hints and tips

Surname searching: What's been done before?

The Society of Genealogists collects printed and published family histories as well as unpublished material in typescript or manuscript form.

Family histories and pedigrees can be found all over the library and, of course, online. Hence there is no one place to look, whether at the Society of Genealogists, or elsewhere.  

Whether printed and published in book form, manuscript or online, pedigrees should always be checked and substantiated against original genealogical sources.

Search the SoG Library Catalogue

You can search the Society of Genealogists’ Library Catalogue from our collections page.

Use the default browse & subject search facility to look for information on a surname you are interested in e.g.  SMITH (SURNAME).  Double click OR tick the box and click view. You should now have a list of all the Society’s holdings for published printed or bound material related to the name along with the references you will need to find the items in the Library.

Please note we have not catalogued all surnames in every book in the library; only those with at least three generations of narrative family history are listed.  Information on families will also, of course, be located in sources for the places where they lived or what they did. You will also need to search other materials in the library as outlined below.

Check bibliographies listing what’s been published

There are major bibliographies which list printed or published family histories – often in periodicals and topographical works as well as dedicated genealogical reference works. These bibliographies can be found on the quick reference shelves at the Middle Library Enquiry Counter and are listed in the reading list below. The Society will have many of the works cited in these works and you can find where they are located by searching for the titles in our library catalogue. Some of these bibliographies and the books they refer to may also be found on the Google Books website.

Further reading: (all found at the SoG Middle Library Enquiry Counter or on the appropriate country shelves)

  • The Genealogist’s Guide by G W Marshall (a digitised copy of this work is also available to SoG members via SoG data online)
  • A Genealogical Guide by J B Whitmore
  • The Genealogist’s Guide by G B Barrow
  • A Catalogue of British Family Histories by T R Thomson
  • Scottish Family History by M Stuart
  • Scottish Family A Histories held in Scottish Public Libraries by J P S Ferguson
  • Bibliography of Irish Family History and Genealogy B de Breffny
  • Bibliography of Irish Family History by E Macysaght
Look at the Society’s Manuscript Research Notes, Pedigrees and Special Collections

The Document Collection contains thousands of unique miscellaneous manuscript research notes arranged by surname.  An alphabetical list of the surnames and families in the Document Collection can also be found on this website. Use the link in the box on the right of this screen to search the index of surnames represented in the Society's Surname Documents.

The Manuscript Collections also include some seven thousand Roll Pedigrees.  An alphabetical index of surnames and families represented in the Roll Pedigrees can be found on this website. Use the link in the box on the right of this screen to search the list of surnames represented in the pedigrees.

The Society holds over 350 Special Collections housed in about 2000 manuscript boxes.  The Special Collections contain notes on several families, usually with a common theme. They might relate to families from a certain area or represent a large One Name Study. The collections might relate to people who shared a common occupation or religion.  Collections are now being catalogued into our new collections system. The collections are held in heritage storage and can be retrieved for consultation.

Staff can make copies from all the manuscript the collections for you at cost.  Photographs of the collections in the library is permitted on payment of a fee and by signing a library copyright agreement.

Birth Briefs and Members Interests

SoG members can submit Birth Briefs showing their direct ancestry back to their 32 great, great grandparents. These have been bound into volumes and indexed. An alphabetical index of Surnames and Families represented in the Birth briefs can be found by using the link in the box on the right of this page.

Members can post to our member forum with details and questions about the surnames of ancestors being researched.

Research Online

There are many sites that accept upload of what are known as GEDCOM files of pedigrees generated by genealogy computer software packages such as Family Tree Maker, Reunion, Family Historian or Legacy etc. Websites like Genesreunited,  Ancestry, My Heritage are some examples  of sites that accept GEDCOM pedigree files, but there are many more. Rootsweb lists can be useful resources to find people searching the same surnames, places or subjects as you. It can also be worth simply putting your surname or information about an individual you are interested in into a good search engine like Google to see what comes up. There are some dedicated genealogy search engines like Mocavo that endeavour only to look at genealogical websites on the Internet thus weeding out irrelevant results. The websites of local Family History Societies will often list the names their members are researching.

FamilySearch Pedigrees

The FamilySearch website includes thousands of pedigree notes on families. The "User Submitted Genealogies" is a set of lineage linked conclusion trees provided free to FamilySearch by users. This data comes from the Ancestral File, the Pedigree Resource File and other user submissions.

LDS Family History Library Catalogue

The Family History Library Catalogue also within the FamilySearch website lists many thousands of family histories held in the Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. This catalogue can be searched on line through FamilySearch. Microfilm copies of the books in the Library can often be ordered through a local LDS Family History Centre. The largest in the UK is the London Family History Centre which is temporarily housed at The National Archives at Kew.

