Unexpectedly Royal Ancestors

Family legends are fascinating, and many contain at least a grain of truth.  Have you heard the one about the humble labourer who married high above his station? Or the apparently ordinary family who had noble or even royal ancestors? This is the story of a family in which both those stories happen to be absolutely true.

Disinherited

On 24 January 1824, Richard Leigh Spencer, a wealthy London solicitor, sat down to write a codicil to his will in which he disinherited his eldest daughter:

Whereas my daughter Anne has married to William Humphreys now I do hereby revoke the bequest or trust mentioned in my Will to the said Anne … as if the said Anne had died a single woman and intestate during my life …

Four years earlier, Anne had married William Humphreys at St Botolph, Aldersgate, London.  What had caused her father such distress was that William was a farm labourer. However, he might not have realised himself just how illustrious his ancestry was.

The young couple settled in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, where they raised nine children, and William continued to work as a farm labourer and cowman. The children too had humble careers, but two of them bore distinctive names that were traditional in Anne’s family: Oliph and Leigh.  It was these names, together with an unusually verbose tombstone in Broxbourne churchyard, which led one of William’s descendants to discover the truth about his ancestry.

From gentry to the aristocracy

After many years of research, we now know that Anne descended not just from gentry but from royalty.  Her great-grandfather had married Ann Leigh, whose family owned land in three counties. In 1578 Ann’s great-great-great-grandfather Sir Oliph Leigh had married Jane Browne.  This innocuous surname concealed an illustrious ancestry: Jane’s great-great-grandmother was Eleanor Fitzalan, descendant of the medieval Earls of Arundel.

From gentry to royalty

Eleanor Fitzalan was the ancestral gateway to royalty. Her family married into the Holland family, who descended from Edward I; and into the Neville family, who descended from Edward III.   The Fitzalan family also connects to Queen Adeliza, wife of Henry I, who descended (twice) from Charlemagne.

Coronation of Charlemagne

The Humphreys family tree now included numerous kings, queens and emperors of Europe as well as English and Scottish monarchs.  Incidentally, it included connexions to Geoffrey Chaucer and the author Henry Fielding.  What William Humphreys’ own ancestors – who were Quakers in Reigate – would have made of all this, we cannot imagine.

Who did she think she was?

Debrett Ancestry Research has made a selection of Anne Spencer’s ancestral lines available in the volume Who Did She Think She Was? (in paperback from Amazon).  This describes Anne’s royal descents in thirteen chapters of illustrated narrative, complete with references. These set out the genealogies of the Spencer, Leigh, Carew, Browne, Fitzalan (Arundel), Despenser, De Clare, Mautravers, De Warenne and D’Aubigny families, as well as three descents from Charlemagne.

The book includes a family tree for each of the families discussed. These may help some readers to negotiate their own passage through the complex web of aristocratic family connections.

Tracing Your Ancestors (in England): Top Tips

Here at Debrett Ancestry Research we have researched more than 7,500 families over the years. Tracing your ancestors is a fascinating and absorbing occupation and we all learn endlessly from what we do. But here are a few pointers for those just starting out.

Tip 1: Cherish living memories

Woodcut: medieval young and old women embracing

Family memories are a precious and fragile resource.  So if you can, before setting out to trace your ancestors, ask other family members what they remember. Keep the answers safe and organised. 

We have designed a special book for this, as described in a previous blog: Recollections.

Tip 2: Treat online family trees with caution

Woodcut: medieval man holding branch

They can be helpful, but a lot of the family trees posted on sites like Ancestry are just plain wrong. Beyond living memory, you want every link in your family tree to be supported by hard evidence. That means a historical document, or an image of one. An index entry isn’t enough.  Someone else’s guesswork certainly isn’t. 

However, the best online family trees include multiple original documents, either uploaded or provided as links. If so, look at the evidence for yourself, and check that it makes sense.

Tip 3: Get birth & marriage certificates

Woodcut: medieval scribe with quill

Census returns are a wonderful resource in tracing your ancestors, but don’t rely on them alone. For the period from 1837 onwards, aim to obtain a full birth and marriage record for each ancestor. The birth certificate gives an address and occupation and the maiden name of the mother. The marriage certificate shows the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom.  This is crucial evidence linking one generation to the next. 

