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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 ($).
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.
Top 50 Surnames in England and Wales in 1853
|| # of Persons
|| % of Population|
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.
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:
- 16 General names occurring in 30-40 counties
- 45 Common names occurring in 20-29 counties
- 122 Regional names occurring in 10-19 counties
- District names occurring in 4-9 counties
- County names occurring in 2-3 counties and having their home in one of them
- Peculiar 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.
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|| |
|Common Names (in 20-29 Counties)|
|* Ellis||* Rogers||* Young|| |
|Regional Names (in 10-29 Counties)|
|* Bates||Harvey||Mills||* Sharp|
|Day (Maidstone)||Marsh||* Pearson||* Wells|
|District Names (in 4-9 Counties)|
|Barten/Barton||* Daniels||Monk/Munk||* Walter|
|County Names (in 2-3 Counties)|
|Bath||* Guest||Ledger||* Standen|
|Peculiar Names (Confined Mostly to Kent)|
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:
- The 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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