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Although people moved frequently in earlier centuries, most of them did not travel far. Instead they stayed for the most part within their own neighbourhoods - regions that were bounded by the nearest market towns. Maps of surnames that were recorded in the 1881 census suggest that names of all kinds may have a single-family origin, even nicknames such as Round (West Midlands) or Bunyan (Bedfordshire). And where names such as Redhead had more than one origin, DNA evidence can show how limited these are in number. Surprisingly, some of the most common occupational names also have interesting distributions, including Walker, Barker and even Smith, which is more popular in eastern England than in the west. However, many of the most prolific Welsh and Scottish names - Evans and MacDonald for example - pose quite different problems for family historians and geneticists.
Sometimes a surname can migrate far from its place of origin, so where it is now is not where it started out. This particularly affects your search if you have a rare surname because you are then subject to absolute chance as to whether the few holders of that name stayed where they were or moved to another part of the country. However, with a common name with hundreds of holders, a few will have moved but most will have stayed where they were, so present-day distributions do strongly indicate the origins of the name.
Programme 3: Understanding your family roots >>
Origins of surnames |
The Black Death |
The distribution of surnames |
Tracing your family tree |
Books and magazines | Further information