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English & Welsh Resources for Family Historians: Surnames

The State Library of South Australia has a large number of resources that may assist you in tracing your English or Welsh ancestry. This guide also contains websites of interest, contact details for relevant organisations and tips & tricks.

Resources available at the Library

Below are a selection of books that may be of assistance when trying to trace a surname:

Records available via Ancestry.com

The following links will take you to indexes available via Ancestry.com.  You will be able to search for information and see search results, however to see original records or transcripts you will need to pay as you go or use the subscription database Ancestry.com. 

The State Library of South Australia has a subscription to Ancestry.com (Library edition) that may be used within the Library.

English Surnames

The following information has been presented by Kimberly Powell.

English surnames as we know them today -- family names passed down intact from father to son to grandson -- began in England as early as the eleventh century. Such hereditary names were not universally prevalent and settled, however, prior to the era of the Reformation in sixteenth century England. It is conjectured that the introduction of parish registers in 1538 was a great influence in this, as a person entered under one surname at baptism would not be likely to be married under another name, and buried under a third. Some areas of England came later to the use of surnames, however. It was not until the late seventeenth century that many families in Yorkshire and Halifax took permanent surnames.

Surnames in England generally developed from four major sources:

  • Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames - These are surnames derived from baptismal or Christian names to indicate family relationship or descent. Some baptismal or given names have become surnames without any change in form. Others added an ending. son may have formed his surname by adding -s (more common in the South and West of England) or -son (preferred in the northern half of England) to his father's name. The latter -son suffix was also sometimes added to the mother's name. English surnames ending in -ing (from the British engi, "to bring forth," and -kin generally indicate a patronymic or family name as well.
  • Occupational Surnames - Many English surnames developed from a person's job or trade. Three common English surnames -- Smith, Wright and Taylor -- are excellent examples of this. A name ending in -man or -er usually implies such a trade name, as in Chapman (shopkeeper), Barker (tanner) and Fiddler. On occasion a rare occupational name can provide a clue to the family's origin. For example, Dymond (dairymen) are commonly from Devon and Arkwright (maker of arks or chests) are generally from Lancashire.
  • Descriptive Surnames - Based on a unique quality or physical feature of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names. Most refer to an individual's appearance - color, complexion, or physical shape - such as Armstrong. A descriptive surname may also refer to an individual's personal or moral characteristics, such as Goodchild, Puttock (greedy) or Wise.
  • Geographical or Local Surnames - These are names derived from the location of the homestead from which the first bearer and his family lived, and are generally the most common origin of English surnames. They were first introduced into England by the Normans, many of whom were known by the name of their personal estate. Thus, many English surnames derive from the name of an actual town, county, or estate. County names in Great Britain, such as Cheshire, Kent and Devon have been commonly adopted as surnames. A second class of local surnames derived from cities and towns, such as Hertford, Carlisle and Oxford. Other local surnames derive from descriptive landscape features such as hills, woods, and streams which describe the original bearer's residence. This is the origin of surnames such as Sykes (marshy stream), Bush and Attwood (near a wood). Surnames which begin with the prefix At- can especially be attributed as a name with local origins. By- was also sometimes used as a prefix for local names.

Welsh Surnames

The following is presented by John Weston.

We often hear from visitors interested in Welsh family names. Queries on this subject invariably involve reference to the classic "Welsh Surnames" by T.J. Morgan and Prys Morgan. (University of Wales Press, 1985, ISBN 0-7083-0936-4). This is essential reading for those with more than a passing interest in the subject and the present note draws heavily on it. 

It is fairly well known that there are relatively few Welsh surnames. In fact Professor Hartmann (Americans from Wales, 1967) concludes that "Some thirty-nine surnames include about 95 per cent of the Welsh, wherever they are found". He notes four categories:  

  • Those derived from Christian names common in England - like Jones, Thomas, Davies and Williams.
  • Surnames which originally contained the prefix "ap" (meaning "son of" in the same way as the Scottish "Mac"). Examples of these are Pritchard (ap Richard) and Bowen (ap Owen with the 'p' hardened to 'b').
  • Surnames derived from pure Celtic sources - like Lloyd, Morgan, Gwynn, Vaughan, Meredith and Llewelyn.
  • Surnames from English sources which became well known in parts of Wales.

One might add a sub-category of descriptive surnames within the Celtic group   (Gwyn is from the Welsh for "white" and means 'fair-haired') and a further place name group (the name Blayney is an English scribe's version of the Welsh town of Blaenau). 

By the 17th Century there had been a decline in the popularity of native Welsh forenames names like Goronwy, Madog and Bleddyn. Some native names virtually disappeared. Names popular in England like John, William, Hugh, Thomas and Richard became commonplace. These became typical Welsh surnames (Jones, Williams, etc) as the patronymic system fell into disuse. 

When did the patronymic system end and the father's name become treated as a surname and passed on to the grandchildren? The Morgans give some examples from early records. William ap John Thomas, standard bearer of King Henry VIII  became known as William Jones. Thomas ap Lewis, the son of Lewis ap Sir David was killed at the battle of Banbury in 1469. His son was the first to adopt Lewis as a permanent surname and in 1487 was lord of the manor of Raglan in Monmouthshire, South Wales. 

The Morgans also give the derivation of the surname Vaughan to illustrate the influence of English customs on a family located in a bilingual border area. "The first great Vaughan family is located in Bredwardine, Hereford. The name of this family has its origins in the Welsh epithet Fychan , attached to the name of Rhosier .... who was killed protecting the body of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. This Rhosier's father was Rhosier, therefore the father had to be Rhosier Hen 'the Old' and the son Rhosier Fychan, i.e. 'Young Roger'. Rhosier's sons (not all) are called Fychan or Vaughan, and it is fairly clear that Vaughan in this generation had become the surname." The first known member of this Cardiganshire family to bear the name was Llywelyn Fychan, born around the year 1250).

By the 17th. century the fixed surname was apparent in most of Wales although examples of the old naming tradition have been found in 19th. century records.