However, your ancestors might have married in a parish church whose registers have been filmed by Ancestry or Findmypast.  In that case, the image of the full record can replace a marriage certificate.  Similarly, a baptism record might provide a full date of birth and address (and the General Register Office birth indexes show the mother’s maiden name).

Tip 4: But remember some events were not registered

Although it was a legal requirement to register births in England and Wales from 1 July 1837, not everyone complied. It was only after the Birth and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 that a fine for non-registration was introduced. Similarly, many couples did not marry formally.

Tip 5: Use original records

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

We all make mistakes, and that includes indexers. Besides, the original records are much more interesting than a transcript. Beyond 1837, use Ancestry and Findmypast to search parish registers and a whole host of other records.  But be aware that they don’t cover everything.  Your ancestors might have lived in a county whose parish registers have not been filmed. If so, use an index like FamilySearch in the first instance, but you will then have to seek out the full details, or employ a professional genealogist to look for them.

Tip 6: Keep detailed notes

Woodcut: medieval scribe

Even if you are using a computer program to lay out your family tree, keep a full written record of everything you have looked at.  Every time you record a fact about an ancestor, make a note of where you found it.  If you save an record to your computer, give it a meaningful name so you can find it easily.

Tip 7: Look at maps and gazetteers

Old maps, in particular.  The National Library of Scotland provides an excellent online collection of old Ordnance Survey maps. Old gazetteers (eg Samuel Lewis) and county histories will provide potted descriptions of a parish or village. The more you find out about where and how your ancestors lived, the more interesting your family tree becomes.

Tip 8: Think about the historical context

It really helps to understand the bigger picture.  Read up on the background. Explore the literature of the time.  Wars, bad harvests, industrial change, all affected how and where your ancestors lived. 

Tip 9: Consider different spellings of the name

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

The spelling of surnames was very flexible until relatively recently.  It’s usually a good idea to use the ‘variant’ option when using an online index. If you draw a blank, try lateral thinking. Indexers sometimes have a hard time reading old records and might have misread something. Some capital letters (eg K/R/P) will have been indexed incorrectly.

 

Tip 10: Take your time

Woodcut: medieval figure with scroll

Genealogy is a time-consuming, painstaking process. It can be very challenging and it’s easy to make mistakes. So, don’t rush or guess.

Look at each record carefully, giving yourself time to get used to the old handwriting if need be. Double-check any detail you have copied.

In tracing your ancestors you are taking a journey back in time. Enjoy the travel as well as the destination!

Season of Misrule

Have we replaced the twelve days of Christmas by a long festive glut through Advent (formerly a time of fasting)? Just as our ancestors’ celebration of the festive season would have been in full swing, for many of us Christmas is already over. So, while they were still passing round the wassail bowl, we trudge wearily round supermarkets eyeing up half-price decorations. Time perhaps to consider the ancient traditions of Misrule, which drove festivities through to a riotous Twelfth Night.

Misrule in Church

The medieval custom of appointing a choirboy to lead processions on Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December) or St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) was especially popular in British cathedrals. In Winchester the chosen ‘Boy Bishop’ even celebrated Mass. What began as a special honour to commemorate a horrific event (infants slaughtered by King Herod) evolved into a gleeful reversal of the usual hierarchy. It was a parody that was both reverent and irreverent.

This sort of role reversal was rarely enjoyed by girls. Although similar practices were customary in nunneries by the 13th century, John Pec(k)ham, the Franciscan Archbishop of Canterbury (died 1292) denounced them. There were limits as to just how unruly Misrule should be.

Misrule in schools

The festive role-reversal of Misrule found its way into another social hierarchy. The custom of schoolboys arming themselves and seizing control of their schoolroom by ‘barring out’ their masters was already old in the 1550s.

Misrule at court

By the reign of King Edward III (d. 1377) the ‘Bean King’ was a courtly institution. The recipe was simple. Bake a bean into a cake and the man (it always was a man) in whose slice it fell became King for a day.

