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Surname origins online

In Britain, the surname lies at the heart of genealogy; most of us carry round with us a medieval name-tag which might have arisen from where an ancestor lived, what they looked like or their occupation.

In 1986 Debrett Ancestry Research acquired Frank Leeson’s Surname Archive and took on the legacy of Frank’s ‘Surname Report’ service by providing detailed studies of British surname origin and distribution, using a wide variety of printed sources.  We are now gradually updating and releasing a selection of studies from the Debrett Surname Archive in Kindle and paperback form.

Surname Study Paperback

The Surnames Baker and Baxter

The academic study of surname origin is a slow and painstaking business, and few counties have the good fortunate to have been covered by the English Surname Series, which provides an in-depth study of local surnames from earliest records onwards.

At the other end of the scale, ‘surname scrolls’, which typically provide a brief hotchpotch of notes from dictionaries and random examples from historical records, enjoyed a bit of a boom when the potential of modern mailing lists met the surge of interest in all things genealogical.

The latest development is, needless to say, online, and many websites now offer surname analysis and history.  We have been looking at some of the many sites out there, using two names (one rare and one common) to test the databases.

Ancestry

ancestry.com/learn/facts/

Dominating the field is the US giant Ancestry.com, which draws upon its huge genealogical databases to analyse surname distribution and provide some general statistics.  The starting point is simple; typing in your surname leads immediately to a choice of results. For rarer surnames results will be sparse, and older documents are often inexpertly transcribed and indexed.

If your surname is included in the Dictionary of American Family Names (OUP 2013) Ancestry will pull out the relevant entry; no further attempt is made to establish the origins of a name.

Further categories can be selected after an initial selection of ‘United States’, ‘England and Wales’ or ‘Scotland’ (sorry, Ireland).  For the ‘England and Wales’ section, a distribution map will appear (based on a single census), but this is followed by some entirely US-based data collections about immigration and civil war service (that’s the American Civil War, by the way), and an analysis of occupations and, rather startlingly, life expectancy.  No UK data is used in these sections.

So, despite all that big data, this service is of moderate interest for those in the US only.

 

The Internet Surname Database

surnamedb.com

This site claims modest coverage of just under 50,000 surnames and is based on a former mail order service which provided potted surname histories on scrolls.  The last company statement is dated 2007 but users can provide links to their own information. ‘Statistics’ are drawn entirely from US records. We found nothing of value for either of our surnames on this site, which seems to be largely an advertising platform.

 

Forebears

forebears.co.uk/surnames

Advertising also looms large on this portal.  The surname section boasts ‘Meanings and Distribution of 11 million surnames’. The home page shows a simple search box, a stream of user submissions and a general article on the history of surnames.

For an individual search, a selection of excerpts is provided from older surname dictionaries; presumably for copyright reasons, modern scholarly works do not feature here.  In view of this, as a footnote rightly says, ‘diligence is advised on accepting [the] validity’ of some of these excerpts.

The list of variants and ‘similar surnames’ is fairly meaningless, relying on computer-think rather than informed logic.

Mapping illustrates the prevalence of your surname worldwide, or for a selected area.  The English section is based solely on the 1881 census; the British analysis apparently takes in census returns from 1881 to 1901, and a table provides the figures, listed by county.  This is quite a helpful tool.

The site will also ‘transliterate’ your surname, should you wish it, into a variety of other forms including Arabic, Bengali and Tibetan.

 

Some minor sites

 Meaning-of-Names.com is largely a directory of other sites and navigating through the advertising is a lengthy process, leading in one case to a compulsory marketing survey.

www.myheritage.com offers a surname distribution search which is really a personal name search.

searchforancestors.com/surnames/origin/ offers a surname origin search of very limited value and a surname distribution search based solely on the US census.

locatemyname.com aims to show the distribution of surnames worldwide.  The homepage links to individual pages for each country. Results show:

  • top local cities/towns with numbers of occurrences
  • top global countries with occurrences of the name in the records
  • distribution maps
  • ranking of the surname in ‘popularity’
  • a simplified ‘meaning of the name’
  • a selection of famous people with the name

It’s not clear what records are used in this analysis.

Beyond this brief survey, there are many genealogical sites offering a simple ‘surname origin’ search which lead, at best, to a brief derivation from an unacknowledged source.

