Family Names of the United Kingdom

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Fac Creative Arts, Humanities & Education


This project aims to take significant steps towards reliable explanations of all the current family names (FNs) of the United Kingdom; and to enter them in a database displayed on a publicly accessible web-site. The explanation of each will embody the best achievable account of their geographical and linguistic origins, history, and demography derivable from a wide range of medieval and early-modern documents and electronic resources, and to compare this account with the modern geographical distribution of each name.

The project embodies the evidence for a history of FNs in the UK. Most effort will be directed at establishing reliable documentary and distributional information about names of English (including Cornish), Irish, Scottish, and Welsh origin. However, the multi-ethnic character of our modern European state will be addressed. There will be entries for Huguenot and Jewish names, and for more recent immigrants' names, with notes on naming conventions in other cultures. For immigrant names, the focus will be narrowly on (a) their etymology (often of cultural importance to Britons with foreign genealogy), and (b) the circumstances in which each reached the UK, rather than on their remote history in their countries of origin. There is no other single resource about FNs in the UK, whether book or web-site, which will be so comprehensive.

FN research is essentially interdisciplinary. The project will emphasize FNs as linguistic and historical entities but systematically take account of the work done outside academia by genealogists and family historians, in particular by the Guild of One-Name Studies. New resources have recently become available from family, local, and national history, official statistics, and genetics. There are new collections and editions of medieval evidence; machine-readable census data has become available; statistical methods have been developed for correlating FNs and their distributions at different periods. Geneticists have begun working with family and local historians on the relationship between the distribution of individual FNs and their local origin. The fruits of this work need to be brought together in a single place so that a satisfactory multidisciplinary framework can be created, and so that existing accounts of FN origins and history can be evaluated, corrected, and supplemented. Stage 1 of the project (years 1-2) will create the database incorporating this material; importantly, much preparatory work has already been done. Stage 2 (years 2-4) will involve archival work to add new data and allow new explanations where required, and corroborate or disconfirm the many older explanations found to be uncertain or defective. Stage 2 will also incorporate a doctoral studentship where the holder will both contribute to the database and test its applicability and utility through attempting the solution of a long-standing problem in the history of Lancashire FNs (see below).

FN research has progressed slowly for some decades. Its present state compares unfavourably with (a) allied areas such as place-names, and (b) current work in other European countries. Many FNs have never been satisfactorily explained, others wrongly or by guesswork. Some plausible explanations previously suggested are incompatible with facts now known about the name's history and geographical distribution. Some misperceptions have arisen because the modest amount of detailed county-based research done by medievalists has not been put into a national framework. This ambitious project aims to make available in one easily accessible place all information, old and new, that the investigators believe necessary to attempt reliable explanations; to explain those names where possible; and to have a public record of the evidence bearing on any names which it has not been possible to explain. The database will remain available for modification in light of new knowledge, when resources permit, after the project ends.

Planned Impact

o Who will benefit from this research?

Academics referred to in the previous section, and any member of the general public with an interest in FNs, family history, and genealogy, a number which we believe to be very large, as indicated by web-traffic and the popularity of television and radio programmes on genealogy.

o How will they benefit from this research?

Academics will benefit through the making available and updating of demographic, philological, and historical knowledge, which will also be potentially usable for the history of social and geographical mobility. Population geneticists will have the benefit of a database of FN origins and distributions, both medieval and modern, enabling them to test hypotheses derived from genetic analysis and to evaluate the utility of FNs as surrogates for genetic markers.

The general public will benefit from a publicly-accessible database created with the application of high academic standards, having a level of coverage superior to any other work, and capable of being extended beyond the life of the project.

o What will be done to ensure that they have the opportunity to benefit from this research?

The database will be mounted on a server maintained indefinitely at Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic, pending a later decision about whether it is more appropriate to locate it in the UK. (The involvement of Masaryk University is justified fully elsewhere in the application.)

The database will be publicized through local and academic organizations with an interest in surnames, through placing notices in relevant periodicals such as Local Historian, through e-lists such as SURNAME-L, and using the many academic and lay contacts of the PI and the Researcher, including the Consultants.

Suitable arrangements will be made for dissemination of findings through the standard routes of academic publication and conferences.
Description New or revised explanations for a very large number of surnames in Britain and Ireland (about 46000), and presentation of the findings with a far larger amount of supporting evidence than has ever been marshaled before.
Exploitation Route Can be used by the community of genealogists, professional and otherwise, as a tool in establishing or corroborating family histories.

Can contribute analysed data to linguists specializing in the history of English and the theory of language change.
Sectors Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description We have started trialling the use of the database as a tool in primary school history classes. We expected to continue this post-project, and it did so during FaNUK 2, the second project under the FaNUK label. We worked with the authorities at UWE to develop a programme for post-project (including post-FaNUK 2) impact, and actualized this in further school visits and in collaboration with a heritage project in Bristol until the formal end of the FNUK 2 project in December 2016. For the purposes of this question I took possible collaborations with U3A and groups of professional genealogists as academic.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural

Title Databasing software 
Description Customized lexicographical databasing software provided by Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic Also for *Research databases and models* section 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact None external to the research team's methodology and practice 
Title Family Names of Britain and Ireland database 
Description Published massive annotated database of all family names with more than 100 bearers in 1881 and/or 2011. The underlying research database is even more massive, and will eventually enable the treatment of more infrequent surnames. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Considerably increased use of electronic resources within the project involving significant development work on the form of the database itself. Potential model for other projects to be described in upcoming invited events. Prospect of further funding bids involving computational and statistical manipulation of the material in the research database and associated databases. 
Description Catalogue initiative 
Organisation The National Archives
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Preparation of (possibly funded) work to apply the findings of the project in cataloguing initiatives, and for statistical analysis of the relation between surnames and locations
Collaborator Contribution Making available material from the PROB 11 and Chancery Proceedings collections
Impact No formal outcomes yet; funding bid anticipated at the date of writing
Start Year 2010
Description Family Names databasing 
Organisation Masaryk University
Country Czech Republic 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Facilitation of the work of a Masaryk PhD student, Adam Rambousek
Collaborator Contribution Provision of databasing software and support for the project research database in the form of hosting, maintenance and troubleshooting
Impact The outputs are the research database in its current state, and the version now published by OUP Linguistics, onomastics, computational lexicography
Start Year 2010
Description Press releases at time of award and completion of project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Requests for interviews from national and local radio and print journalists (about 38). These generated follow-up requests for information and/or interviews from local print journals and radio stations. Together, these publicity activities provoked some 200+ emails requesting further information and in some cases providing usable detailed information for the future development of the Family Names project.

Requests for interviews and public talks; supply of information by interested members of the public
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011,2012,2014,2016,2017,2018
Description Public lectures 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact At least 20 presentations to U3A and genealogist organizations, local history societies, and occasional fully public demonstrations. Many questions were raised and there was much discussion afterwards in all instances, based on demonstrations of the research database; some useful new information was provided to the project by the public on numerous occasions.

Some requests for talks to other bodies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2015,2016,2017,2018
Description Radio interviews 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The project has generated much media interest resulting in interviews relating specifically to family names, with knock-on interest in wider linguistic issues from radio stations and other media already acquainted with the work of team members.

Some email follow-ups from public
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2016,2017,2018
Description School visits (Bristol) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Questions and discussion based on pupil and teacher interest, satisfying requirements of KS2 History

Possible further such events mooted
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015,2016,2017