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"Determining which parish or village is the source of your own ancestral name—based solely on the surname—is often impossible."

Some English Surnames
Reveal Ancestral Residence

By James Pylant


Some years ago I read a biographical sketch of a family named Durham in a county history or "mug" book. The writer of that particular sketch said that, because of the family's prominence in the U. S., American place names bear the name of Durham. Indeed, Durham is the name of a North Carolina town named in honor of Dr. Bartlett Durham, who donated land for the town founded in 1851. Thirty years later the county of Durham was created and named for the town. The biographical sketch went on to say that the Durhams in England also had a county named for them, but here the writer is mistaken. Instead, Durham is an example of a surname originating from a place, or in this case—from a shire—an English county.

English shires have given America surnames ranking among the most common 55,000 surnames, and Durham ranks at 679. Other common "shire" surnames in America are York (586), Stafford (622), Kent (684), Lancaster (912), Lincoln (1,981), Westmoreland (2,908), Bedford (3,136), Buckingham (3,661), Shropshire (5,816) Essex (6,902), Wiltshire (10,089), Cheshire (10,799), Hampshire (15,917). Devon is far down the list at 41,453, and it is immediately followed by its equivalent Devonshire.

A tricky exception is Hampshire. Those who lived in the south of England may very well have taken their surname from the county so-named. Still, it is a surname "easily and naturally corrupted" from Hallamshire, according to etymologist Charles W. E. Bardsley. "There can be no doubt the about the Yorkshire Hampshires; they are descended from Hallamshire folk." Those adopting Hallamshire from a place in West Riding, York County, eventually evolved to Halmshire to Hamshire and eventually Hampshire. (The addition of p in the last name is typical of many English surnames where an intrusive letter came into use.) Bardsley estimated that nine-tenths of English Hampshires were really Hallamshires.1 Then there are American Hampshires with no connection to either English origin; instead, they descend from German Hambschers.

William Taillebois, the fifth Baron Kendall, who married the great-granddaughter of William the Conqueror, became Governor of Lancaster Castle about 1180. Afterwards, he became known as William de Lancaster. Josephine S. Warren, a family genealogist, speculated that the baron "is in all probability the progenitor of all bearing the name of Lancaster."2 It seems highly doubtful, though, that all English Lancasters share a common ancestor.

It is just as likely that a man named John who moving to another place from Lancaster may have soon become known as "John Lancaster," regardless of whether or not he was known by that surname during his residence in the city or county of Lancaster. Had our fictional John moved within Lancaster County (Lancashire), he may have been known by a surname taken from the town or village he left. One place name sometimes spawned several surnames, meaning that William from Cornwall may have become known as William Cornwall, William Cornwell, William Cornish or even William Cornow.

Robert James Devenish was uncertain about the origin of his surname. "If, for example, the name originally signified a Devonshire origin it might easily have been applied to many unrelated persons who left Devon to settle in other parts of England or Ireland."3

Examples of surname deriving from places in Gloucester are Gloster (the pronunciation of Gloucester) are Coberley, Clapton, Poole, Hardwick, Standish, Elmore, and Leigh, all in the central area of the county, while Prescott is in the north, Lea is the Forest of Dean, and in the Cotswold area, as are Stinchcombe, Horsley, and Berkeley.

But this is not to say that all individuals with those surnames were originally from Gloucestershire, for other counties had towns and villages with these names. Hardwick is also a place name in Buckinghamshire, Cambridge, Norfolk, Northampton, Worcester, and York. Likewise, there's a Horsley in Derby, Northumberland, Stafford, and Surrey. Both Lancaster and Oxford have a Prescott, while Shropshire has two places with that name. Lee is also found in Buckingham, Essex, Hampshire, Kent, and Shropshire. Lea is in Chester, Derby, Hereford, Lancaster, Lincolnshire and Wiltshire. Leigh appears in at least fifteen other shires. Standish, as a surname, is more likely to come from a place called Standish in Lancaster.

Along with shires, parishes, and villages, last names developed from manors and estates as well. Medieval owners of manors and estates frequently adopted the name of their dwelling. Three Cheshire families—the Croxtons, the Winningtons and the Goostreys—all descend from the same paternal ancestor, yet they did not share the same last name. Land owner Lidulph de Twemlow had three sons who each held separate estates and took surnames based on those estates: Robert de Croxton, Robert de Winnington and Michael de Gostre.4

