How surnames spread in the UK

Posted on July 5, 2012 by


surname diversity

Intuitively you might expect that in the modern mobile society of the UK your surname would tell you very little about where you hail from.  Not so it would seem.  At the Tipping Points conference Dr James Cheshire from UCL presented a fascinating paper on the spatial distribution of surnames.

The fashion for inheritable surnames was brought to Great Britain by the Normans in 1066 mainly to clarify the right of ownership of land, but now they are valuable and useful source of information.  Surnames capture cultural attributes of a population, such as a person’s profession or even a personality trait.  Smiths were often Blacksmiths, Reeve would be your local magistrate, Mr Drinkwater would most likely be found flagon in hand down at the local watering hole, perhaps with the irresponsible Mrs Careless.  Surnames also act as a proxy for some population genetics traits, if an area has diverse surnames it will likely have a diverse gene pool.  Surnames also provide a wealth geographic information too.

Surnames spread as people move making them an excellent source of historical geographic information.  In the past, people would tend to travel short distances and maintained social ties by sticking closely to others similar to them.  Using UK census and other sources of data, Dr Cheshire has been able to develop software that allows you to visualize the global spatial distribution of your surname.  The data show that for large parts of the UK there is significantly less than one surname per person, particularly when you get out of large cities.  Not only that, but surnames can still be seen clustering into specific areas.  The Macleods live in the Western Highlands of Scotland and the Howeys are found in the North East of England. The distribution of some names has remained particularly stable over the years.  If you are a Bakewell then I would guess you are somewhere in the midlands, and I would also put money on your descendents staying put too (must be the pudding).

To find out more about the research on the spread of surnames and other forms of spatial mapping visit

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