One Name Studies

Some genealogists try to trace everyone with a particular surname. The Family History shelves at the SoG  contain many listings of entries from the Civil Registration Indexes to birth, death and marriage records compiled by "One-Namers" and there may be accompanying One Name card indexes and computer databases in the library. The Register of the Guild of One Name Studies (GOONS) can be found at the Middle Library Enquiry Counter and online on the Guild’s website.

Peerage and Royalty and Biography

Titled families are listed in Burke’s Family Index and in Frank Leeson’s Directory of British Peerages which can then be followed up in the appropriate reference works such as the Complete Peerage or Burke's Landed Gentry (see our library catalogue). Pedigrees of European royalty and nobility are listed in F R Price’sGuide to European Genealogies Exclusive of the British Isles. These titles can be found on our catalogue along with standard reference works on the Peerage, Landed Gentry and other biographical works.

The Relevance of Surnames

Unfortunately only a very small number of pedigrees of British families can be traced to the person who first used the surnames they now bear. Many surnames have been corrupted to such an extent that their original forms may only be discovered after quite considerable research. This may involve tracing the pedigree step by step from the present backwards in time, not only to detect the changes but also to discover the area of the country from which the family came. Present day forms of a large number of surnames are due to the spelling of 16th or 17th century parsons, or even to the registrars of births in the 19th century. They had no guide to the spellings of names and attempted to reproduce phonetically the sounds they heard, as the great majority of the population were illiterate and had no notion that any one spelling of their name was more 'correct' than any other.

All our original ancestors used a one-part name, whether they were Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians or Normans. Certain people before the Norman Conquest, and in growing numbers afterwards, had an additional 'byname', but these were not hereditary surnames in the modern sense as they did not pass from father to son. Such names may appear in Domesday Book, but they have no relevance here. It was not until the early 12th century that surnames became hereditary among the nobility. They spread gradually amongst the ordinary people in the next century, from the town to the country and from the south of England to the north. Most people in England did not, however, have anything approaching a hereditary surname until the end of the 14th century.

The growth of surnames

The growing need for identification in mediaeval England had probably led the clerks to give people these additional names. They might be those of their fathers (patronymics) or of some other relation, or the name of the place where they lived or from which they had come (locative surnames), or the names of their offices or occupations, or some descriptive or nick-name. These additional names might vary considerably during a man's life, change from generation to generation, be changed at apprenticeship or be subject to translation by the clerks at their whim, so that the process by which they became fixed and passed from father to son was quite accidental. These people themselves sometimes used different names from those by which they were known by the clerks. Thus no clue can be obtained from the surname alone as to the original nationality or racial origin of a family. See P H Reaney, The Origin of English surnames (1967).

The process by which names became hereditary followed later in Scotland and Ireland than in England. In Wales and Shetland a large proportion of the population did not develop stable hereditary surnames until the 18th century, many not becoming stable until the middle of the 19th century.

The origins of surnames

Because it is often impossible to know the original form and, therefore, the etymology or meaning of the surname of a particular family until one has traced that family's history and seen how its surname has changed over time the various available dictionaries of surnames should be used with the greatest care. Many of the older dictionaries are of little value, except perhaps to show what people have believed in the past. The most recent major work is P Hanks and F Hodges, Oxford dictionary of surnames (1988) which attempts to explain the origins and meanings of surnames from the English-speaking world and includes many of European and Jewish extraction. However, the most authoritative work is P H Reaney and R M Wilson, A dictionary of English surnames (3rd edn. 1991) which lists the surviving spellings of many surnames as well as giving referenced examples from the earliest times. The paper-back edition of this dictionary (OUP, 1997) has a useful Appendix by D Hey, 'Locating the Home of a Family Name'.

You may be able to test the explanation of your surname as given in these dictionaries by studying its later distribution. Some surnames which were formerly frequent are now rare, following the extinction of many male lines. If a surname is rare it may have a 'single-family' origin. This is frequently the case with surnames derived from the names of farms in areas of scattered settlement. In earlier times many aliases are found and these often arise from the parallel use of a surname derived from a farm name as well as another descriptive surname. Later they may arise through illegitimacy, the remarriage of a parent or the inheritance of property from a female relative.

Reaney and Wilson largely excluded surnames derived from place-names and many of these will be found in C W Bardsley, A dictionary of English and Welsh surnames (1901, reprinted 1980), which gives early referenced examples of the surnames mentioned. The derivations, however, are not to be relied upon and for the meanings of place-names one should consult Eilert Ekwall, Concise Oxford dictionary of English place-names (1960) or, failing that, the appropriate county volume published by the English Place-Name Society. Many puzzling surnames which do not appear in dictionaries derive from obscure or lost place or manorial names, perhaps corrupted because of unfamiliarity almost beyond recognition. Many examples of the way in which surnames are corrupted over time are provided by G Redmonds, Surnames and genealogy: a new approach (Boston, USA, 1997).

