In the first of a new series of blog postings, findmypast.co.uk’s very own marketing executive, Myko Clelland, will explore a little more of the history behind certain records and give you a helping hand when it comes to deciphering what you find within…
Findmypast.co.uk has published the news that it has added another 1.2 million Welsh parish records today. The records are a great help to those wanting to trace those Welsh roots but they come with the problem of ‘those surnames’. We’ve got Jones, Williams, Davies, Evans, Thomas and Roberts bringing up the top five most common Welsh surnames and even a mere mention of them is enough to bring a genealogist out in a cold sweat. How did this happen? Why did one corner of the UK develop in such a way to have so many relatively common surnames? What do these names tell us about our ancestors when we find them? To answer that, let’s go back in time!
Before the act of union in the reign of Henry VIII, the majority of Welsh surnames were patronymic (ranging from anywhere between just under half to three quarters of a parish) which would mean that you’d take your surname from your father’s name, as happened in some other Celtic regions and parts of Scandinavia. If James were born to David, he’d become James ap David (the ‘ap’ is used for ‘son of’ – sometimes it’s written as ‘ab’ and ‘ferch’ in the case of daughters). This went back sometimes with a baptismal name linked up to seven generations, so you may well end up finding a Dafydd ab Ieuan ap Llewelyn ap Evan ap Thomas ap Reece (apologies for those of you who speak Welsh in advance if I’ve slipped a little on that).
It’s kind of a potted genealogy of a person, which came about as a by-product of Welsh laws of the time that made it essential for people to be able to know how they were descended from a particular ancestor, although this started to fall away in the 16th century, firstly among the wealthy and landed, gradually spreading to commoners. The idea of fixed surnames was an English invention so you’ll find that areas with strong English influence found surnames much faster than the more isolated and rural communities.
Some of these surnames kept the ‘ap’ in one way or another and we ended up with things like Powell from ‘ap Hywel’ and Bowen from ‘ab Owen’. Sometimes you’d just lose the first part and end up with a first name becoming a surname in the case of Thomas, Owen and James. When an ‘s’ was added to names in England (which started with the Norman arrival), as in Roberts and Williams, the Welsh practice of doing the same seemed to arrive a few hundred years later and Evans, Phillips and Richards arose. Because they came from the patronymics we talked about earlier though, there are a relatively small number of baptismal names that these are drawn from and we’ll see villages with people of the same name but no blood relation at all, purely down to the names of a parent!
When a realisation dawned that there were just too few surnames in Wales, there arose something of a fashion for double-barrelled surnames, which came with a prefix of all manner of things. These ranged from a parish that the family came from, to a similar move to Scotland with using a maternal surname as part of the name such as ‘Rhys Jones’. Importantly, hyphens weren’t always used.
As well as patronymics, names occasionally came from nicknames (which is how you’d get some names referring to physical traits, like Reid and Russ for a red head migrating again from English, or Jenkin as a diminutive of John and something of a derogatory term for the relatively smaller Welsh and Cornish folk which first appeared in Monmouthshire around the time of the Domesday book) and Anglicisation of Welsh naming. This brings us to the most confusing point in the sermon: there is no J in the Welsh alphabet! That’s right, Jones is the most common surname in Wales and it’s not Welsh at all! It’s actually an approximation of the Welsh Siôn and Ioan.
As a man with a dash of Cornish blood and a hearty amount of fellow Celt, I’m quite accustomed to the same fears – Jenkin is a name that appears a lot in my family and while we may have a much harder struggle to learn more about our ancestors, at least we know that we’ve got the name of one of them from quite some way back already – they just need to be placed!
When not manning the helm of findmypast.co.uk’s Facebook and Twitter pages, sourcing all the stories you love to like and share, Myko Clelland is found busily tracing the roots in his Cornish/Scottish/Sicilian family tree.