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Surnames, Genes and Genealogy

The distribution of surnames

Every part of England has its distinctive surnames which were formed locally back in the Middle Ages. The present and past distributions of a name very often point to the place where it originated, so it is worth beginning an enquiry into a surname by mapping the places where it was found at different points in time.

Telephone directories are the easiest source to start with, for they cover a very large proportion of the population. A simple count of the number of phone book entries for domestic users throughout the United Kingdom can produce some striking results. They show, for instance, that the Hogbens mostly live in Kent, the Penhaligons in Cornwall, the Toyntons in Lincolnshire and the Barracloughs in West Yorkshire. Care must be taken with the counting, for current directories often duplicate entries by overlapping with neighbouring districts, and it is often hard to decide which names are simply variant spellings and which are derived from another source. A map of the United Kingdom divided into the telephone districts can be drawn from the maps provided in each directory and the number of entries for a name can be marked on them. Alternatively, access to the telephone directory on CD-Rom will provide a complete list of current residential subscribers. We need to be aware that the raw data from simple counts of entries can be skewed by the concentrations of people living in the major urban areas, but sophisticated statistical methods are not necessary if all we want is to see where a surname is found.

Kevin Schürer of the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex has produced computerised maps of all the surnames recorded on modern electoral rolls and in the national census of 1881. These can be seen on screens in the Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum, London, simply by typing in a name. Each spelling is treated as a different name, so variant forms have to be looked at to get complete coverage. The maps show that surname distributions in 1881 were not markedly different from today. The 1881 census for the whole of Britain has been transcribed and indexed on CD-Rom, which enables users to make their own maps of surname distributions.

Distribution maps of surnames in England and Wales at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign, just before railways made travelling quicker and cheaper, can be made from the indexes of the civil registration records of births, marriages and deaths, which are held at the Family Records Centre in London. Microfiche copies of these indexes are available at record offices and libraries and can be purchased individually. In practice, the indexes of burials for a five-year period beginning 1 January 1842 are the easiest to use. Civil registration districts were basically the same as census enumerators' districts so, despite anomalies and some later changes, comparisons can be made with the 1881 distributions.

Further back in time, the data is less comprehensive. The hearth tax returns of the 1660s and 1670s are the best source, for they list thousands of names in every county. They record heads of households in each township, the basic unit of local government at the time, though in many places those who were too poor to pay the tax were not recorded. The fullest returns in about half the counties of England and Wales have been published and within a few years the coverage should be complete. The returns (at record offices) can be used to locate surnames at a point in time that comes halfway between the period of surname formation and the present day. Armed with our maps, we can then begin to trace family names by traditional genealogical methods back towards their source.

Science Museum
Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD
Tel (general enquiries): 0870 870 4771. Fax: 020 7942 4302
Textphone: 020 7942 4445

Telephone directory on CD-Rom
BT's PhoneDisc can be consulted at many libraries. The UK Telephone Directory CD-Rom, price £95, is available from:
S&N Genealogy Supplies, Greenacres, Salisbury Road, Chilmark, Salisbury SP3 5AH
Tel: 01722 716121. Fax: 01722 716160

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Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA
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