(Ashford)

Hambrook

Broadley
(Hythe, Dover)
Harden Miskin
(Rochester)
Tassell

Hartridge

Thirkell
Buss Hickmott
(Staplehurst)
Missing Tickner
Chantler
(Staplehurst)

Morphett
Tomkin

Hogben/Hogbin
Murton Tompsett
Clinch
(Sittigbourne)
Holnes(s) Neame
(Faversham)
Tuff

Hollamby

Usherwood
Coultrip
(Sheerness)
Hollands
Offen
Unicume

Inge
Orpen/Orpin
Vinson
Coveney
Jarrett
Oyler
Wacher
Crowhurst
Kingsnorth
(Ashford)
Pidduck
Waterman
Curling
(Faversham)

Pittock
Whitebread

Langridge
Pilcher
Wiles
Dark
Larkin(g)
Prebble
Wyles
Dilnot
Laslett
Quested
Witherden
(Staplehurst)
Dungey
Leney
Rigden


The 33 counties of Scotland have been dealt with somewhat differently, Guppy dividing them into four groups: Borders, Lowlands, Central Scotland and Highlands on the basis of the characteristic surnames, and then a Scotland General group for the most common ones. He has used as a base Halliburton’s County Directory and only considered those surnames occurring with greater than 0.1 percent frequency. Some of his general conclusions were:

  • ŸThe clan names (largely beginning with Mac) have their homes north of the Forth and the Clyde rivers, and not one has established itself further south than the county of Durham in England.
  • The Scots names characteristic of the region south of the Forth and Clyde include Baird, Blair, Brodie, Buchanan, Crawford, Cunningham, Dunlop, Findlay, Gilmour, Murdoch and Wallace. Only three of these have established themselves in England, Blair, Brodie, and Crawford, the latter having penetrated as far as Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.
  • General Scottish names such as Bruce, Donald, Ferguson, Fraser, and Murray, have also not reached further south than Durham in England.
  • In contrast, and following the historical pattern of influence, English names have moved much further northward into Scotland. Common English names such as Brown, Clark, Miller, Mitchell, Russell and Smith, and northern English names such as Dixon, Henderson, Thompson and Walker, are found all over Scotland.
  • Other names flourishing in the ‘middle land’ extending across the lowlands, borders and northern England south to Lancashire and Yorkshire include Armstrong, Bell, Douglas, Elliot, Gibson, Graham, Richardson, Robson, Scott, Turnbull and Wilson.
  • Many English names take on a different form when they cross the border, for example:
Allen to Allan
Bailey to Baillie
Dixon to Dickson
Johnson to Johnston
Miller to Millar
Read and Reed to Reid
Thompson to Thomson
White for Whyte


Nineteenth and 20th century trade directories as well as modern telephone directories, now widely available on the Internet offer further sources for the study of distribution of surnames. Care is needed in gathering the statistics as the modern directories overlap each other. Ideally the 1970s ones, before this practice was started, should be used. Colin D. Rogers (The Surname Detective: Investigating Surname Distribution in England, 1086-Present Day, 1995) studied English telephone directories and constructed distribution maps for over 100 surnames comparing them with the 17th century and mediaeval periods.

The researcher will find many other distribution surveys, especially those based on IGI and census data. Those based on reasonably complete listings of the population, such as the 1881 census index, are valid bases for study. Those utilizing incomplete or, worse still, unrepresentational listings, such as IGI data, are only as good as the data they include. Unfortunately compilers are often woefully ignorant of the inadequacy of their data base. There are still many people who do not realize that the IGI is not a complete index by far! It only contains 2-3 percent of the data that the LDS church has filmed, and the coverage for different counties varies significantly.

When you find a new surname in your research it will pay you to study its geographical distribution, particularly pre-WWI. Large indexes such as the census databases, IGI, telephone directories, and genealogical research directories should all be consulted and their parameters noted, together with any One-Name Studies if they exist. This will not only give a focus to the ultimate geographical locus but will enlighten you as to the possible spelling variants. Locational names are particularly susceptible to this kind of research, and should be compared with early spellings of the place-name.

However, some occupational and nicknames are also of very restricted distribution. Even the metronymic-type name Widdowson (‘son of the widow’) was widely scattered in the Middle Ages, indicating many sources, but most lines have died out, and there seems to be but one remaining in the Trent Valley.

The English Surnames Survey located at Leicester University has published a number of county surveys concerned with etymologies as well as past and present distribution. Such studies have shown that there was a decline in the number of surnames in the late Middle Ages, followed by a spread of family names from an original nucleus over a generally limited area by the late 17th century. Thus each area came to have its characteristic set of surnames, and despite 19th and 20th century mobility this still holds true.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

Category: England