Wales Names, PersonalEdit This Page

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Before record keeping began, most people only had a first name. As the population increased, people began adding descriptive information, such as John "the smith," to a person’s name to distinguish him or her from others with the same name. At first, a surname applied only to one person and not to the whole family.

Possibly the best way to learn about naming patterns in Wales is to look at the records both before and after the adoption of fixed surnames.

Thomas ye son of David Griffith David was baptized they 18 day of 8 ber 1746 at a publick meeting at Mynydd Bach by John Harries. (From Llyfr Eglwys Mynydd Bach in Y Cofiadur Sef Cylchgrawn Cymdeithas Hanes Annibynwyr Cymru, number 17, March 1947, page 42.)

There are several things to note from this baptism record in relation to names: 1. In this case we find a child named Thomas being baptised. 2. The father's name is given as David Griffith David 3. The year is 1746

Be sure not to misinterpret the information recorded in a document like a baptism record. In the above case we only know that Thomas, the son of David Griffith David was baptised on a specific date at a specific place. The record does not identify the second name of Thomas. He may have gone through life by any of several name combinations. Additional records must be examined to get a clear indication of what Thomas' full name was.

We do see that his father was identified in a typical fashion for those still using the patronymic name system. Thomas' father was: David Griffith David or David the son of Griffith and grandson of David

By examining other entries in this baptism register a pattern can be seen. Many of the families that had children christened at Mynydd Bach chapel still used the patronymic name system into the 1750s and later.

Knowing that most families in a parish used patronymics during the time period you are researching should cause you to perform searches in historical records differently.

When patronymic names may have been used always do your searches by given name.


Patronymic Names

Patronymic surnames are based on the father’s given name. Generally, ap or ab was added between the child’s name and the father’s name. For example, David ab Owen is David son of Owen. For a woman’s name, the word ferch or verch (often abbreviated to vch), meaning "daughter of", was used. There were many exceptions to this:

  • The family could drop the 'ab' or 'ap'. In this case, his name would have been simply David Owen.
  • The family could drop the 'a' and attach the remaining 'p' or 'b' to the father’s name. For example, 'David ab Owen' could have been 'David Bowen'.

In dealing with patronymic names, remember:

  • The absence of 'ap' or 'ab' does not mean the family adopted a permanent surname. In south Wales particularly, patronymic surnames appeared without the 'ap' or 'ab'.
  • Different naming patterns were often used in the same family. For example, Harry John’s six sons were named Griffith ap Harry, John Parry, Harry Griffith, Richard Parry, Miles ap Harry, and Thomas Parry. They might equally have used the surname John(s) or Jones.
  • An illegitimate child may have used the given or surname of the reputed father, the surname of the mother, or the given or surname of the family who raised the child.
  • Some families used patronymics after adopting a permanent surname. Never assume that a surname is a permanent surname.
  • The father’s given name may be spelled differently as a surname even though it is pronounced the same (for example, Davies from David).
  • The name may have been anglicized.
  • Patronymic surnames changed with each generation.
  • A widow may have reverted to using her maiden surname.
Patronymic Name Surname
ab Ifan, ab Evan Bevan
ab Eynon Beynon
ab Owain, ab Owen Bowen
ap Harri, ap Harry Parry
ap Rhys Prees, Preece, Price
ap Rhobyn, ap Robyn Probyn
ap Richard Pritchard
ap Robert Probert
ap Roger Prodger
ap Huw, ap Hugh Pugh
ap Hywel, ap Howell Powell
ap Rhydderch Prydderch, Prytherch

Other Types of Surnames

Surnames also developed from the following sources:

Descriptive or Nickname. Surnames are sometimes based on a unique quality of a person. Occasionally this term was modified and accepted as a permanent surname. For example, Llwyd (meaning 'gray') was changed to Lloyd. Sometimes a descriptive term immediately followed the given name, such as 'Gwilym ap Fychan'. ('Fychan' means small and often became Vaughan.)

Locality. Some surnames are based on the individual’s birthplace or residence. Thomas Mostyn lived in Mostyn.

Occupational. Other surnames are based on the person’s trade, such as Wil Saer (or Wil y Saer), meaning 'Will the carpenter'. Occupational names are sometimes modified. For example, 'Saer' could take the permanent form of Sayer.

Adopting a Surname

Some families adopted permanent surnames much earlier than others. Generally, families lower on the social scale used the patronymic system longer than those higher up the social scale. Patronymics lingered the longest in the north and central-western counties. Most noble families adopted surnames by the sixteenth century. The gentry adopted them during the eighteenth century, while some farmers, tenant farmers, and workers did not take surnames until the nineteenth century or later. Generally, the patronymic naming pattern and the various naming customs were coming to an end by 1837, but later usage occurs and there has been a modern revival of the practice.

Any one of the following patterns were used when adopting a surname. The pattern used by one generation was not always used by the next generation.

Father’s Given Name. Using the father’s given name as the surname was the most common. Sometimes, the father’s name was changed to serve as a surname. Iago son of Rhys could have been known as Iago Rees, Iago Prys, Iago Prees, or Iago Price.

Father’s Surname. Sometimes a son was given his father’s surname. This is done today. Owen, the son of John Price, may have become Owen Price.

Grandfather’s Given Name. Occasionally, a family adopted the grandfather’s given name as a surname. For example, the surname of Thomas Pugh, son of Jasper ap Hugh is a form of his grandfather’s name, Hugh.

Maternal Grandfather’s Name. In some areas, the mother named her first-born son after her own family, usually her father. Godfrey Prydderch married Ann Lloyd, daughter of Reece Lloyd. Their eldest son’s surname is Lloyd.

Grandmother’s Name. An individual’s surname could be based on the grandmother’s family name. Rees Llewelyn married Gwenllian Lloyd. Their son, Griffith ab Rhys, named his son David Lloyd. David Lloyd’s descendants kept the surname Lloyd.

Many pre-1800 church registers record the father’s name in several different ways, one or more of which may be abbreviated. For example, "Jane Thomas, daughter of Thomas Dd. William James was baptized the 26th May 1732." Without further evidence, it is impossible to determine which name(s) the father used during his lifetime.

For more information on Welsh names, see:

  • Morgan, T. J., and Prys Morgan, Welsh Surnames. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 1985. (FHL book 942.9 D4m.)
  • Rowlands, John, and Sheila. The Surnames of Wales for Family Historians and Others. Genealogical Publishing Co.: Baltimore, Maryland. 1996. (FHL book 942.9 D4r.)
  • "Welsh First Names for Children: Their Meanings Explained. Cardiff, Wales: Emeralda, 1978. (FHL book 942.9 D4w.)

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