In response to my recent articles on surnames…

Thanks to everyone that has got in touch with me, commented on and shared my recent posts about Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk surnames. I have been overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the response.

A few general themes have cropped up in communications, so I wanted to answer some questions here and leave a few links for anyone wanting to find out more.

Why wasn’t my name on the list?!

I’m sorry if I missed yours. Sadly, when you have to pick ten from somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 surnames the vast majority will miss out! 

There are hundreds of surnames that could be described as particular to Essex, Norfolk or Suffolk at the time of the 1881 baseline I used. (Why 1881? It’s often used for statistical purposes because there has been free access to transcriptions of it for longer than most other decennial censuses. It’s important to understand there are both strengths and weaknesses to this methodology – a little more on that below). 

For what it’s worth, Aldous, Nunn, Stopher, Grimmer, Amis, Spurgeon and Bearman (to name just a few) were all *almost* on one of the lists.

I also looked at names like Gooch, Gowing and Dade, which many of us consider ‘local’. However, these and several others were not significantly more specific to one county than a neighbouring county, at least in 1881. They were, in effect, more East Anglian-specific than county-specific (and by East Anglian, here I mean Norfolk and Suffolk plus the fringes of Cambridgeshire and Essex only). Surnames common across a border will not fall as neatly into one county or another.

Essex is particularly tricky based on analysis of 1881 results, so research in other, older, sources would be interesting in future. By 1881, my suggestion is that the pull of the capital had already led to large numbers of bearers of ‘Essex’ surnames migrating, leaving the Essex contingent less concentrated in the one county than the populations of other names in neighbouring Suffolk, for instance.

What do the ’30x’, ’20x’ etc mean?

One of the factors I took into account when compiling the lists was the specificity of a name to a county at a particular time. As noted earlier, the baseline was 1881. 

Take a name relatively specific to, say, Suffolk. Mouser was 60 times more likely to belong to an individual picked at random from Suffolk than from the population of the UK as a whole. 

Some calculations came initially from this fantastic website. Others I calculated myself from census transcriptions as a proportion of individuals recorded in a particular census/county.

What else was in the mix to choose the names?

I investigated several sources as well as utilising experience gained in the search room and elsewhere. I’ve always been fascinated by names – both firsts and lasts. Among the places I looked were modern heat maps of surname distribution, existing ONS websites (or the lack thereof!), census, tithe and parish material, mentions in archive catalogues and, of course, the 2016 Oxford Dictionary of Family Names

So it’s not the ‘ten most common’, then?

Well, no, not really. If you define ‘common’ as the names held by the most people, then that list in each case would have been similar to much of the rest of the country: Brown, Taylor, Clarke, Smith, Jones etc.

It’s the job of the journalists to write the headlines and they obviously want to grab your attention. By nature and genealogical training, I tend to shy away from ‘normal’, ‘common’ and the like. Yet ‘ten relatively specific names in X County with relatively high frequency based on multiple sources’ doesn’t have quite the same call to action. It’s therefore a very good job that I don’t write the headlines!

Does being particularly frequent in a single county in 1881 mean the name arose there?

Possibly but not necessarily. Surnames don’t respect borders, and it’s more than possible, for example, that a name that became ‘sticky’ in Suffolk in the 15th century could be more populous in Norfolk than Suffolk by the 19th century.

It’s also important to say that a name that made up a significant proportion of a parish’s population in one census year may or may not have stuck around for decades to come (and have been there for decades before). Say a man and his wife moved in and proceeded to have eight surviving children. It’s reasonable that they alone could make up 5% (or more) of a village for a few years. If the family moved as a unit, or if the parents died and the children all scattered to marry and take up employment elsewhere, the name could disappear from the parish relatively swiftly. The question is – just how far did it go?

How on Earth can a name still be local to an area 600 years after inherited surnames became ‘normal’?