Conclusion

While the internet and the plethora of genealogical data online should offer rich pickings in terms of surname distribution, this is best carried out on an individual basis on a site such as Ancestry or Findmypast using specific sources.  None of the sites we looked at attempted any serious analysis of surname origin.  The bridge between painstaking and informed research, and search-box quick fixes, if such a thing is possible, has yet to be made.

 

 

 

Letter from the Crimean War

One of the great fascinations of genealogy is the way that personal stories sometimes leap off the page of what might –  were it not for microfilm and digitisation – have been a dry and dusty pile of official documents. Wills – particularly the older ones – can vibrate with personal feeling, centuries after they were written. Occasionally, a less formal document finds its way into the probate registries. Among the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the letter of an officer to his brother, written during the Crimean War as he awaited orders to join the Siege of Sebastopol, is preserved. The letter replaced the will that Major Edward Rooper, at the age of 36, had not got round to making, and so what happened next is all too painfully obvious. Hindsight adds poignancy to Rooper’s anticipation of ‘a few casualties’ at Sebastopol and to his wistful pleasure to think that at home ‘the quail are just coming in’:

Letter of Edward Rooper to George Rooper of Lincoln’s Inn

Camp nr Beicos, Aug 29 [1854]

Dear George
There is no doubt of the melancholy fact that we have got to go and take Sebastobol [sic] and considering they have 90,000 and we 50,000 I fear the operation will not be over easy.  I much fear the Authorities are driven in to the attempt by the attacks made on them by the Press, in fact the ravages of the Cholera have been fearful not so much in loss of life, though there has been enough of that, as in the weak state the slightest attacks of it reduce the men to. The Duke of Cambridge says the Army at Varna is almost annihilated for the present and that we look healthier and better than any Regt there. At the same time we had about 12 per Cent sick. Our loss to now is twenty two. Our doctors have not shone in the matter much only now adopting the measures found efficacious by now experienced men. We expect to go every day as they say the Expedition is to sail on the 2nd from Varna.

‘Buyukdere Valley, and Beicos Bay'. wood engraved print 1856. Unsigned;sketched by Capt. Montagu O'Reilly.

‘Buyukdere Valley, and Beicos Bay’. wood engraved print 1856. Unsigned;sketched by Capt. Montagu O’Reilly.

Even for a pleasanter place than the Crimea is likely to be at present I should be sorry to leave this beautiful view of the Bospheros which we command up and down from our lofty Camp. I have laid on a fresh Servant too and speak Romain to any amount. I was just beginning to inquire about the shooting of which I think we should get some good if we remained here. It is pleasant to know the quail are just coming in. I have not been very often to Stamboul but enjoy the place the more the better I know it.

Of course you will go to the Turkish Bazaar Show in London – as they are not loquacious or energetic it must be almost as good as the real live article – I rather singularly met the other day Hussey Pasha whose acquaintance I made at Yannina years ago. He was very civil to me but I did not remember him until we parted when I heard his name. I have written to B. to say they must not expect to hear regularly now but repeat the warning when you write If any accident happens to me and I expect there will be a few casualties I wish you and John to divide anything I may have I owe nothing to anyone hoping to date my next however safely from Sebastobol …

Yours ever E.R.

Appeared personally George Rooper of 68 Lincolns Inn Fields, Alfred Malins and Henry William Birch…

George Rooper is a brother of the above named Edward Rooper late a Major in HM Rifle Brigade at the Crimea in the Empire of Russia deceased that on or about the thirteenth day of July 1854 the said deceased sailed from England with his Regiment for the Crimea where they arrived 20 September 1854… On 10 September he received a letter from his brother … his brother was wounded in action at Inkerman in Russia on 5 November 1854 and died on 15 November in consequence of his wounds on board the Tranport ship Golden Fleece at sea on his passage to the hospital at Scutari.
Probate granted 17 May 1855 to George Rooper Esq.

The Crimean War

The Siege of Sebastopol, which gave a horrific foretaste of the trench warfare of the First World War, began on 25 September 1854 and ended on 8 September 1855. The Allies lost nearly 10,000 men and the Russians, nearly 13,000, on the last day of the siege alone.

The Battle of Inkerman, in which Edward Rooper lost his life, took place on 5 November 1854 when the Russian Imperial Army took the offensive against the besieging British and French troops, whom they greatly outnumbered. Rooper was one of 6 officers and 144 men from his regiment who died; in total, the British suffered 2,357 casualties, the French 929 and the Russians, 12,000. There was no decisive victory, but the Russians ultimately withdrew.