The Lord of Misrule
‘The Frolic of My Lord of Misrule’ from Cassell’s History of England (1900)

Henry VII regularly appointed a Lord of Misrule and an Abbot of Unreason, who presided over boisterous celebrations and entertainments. Henry VIII embraced the tradition of Lord of Misrule so much that he wrote it into the statutes of St John’s College, Cambridge. (The college’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had her own Lord of Misrule).

The Elizabethan commentator John Stubbs (d.1591) described the Lord of Misrule festivities in London as a glorious rabble of ‘lusty guts’ dressed in green, yellow ‘or some other wanton colour’, with:

‘hobby-horses, dragons, and other antics, together with their pipers and thundering drummers to strike up the devil’s dance withal; then march these heathen company towards the church and churchyard, their pipers piping, their drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen …

An allowed foolery

All this in an era in which it was illegal for certain classes to wear a particular colour. For Misrule was not anarchy but an ‘allowed’ foolery, celebrated in many a pantomime. Its supreme expression is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which artfully sets hierarchies and identities upside down, back to front and inside out. Festivities may have sometimes got out of hand, but damages could be made good and there was never any doubt that order would be restored. In the cold light of the morning after, the trappings of artificial power went back into the coffers. Life went on as usual. The rain it raineth every day.

Acknowledgements

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996)

The Century Edition of Cassell’s History of England (1900), vol II

Prince Harry, Baron Kilkeel

The town of Kilkeel, in County Down, Northern Ireland, is an ancient settlement famous for its granite, its fishing fleet, the natural beauty of its mountains of Mourne that ‘sweep down to the sea’, and as from the 19th May 2018, its royal connection, as Prince Harry became on his wedding day HRH The Duke of Sussex, Earl of Dumbarton and Baron Kilkeel.

Albert Bridge / Departure from Kilkeel harbour

A trawler leaves Kilkeel harbour

Perhaps less well known is Kilkeel’s Prawn Festival, which began in 1963 and featured its own royals: not King Prawn, as might be hoped for, but the King of Mourne, and King Neptune who arrived, trident in hand, on a trawler. British Pathe shows some wonderful footage of the event in 1963. The event has been replaced in modern times by the Kilkeel Seafood Festival.

For more information and archive photographs of Kilkeel’s Prawn Festival see tracingyourmourneroots.com.

Although the new Baron and his wife, HRH The Duchess of Sussex, have yet to make a trip there, royal visitors are no novelty for Kilkeel. The Queen has made a visit, and in 2011 Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Kilkeel High School.

The parish of Kilkeel also boasts an estate designed for entertaining on a royal scale, although it is currently out of commission. Mourne Park, seat of the Earls of Kilmorey, is one of Northern Ireland’s grandest estates, built originally on 800 acres of land that was granted by Edward VI in 1552 to Sir Nicholas Bagnall, Marshall General of the Army in Ireland. It was rebuilt, in local granite, in 1806 by the 12th Viscount Kilmorey, Francis Jack Needham, who in reward for military service to the crown in America, and in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, was created Viscount Newry and Morne and Earl of Kilmorey in 1822.

On the death of the 1st Earl in 1832, his son, also named Francis Jack Needham, succeeded, and saw the estate through the famine years of the 1840s; the ‘famine wall’ on the estate was his means of providing extra employment. There is some evidence that the poor of the parish suffered less during those desperate times than elsewhere. A workhouse had been built in Newry Street, Kilkeel, in 1841, with a fever house added on soon afterwards, but the minutes of the Board of Guardians suggest that there was less starvation and fever than in other parts of Ireland.

Edward VII is said to have been a frequent visitor to Mourne Park, and other notable guests have included the Queen Mother and Errol Flynn. During the Second World War it was used as a planning base for the Normandy landings. However, the modern history of the house is one of sad decline. The subject of family dispute in the late 20th/ 21st centuries, the estate was put up for sale in 2008, at which point it had 17 bedrooms, 8 reception rooms, and a footprint of some 25,000 square feet, set in an estate of 140 acres. The house was still for sale when it suffered a catastrophic fire in 2013, which caused the main roof to collapse. It currently awaits a new future, which perhaps will dawn the more quickly now that Kilkeel has become such a focus of interest.