In a few counties one is very fortunate to have the detailed volumes published in the English surnames series, based on research undertaken at Leicester University. These now cover the West Riding of Yorkshire (ed. G Redmonds, 1973), Norfolk and Suffolk (ed. R A McKinley, 1975), Oxfordshire (ed. R A McKinley, 1977), Lancashire (ed. R A McKinley, 1981), Sussex (ed. R A McKinley, 1988) and Devon (ed. D Postles, 1995) with Leicestershire and Rutland (ed. D Postles, 1998).

Surname distribution

Bardsley's dictionary, mentioned above, also gives counts by county of the number of occurrences of each surname taken from A return of owners of land (1873), a work frequently called the 'Modern Domesday Book'. This lists those who owned more than one acre of land and is arranged by county, in two volumes with additional volumes for Scotland and Ireland. It is to be found in most leading reference libraries. The return can lead one directly to where bearers of a surname with their roots in the ground were living at the time of the 1871 census. Another useful work showing the distribution of surnames is H B Guppy,Homes of family names in Great Britain(1890) based on counts of farmers' surnames in late Victorian county directories. Though discredited as misleading on the original homes of family names, the book is not far out for the nineteenth century. It bravely tackles not only the distribution but the incidence, per 10,000 of the population, of even the most frequent surnames. In this century the geographical distribution of unusual surnames may to a large extent still be ascertained from modern telephone directories. A table showing the relative frequency of the 147 most common surnames in the twentieth century appears in theGenealogists' Magazine,vol. 25, no. 11 (September 1997).\

The centralised indexes to the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, which commence in 1837, and which are widely available online will give an indication of the distribution of any surname at a slightly earlier period. Many examples are to be found in D Hey, 'The local history of family names' inThe local historian, vol. 27, no. 3 (1997) and in C D Rogers,The Surname Detective(1995).

The International Genealogical Index (IGI) of baptisms and marriages in England and Wales now available within the FamilySearch website, will, because of the great number of entries included, provide a similar guide to the distribution of any surname back to the mid-sixteenth century. That distribution may be distorted in some instances, however, because of the incomplete coverage of the Index. However several genealogy software programmes allow for the mapping of names according to places noted in IGI entries from FamilySearch.

The British 19th Century Surname Atlas is a fully interactive CD-ROM product that allows you to plot floodfill-style distribution maps for all of the surnames and forenames found in the 1881 census of England, Scotland and Wales. This software can also be found within websites that allow for localisation of surname using census data, telephone directories and electoral roll information such as http://www.britishsurnames.co.uk/.

The Lexicographer Patrick Hanks, along with colleagues based at the University of the West of England  is currently compiling an AHRC-funded database of all the family names in the UK, with information about their linguistic and social origins, history, and geographical distribution.

Currently research using DNA and surname studies can throw insight into genealogical research. For information on the application of DNA studies to genealogical research it is worth reading Debbie Kennet DNA and Social Networking. A guide genealogy in the 21st Century.  Advice and an independent guide to DNA tests, surname projects etc  can be found on http://www.dna-testing-adviser.com/ and a directory of links to many surname DNA projects and related websites can be found on http://www.cyndislist.com/dna.

Surname variants

The spelling of surnames can be problematic. As levels of literacy have varied throughout history it is always wise to be aware of possible spelling variations and possible mis-transcriptions. Certain online genealogical websites use a system of weighting certain sounds to bring similar surnames together. Such groupings using either SOUNDEX or NAME-EX can bring together possible alternative spellings but only personal knowledge of the common variations of a particular surname will enable you to decide if these name variants are relevant to your research

For Scotland, variant spellings and early examples are shown in G F Black,The surnames of Scotland(1946, reprinted 1963). For Ireland, E MacLysaght,The surnames of Ireland(1980) and R Bell,The book of Ulster surnames(1980), and for Wales J & S Rowlands,The surnames of Wales; for family historians and others (1988) and T J & P Morgan,Welsh surnames(1985) should be consulted.

Changes of name

In England anybody may change his or her name without any formality whatsoever. The change may be effected by merely assuming the new name, though it is advisable to have some proof that one has assumed the new name. This is generally provided by deed-poll or by Royal Licence, and occasionally has been done by private Act of Parliament. In all these cases the name has been changed by voluntary assumption and not by these documents, which are only evidence of the assumption. The great majority of changes of surname have thus probably gone unrecorded but if some record has been made a reference may be found in W P W Phillimore & E A Fry,An index to change of names 1760-1901(1905, reprinted 1968). Deeds poll of change of name were sometimes (though not always) enrolled in Chancery after 1851 and from 1903 in the Supreme Court of Judicature. Those enrolled since 1914 have been published in the London Gazette. These records may be found at the National Archives, Kew.

This page was last revised Else Churchill
© Society of Genealogists 2017

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