Map of the Crimean War, from Wikimedia

Map of the Crimean War, from Wikimedia

 

The Rooper family

Edward Rooper was the youngest son of the Reverend Thomas Richard Rooper and Persis, née Standly, who married in 1806 at Little Paxton in Huntingdonshire. Edward was baptised in Abbots Ripton, Huntingdonshire, on 27 January 1818 and Hart’s Army List shows that he was already serving in the Rifle Brigade in 1840. From 1841 until at least 1861, the family lived at Wick House in Hove, Sussex, where his father was a ‘clergyman without care of souls’ and commanded a large establishment of servants. Another older brother, John, was also an army officer.

Edward’s father survived him; his brother George lived to a great age, and the 1901 census found him living in Paddington ‘on means’, a widower of 89.

Notes

George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge (1819–1904), commanded the first division of the army to serve in the Crimea.  Aged 35 and inexperienced, he joined the battle of the Alma on 20 September 1854 at which 622 men out of 1361 were lost.  He was invalided home on 27 December 1854 (Edward M. Spiers, ‘George, Prince, second duke of Cambridge (1819–1904)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009).

For a detailed, fully illustrated account of the Battle of Inkerman and the Siege of Sevastopol visit British Battles.com.

 

George Dean-Pitt: from plumber to Major-General

The latest volume of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research includes as its opening article an account of the meteoric career of Major-General George Dean-Pitt by genealogist Gervase Belfield of Debrett Ancestry Research. The research, and the preparation of the article, were kindly sponsored and assisted by our client Mr Geoffrey Todd, who descends from George Dean-Pitt.

journal cover for Oct 14 blog
The story is a remarkable one: not quite rags to riches but an example of how ability and determination – with, admittedly, a little help from one’s friends – could elevate a humble tradesman to high rank.

George Dean-Pitt was illegitimate: no record of his baptism or birth has been found, but he was probably born in about 1780, in Berkshire or Hampshire. His father George Pitt (d. 1828) never married; he succeeded his father in 1803 as Baron Rivers of Stratfield Saye, Hampshire. We know nothing of his mother except that her name was Dean; she was possibly ‘Mrs Deane’ who by 1803 owned property in Stratfield Saye.

Prior to his succession to the peerage, Pitt had enjoyed a long and undistinguished political career as Tory MP for Dorset from 1774 to 1790: he never spoke once in the House of Commons and in his last seven years as MP he never voted. He was however a drinking companion of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, and is recalled as such in contemporary diaries: Lady Charlotte Bury described him as

a pleasant and elegant man… one of the last of that race of persons who were dandies of a former century.

Other accounts were not so complimentary. Lord Rivers, while acknowledging his natural son, seemingly made no attempt to educate him and made no provision for him in his will.

George Dean, as he was then known, joined the Marines in 1797 as a private, claiming to be 19 years old. His eyes were grey, his hair was light brown and he was six foot tall; his trade was that of plumber and glazier. After eight years and a promotion to Sergeant, he joined the 96th Regiment of Foot as an Ensign. His Captain described him as ‘a young man and very active’ and, more significantly, ‘a protégée of Lord Rivers’. In 1805 he was promoted to Lieutenant in the newly created Royal African Corps; when this divided into two he became part of the Royal West India Rangers, noted for their recruitment of convicted criminals and pardoned deserters. In the unfamiliar climate of the West Indies, this was not an easy apprenticeship but one in which the young officer flourished: by 1809 he was a Captain.

In 1811 George became Aide-de-Camp to General Robert Ballard Long (an appointment in which patronage certainly played a part) and set sail for Lisbon. He was wounded at the Battle of Albuera, and saw much further action; he was rewarded by promotion to the rank of Major in 1814 but retired on half-pay at the end of that year, thereby missing the Battle of Waterloo.

GuelphenOrden_HoferAntikschmuckBerlin for Oct 14
Back in England, George married Susan Baillie in 1818, and in 1819 he adopted the surname Dean-Pitt by Royal Licence. He returned to active service in 1819, in a relatively quiet Europe, and continued to move up the ranks: by the time he had his portrait painted in 1836 (private collection) he was Lieutenant-Colonel of the 80th Foot and a Military Knight of the Guelphic Order of Hanover. The artist (unknown) presents us with a handsome face and a pleasantly confident expression.

