How long have you had your surname?

I have been wondering why most of the common Welsh surnames end with an ‘s’: Jones, Edwards, Davies, Harries, Philips, Evans, Howells, Thomas, Williams, Owens, Hughes, Roberts, Jenkins, Stevens, Lewis, Richards and more.

This observation lead me to think further about surnames and remember someone who had stayed with us a few years ago. We had met when I was visiting some wonderful schools for working children in NW Pakistan.*

Her name was Neelofar. Just Neelofar. That was normal and fine until she decided to travel and her application for a passport required a surname. She didn’t have one so she added her sister’s name to her own and bureaucracy was satisfied.

Surnames, as we now know them, have not been established in rural West Wales for very long either. I have noticed  Dinas residents referring to relations in their great grand parents’ generation by the family surname and seen that official or press reports have added an ‘s’, influenced, no doubt, by naming conventions. This was happening until late nineteenth century and complicates life for anyone researching their family tree.

Len Urwin (of Dinas) has been studying local families and explains some of the background:

Wales has a history of patronymic naming whereby the father’s first name became the last name of his children. So the “surname” changed with every generation and was a means of conveying male lineage. This applied to the ancient Welsh names like Morgan and Rhys, and to more recently settled names like William and Evan. All derived from the first name of the father, and slowly mutated to become fixed surnames, often with the addition of the letter “s”, like Williams and Evans….. (This) patronymic system continued in some rural Welsh-speaking areas in the north and west, up to the early nineteenth century.

Leonard H Urwin’s “Survey of George Family Interments in North Pembrokeshire, Wales from 1654 to 2012 author’s notes and commentary” is a fascinating document and can be found by clicking here. If you have difficulty using that link, the paper can also be found at on their resources page. At present it can be found by looking at Recent additions to the website.

*For information about Khwendo Kor and their projects in Pakistan click here.


About bookvolunteer

I'm passionate about books, about Oxfam and about making the world a better place. When I'm not filling the shelves in Oxfam Wilmslow, I might be found reading the books I've bought in the beautiful surroundings of North Pembrokeshire.
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4 Responses to How long have you had your surname?

  1. calmgrove says:

    My understanding is that the set surname practice goes back to Tudor times for church records, with -s denoting what in England would represented by -son (Williams in Wales, Wilson in England). Pretty much all current Welsh surnames ending in -s (Jones, Evans, even Wilkins, Watkins) have a longish pedigree.

    Conversely occupational names (Smith or Baker or Carpenter in England) seem not to have been adopted except in communities (Dai the undertaker for example, as in the joke). Nicknames (Gough in England for Welsh ‘goch” for instance) seem to have established themselves early in England but not commonly here in Wales.

  2. I don’t know. Looking at Len Urwin’s survey of the George family, there seems to be quite a sprinkling of James’s there too, even though James George is a bit of a mouthful.

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