There are instances where an English locale took its name from an individual, typically the first name of the land owner. Supposedly, the name origin of Shropshire's Hughley Parish is based on the lord of a thirteenth century manor named Hugh de Le.5 Nevertheless, most Shropshire Hughleys took that surname because of their residence in the parish, not as direct descendants of proprietors of the manor. Bardsley, writing about the Keynes family, says: "Early branches of this family gave title to Milton Keynes," in Buckinghamshire.6 In 1166, Hugh de Cahaignes owned an estate at Milton (then called Middleton), and within the next sixty years his surname is spelled de Cayenes. It eventually became known as Milton Keynes,7 and was not only the name of a manor but of the village. It might be said that the Cornwall village of Godolphin Cross took its name from the Godolphin family, for their manor was near the crossroads. Regardless, the family assumed their last name from when they came into possession of the manor Godolphin.8

Determining which parish or village is the source of your own ancestral name—based solely on the surname—is often impossible. Surnames Pool or Poole may have simply referred to an ancestor's residence near a pond and thus had nothing to do with the Gloucestershire locale called Poole. Peel, which ranks at 4,385 of the top 55,000 American surnames, does not necessarily have an ancestral connection to Peel or Peel Castle, at the Isle of Man, or Piel Castle at Barrow-in-Furness, in Cumbria. Instead, an ancestor may have lived at a "peel house" (a fortified dwelling).

Etymologists frequently emphasize that individuals usually took a surname based on their previous residence an area, but Charles W. E. Bardsley observed otherwise when researching county-based surnames.9

Oddly enough we often find these county names well represented in the very shires which the bearers had left to seek their fortunes. The explanation is, these wanderers did not go far, probably over the border only, into the next county, and their sons or grandson were likely to return, bearing the surname that had been given to them. . .

My Elwell ancestors lived in Stoke Abbot, Dorsetshire,10 and they likely took their surname from a previous Dorset residence: Elwell.11 In The Surname Detective: Investigating Surname Distribution in England, 1086- Present Day, author Collin D. Rogers recalls that when he was growing up in a small English town called Prestwich, north of Manchester, he knew a Mr. Prestwich who attended the same church, also called Prestwich. He always wondered if it was a coincidence or if Mr. Prestwich had some family connection to the town's name. Years later, Rogers learned that the surname Prestwich dates to the Middle Ages. "Some of Mr. Prestwich's genes had thus enjoyed a net movement of no more than a few hundred yards in six hundred years!" said Rogers.12

Pinpointing the origin of English surnames is not limited to those based on place names. Even last names descriptive of occupations are what Collin Rogers calls "region-specific." Surprisingly, even common surnames like Walker, Fuller, and Tucker—all descriptive of a worker in the wool industry—tended to surface regionally. Rogers explains that a worker responsible for pulling, stretching and preparing wool for dyeing was called a walker, a term used in the north and mid-west counties. In the southeast, however, that worker was called a fuller. And in the southwest, the term tucker was used.13

The Rogers study samples one hundred surnames, mostly common, and follows the migration of people through the centuries. Because the study of surnames has such a direct link to the identity of a family's origin, it has caught the attention of non-genealogists as well. Geneticists and biological anthropologists consider it as a source for studying movement of the gene pool.

Discovering the origin of an ancestral surname is not likely to fill in the blanks of a pedigree chart, of course. What emerges, hopefully, is some impression of your family's locality or cultural background when your surname began hundreds of years ago.


  1. Charles Wareing Endell Bardsley, A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames: With Special American Instances (London: H. Frowde, 1901), p. 354.
  2. Josephine S. Ward, The Lancaster Genealogy: Record of Joseph Lancaster of Amesbury, Massachusetts and Some of His Descendants (Rutland, VT: Tuttle Co., 1934), p. 5.
  3. Robert James Devenish, Historical and Genealogical Records of the Devenish Families in England and Ireland: With An Inquiry into the Origin of the Family Name and Some Account of the Family Lines Found By Them in Other Countries (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1948), p. 16.
  4. J. P. Earwaker, The History of the Ancient Parish of Sandbach, Co. Chester: Including the Two Chapelries of Holmes and Goostry (no place: privately published, 1890), pp. 254.
  5. Bardsley, A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames, p. 407.
  6. Ibid., p. 155.
  7. Milton Keynes, online <>, downloaded 23 June 2006.
  8. F. G. Marsh, The Godolphins (New Milton, England: Smith & Sons, 1930), p. 1.
  9. Charles Wareing Endell Bardsley, A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames With Special American Instances (London: H. Frowde, 1901), p. 465.
  10. For a discussion of the immigrant ancestor, Robert Elwell, refer to Elmer Garfield Van Name's The Elwell Family: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries Southern New Jersey, published by the author in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in 1963.
  11. Elsdon C. Smith, American Surnames (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Company, 1969), p. 238.
  12. Colin D. Rogers, The Surname Detective: Investigating Surname Distribution in England, 1086 - Present Day (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), pp. 1, 6.
  13. Ibid., pp. 38-39.