Another glimpse of Dean-Pitt’s character is provided by his will, which left everything to his ‘beloved wife Susan …, having full confidence in her judgment and goodness of heart that every justice will be done in the disposal of it towards the education and advantage of our dear children’ (there were eight in all).

In 1847 Dean-Pitt embarked upon the final phase of his career, as Commander of British troops in New Zealand, then a new and unstable colony, and his family went with him. He died in 1851 as Major-General George Dean-Pitt, Knight of Hanover, while commanding British troops in New Zealand and holding the post of Lieutenant-Governor of the North Island; not a bad achievement for one who started his working life as a plumber and glazier.

For a fuller account of George Dean-Pitt’s career, and a fine reproduction of his portrait, see the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (Autumn 2014: vol 92 no 371: visit the Society’s website at www.sahr.co.uk).

Telling the family story

Recollections: A Personal Record

How would you like to be remembered? 

‘I remember, I remember…’ A very frequent lament we hear from our clients is that they never asked their older relatives what they do remember, or the unique story of their lives. Everyone has a story to tell, but many such stories go untold; and even with today’s enhanced means of discovering information, many of them never will be. However, simply asking a relative to write down their memories is sometimes asking too much.

Those of us lucky enough to have a Family Bible in which were recorded events in the family history know how precious the smallest fragments of information can be.

With this in mind, we have designed a new book, which after much deliberation we have entitled Recollections: A Personal Record, as a means of gently teasing out unique family memories and recording them in an enjoyable and satisfying way.

Although aimed at those who have long lives to share, Recollections can be used by anyone who wishes to make a record of their own life.

The book, which is hardbound and designed to be easy to handle (22 x 22 cm) and to write in, contains 46 pages – many of them illustrated – with prompts for memories and information. It includes two blank family trees, one for ‘Father’s Family History’ and one for ‘Mother’s. On the other pages the prompts range from the obvious questions about family names, dates and places, to ‘Historical Facts in my lifetime’ (with suggestions), to less matter-of-fact subjects such as ‘Significant Places’, ‘Work Stories’ and a phrase borrowed from seventeenth century inventories: ‘Things Lost and Forgotten’. There are spaces to paste in photographs, if wished, and a final page asks ‘How would you like to be remembered’?

The book can be ordered from our website for £20 in the UK including postage and packing; for overseas orders please email us for a price.

Family tree page

Family tree pages

Childhood Memories pages

Childhood Memories pages

The Victorian spinster: celebrating the non-celebrity

Putting flesh on the bones of history – and of our genealogies – is something of a modern quest: in former times most ancestor-seekers were more concerned with clocking up generations, and if you could collect the odd title or historical celebrity along the way, so much the better.  Today the celebrities are at the other end of the telescope: the enormously successful BBC series Who do you think you are? shines the sparkling light of modern celebrity into dry and dusty corners; who would have thought that archivists would make prime-time television?  But now we no longer think just of extending that family tree as far back as possible: we want to understand more of the lives of our ancestors, however humble, and empathise with them.

Novels – not historical novels but those written in a different age– can significantly increase our understanding of our own historic families.  The men, women and children whose names we squint at on our computer screens all had their story.  The census return permits us to peer at a household through the window; the novelist opens the door and lets us in.

That is not to say that the novelist’s view is unbiased: reality must be bent to the writer’s will.  Some will create monsters, caricatures, or lofty heroes and heroines who could never have survived a day in the real world; but there are others who paint the humdrum with painstaking skill and make it fascinating.

Flora McDonald Mayor (1872–1932) is rightly celebrated for her masterpiece The Rector’s Daughter (1924); but an earlier work, The Third Miss Symons, written exactly a century ago,[1] tells the story of another unfulfilled, unmarried late Victorian woman, one of the many ageing daughters we see hanging on at home from one census return to the next.  Henrietta Symons is no heroine – emotional deprivation has soured her, and having lost one near-promise of marriage through the vanity of a prettier sister, bad temper blights any further chances.  At forty she realises with a jolt that since completing her education she

had not merely lost all the qualities she had had as a child, but had gained none from age and experience to take their place.

With no need to earn a living, in her latter years Henrietta drifts joylessly around Europe before dying at 63, ‘quietly and dully’, not quite deserted by her family but not much valued by them either.  So convincing is the portrayal that at the end of the novel one almost reaches for the census indexes to look her up – and of course she is there, under a thousand different names.