Fascinating, isn’t it? We’ve all seen examples of people travelling around the world long before the advent of commercial airlines, but many people did no such thing. Enough of our ancestors stayed reasonably close to their paternal ancestral line’s origins that trends are still apparent even if the edges have frayed. The survival of names is all the more interesting given that no legal process has to be followed to change your name (although in this day and age it is more challenging to do so without a marriage certificate and/or deed poll due to the complexities of modern life).

Many of our ancestors had limited mobility. They were perhaps tied to a manor or parish their entire lives or limited to their parish of settlement or parishes nearby in case they had to fall back on the support of their overseers. In my One-Place Study, it’s clear that even in the early Victorian period, men stayed in (or returned to) their home parish on marriage more often than not, and therefore their surnames stayed put too. Why move away from a community if your support network and work opportunities are there? In contrast, women were often swapped between villages!

It’s important to remember that for every name that is still common, there are names that are not. Some surnames have already fallen from use and others are in decline. By historical accident, deliberate changes and the number of boys or girls that happen to be born to a line and whether or not they have issue, some surnames haven’t stood the test of time. 

It will be very interesting to see what happens to surname distribution as double-barrelling becomes more common and new names continue to come into the mix. What will happen in each case when two double-barrelled individuals choose to marry? Will the rise of digital media mean couples are more likely to retain their pre-marriage names, create new ones, or select the more unusual of the two to share between them? Will our need for a personal brand – a unique domain name and social handles – drive the increase in individuality in naming and the reduction of Smiths, Taylors and Browns for more instagrammable and unique monikers? I look forward to finding out.

Can you tell me where my name comes from?

I’m afraid I cannot give you a robust hypothesis for the origins of most surnames based on my own primary research. What I *can* do is give you some general advice as to how you could go about learning more about existing research and taking your first steps into your own One-Name Study. 

I have been working on the ‘Walne’ Study for several years on and off. I can now postulate that the two populations (one in the north-west and one in East Anglia) are probably separate – at least for 500 years. I can also suggest that the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names is perhaps incorrect for at least one of the groups. Yet I am frustratingly distant from anything I’d call a *robust* conclusion about the origins of the name. 

The challenge for all one-namers is to decide whether populations of ‘their’ name are connected or whether they arose separately. Ultimately, we are all dealing with hypotheses and we can’t go back in time and see who was the very first to inherit a name, and whether it was because of the place they lived, the last place they worked, who they worked for or who their father was – or all of the above! All we can do is research as best we can, reconstruct family trees where possible and make our best attempt at a conclusion.

But isn’t the joy of the chase and the pursuit of answers the reason we get into this stuff in the first place?

Where can I access the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names?

The first place to check is your library. Some services across the region, including Norfolk, currently have access for free with your library card.

If your local library does not provide access, you may be lucky enough to have access via another institution. 

It is possible to buy your own copy, but it costs getting on for £400 for a hardcover version at the time of writing!

What is a One-Name Study?

In the words of the Guild of One-Name Studies:

“A One-Name Study (ONS) is a project researching all occurrences of a surname, as opposed to a particular pedigree (ancestors of one person) or descendancy (descendants of one person or couple).

A one-name study may concentrate on aspects such as geographical distribution of the name and the changes in that distribution over the centuries, or it may attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of the lines bearing the surname. A frequent aspiration is to identify a single place of origin for the name, especially if the name appears to derive from a place name.”

We all go about our research in slightly different ways. You can find out more about One-Name Studies on the Guild website. You can also search to see which names have registered studies (although not all name studies are registered here – try a search engine, too).

What other tools can I try?

There are various tools on the web that map the present-day distribution of surnames. Here’s one you might like to try today.

Where can I read your articles and find out which names featured?

If you’re reading this blog and haven’t seen the articles, here are the links, in order of publication:

Suffolk, with additional info about variation and evolution of names.



Thanks for reading. I hope to be regularly updating this blog again from here on in, even if just to let you know about developments on my Walne and Badingham/Cransford sites.

As ever, happy researching!

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