F M Mayor is a vocal narrator, often comparing her Victorian subjects with her own modern world of 1913.  Henrietta Symons is not a self-portrait, although the author lost her fiancé to typhoid in 1903 and never married.   Her own life was devoid of all glamour (she had tried unsuccessfully to be an actress when young) and her skills were not recognised during her lifetime.   Nevertheless, like today’s celebrities, she shines her strong light upon the past, not only on the generation of which she writes but on her own times, and for this we must thank her.



[1] F M Mayor, The Third Miss Symons (1913: reprinted, Virago Press, 1980).

English Parish Registers

The recording of what the Americans call ‘vital statistics’ – the bare events of birth, marriage and death or, in the case of parish registers, baptism, marriage and burial – is something we now take for granted. We fret if our ancestors – through negligence, non-conformity, or being in the wrong parish at the wrong time –evaded that official with the quill pen. We might sometimes spare a thought for the men who invented, designed and developed these crucial records, which in themselves are an expression of the close and sometimes bitter relationship between church and state in English history.

Those of us with English ancestry – or whose livelihoods depend upon the discovery of it – have the formidable Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell (ca 1485 to 1540) to thank for the establishment of parish record-keeping so early in our history.

Cromwell’s own family history was startling; he rose to high office from inauspicious origins. His father Walter Cromwell, a clothier and blacksmith of Putney, was a heavy drinker who owned his own brewery and inn. Walter was frequently summoned to the manorial court for misdemeanours and he was eventually evicted from his property after being convicted of fraudulently altering tenancy documents.

By the 1530s, self-educated, well-travelled and full of religious zeal, his son Thomas Cromwell had established himself first as right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey and then to King Henry VIII himself. The story of his extraordinary career has enjoyed a recent revival through the award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the trilogy will be completed by the yet-to-be-published The Mirror and the Light) and he is soon to take the stage in a double Royal Shakespeare production based on Mantel’s novels, which will run concurrently with a BBC drama series in which Mark Rylance plays the great statesman.

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sir Thomas Cromwell (Wenceslas Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1535, having engineered the King’s position as supreme head of the English church, of which he was now Vicar-General, Cromwell turned upon the church his unique combination of religious and administrative zeal. The Valor Ecclesiasticus, a national census of church lands and wealth, was completed within a year, a bureaucratic masterpiece. At the same time he was determined that every parish church in the land should have a copy of the Bible in English, and this was for the good of the soul, not the royal powerhouse or coffers. Indeed, Cromwell contributed handsomely from his own purse towards the publication of Coverdale’s English Bible.

Those on the receiving end of Cromwell’s enthusiasm found it difficult to separate the religious from the bureaucratic. When his order went out, in September 1538, that every parish priest should keep a weekly record of ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’, many parishes ignored it, risking the fine of 3s 4d; they suspected, with traditional English cynicism, that something more sinister than historical record-keeping was afoot. Anger at the suppression of the monasteries was mingled with fear that the state might have similar designs on parish churches. At the very least, it seemed more than likely that this amassing of personal data was the prelude for some new tax.

The original order, which was to create for England an unprecedented wealth of information about families from the humblest to the highest, was to:

‘Keep one book or register, wherein ye shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening, and burying, made within your parish for your time.’

The book was to be kept secure in the parish chest with keys held by the incumbent and the churchwardens.

geograph-550586-by-Bob-Embleton parish chest

16th century parish chest at St Mary, Kempley, Gloucestershire: © Copyright Bob Embleton and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

Such was the lack of clerical enthusiasm that a second decree had to be passed in 1547, this time adding the stipulation that the fine should benefit the poor, for Cromwell was also concerned with social reform, and his Poor Relief legislation of 1536 was the first attempt of the state to address poverty on a parochial basis.

On 18 April 1540 Cromwell, who had already been elevated to the peerage, was created Earl of Essex; but his fortunes were already on a grim and downward path.  His reforming zeal had far overtaken that of his King; his involvement in the fiasco of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves had lost him the monarch’s trust; and in Tudor politics there were few exits from such high public office that were not bloody and brutal.  On 28 July 1540 the newly created Earl walked to the scaffold, charged with heresy and treason, and suffered a particularly gruelling execution.[1]  He left his King and country many legacies; but for the genealogist, those yellowing register books in the parish chest were among the most precious.



[1] Howard Leithead, ‘Cromwell, Thomas, earl of Essex (b. in or before 1485, d. 1540)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009.