The new Earl of Dumbarton

In bestowing upon Prince Harry the subsidiary title of Earl of Dumbarton, the Crown has made an unusual choice. The earldom, which has been extinct for nearly 270 years, was held for two generations by a junior branch of the aristocratic Scottish family of Douglas between 1675 and 1749. Both the previous Earls of Dumbarton spent much of their lives in France or abroad, and were both tainted with Roman Catholicism and Jacobite sympathies.

The first Earl of Dumbarton was George Douglas; born in about 1636, he was a younger son of the first Marquess of Douglas. From about the age of seventeen he was a soldier in the service of King Louis XIV of France, serving in and then commanding the Scottish Regiment of France for nearly 25 years, and rising to be a Lieutenant-General in the French army. He was a great favourite of Louis XIV who opposed his return to England when King Charles II summoned him home to raise the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot (the Royal Scots). King Charles secretly sympathised with his Catholicism, even to the extent of paying off over £1,500 in fines imposed upon for his religious non-conformity. As a reward for his military service George Douglas was created Earl of Dumbarton in 1675, with the subsidiary title of Lord Ettrick.

Louis XIV of France

Louis XIV of France

The Earl of Dumbarton was entirely comfortable serving our last Catholic king, James II, who appointed him Commander in Chief of Forces in Scotland. He was a great favourite of King James II and chose to go into exile with him in 1688. Dumbarton lived with the royal Stuart household in France until he died at St Germain-en-Laye in 1692. No doubt Prince Harry would admire his military prowess and ability as a soldier, but possibly less so his devotion to the Pope and his admiration of Louis XIV of France.

The second Earl of Dumbarton was also called George Douglas. Born in about 1687, his first ambition was to become a monk, but he was dissuaded from this by James II’s widow, Mary of Modena, in 1704. He decided there was no future for the house of Stuart, and he returned to England having been pardoned for high treason as a Jacobite. He too had a distinguished military career, but in the British Army. In 1716 he went to Moscow as an envoy to the Czar of Muscovy. When he died at Douay in north France in January 1749, the title became extinct.

Prince Harry’s future career will undoubtedly take a very different path from his predecessors as Earls of Dumbarton. We can be entirely confident that he will never test his vocation to be a monk, nor will he rise to the most senior rank in the French army.

Spotting Fake Genealogy

In a world where fake news has become as significant as the real thing, it’s time to shine a light into another dark corner: fake genealogy.

The Victorian actress Miss Leigh in 'Pretty Peculiar'

The Victorian actress Miss Leigh in ‘Pretty Peculiar’

Why fake it?

From ancient times, genealogy has been a powerful tool in reinforcing identity, whether personal or political. From the ‘begat’ lists of the Bible, to the often tortuous descents of privilege documented in Burke’s and our own Debrett’s peerage, ancestors have been invoked to demonstrate status through membership of a particular tribe. This is not a universal motive nowadays; many ancestor-seekers are simply curious, and find that identifying their forbears helps them to understand history. For some, however, the desire to be connected to a famous, titled or wealthy family is a driving force.

Inevitably, this has led to false claims and to exploitation.  These fall into two categories:

The accidental ancestor

Tracing ancestry is not always easy, even with all the modern finding tools, and the pages of websites such as Ancestry are teeming with inaccurate family trees. Moreover, oral history tends to value dramatic effect over accuracy. We humans like to arrange things into patterns, and to fill in any gaps in the facts with borrowed ones. Granny (or indeed Grandad) might not have been consciously fibbing with that story of a fine lady who ran off with the gardener; but the chances are, she didn’t. (Interestingly, plod through the documentation and you might find a grain of truth in the story: there might have been a professional gardener in the family, or the family might have relocated for reasons that appear illogical to their descendants.)

The unscrupulous genealogist

Intent to deceive is much rarer, but there have been some notable examples. American genealogy – with the uncertainties of emigrant origins, a vast country, and a lack of early documentation – was particularly ripe for exploitation. The American ‘genealogist’ Gustav Anjou (1863–1952) delighted hundreds of clients by selling them (for very high fees) spurious pedigrees connecting them to glamorous or illustrious emigrant families. This went far beyond the sort of carelessness that we see now online: Anjou provided false or fabricated references to documentation, providing the illusion that scholarly research had been carried out.

To avoid fakes pushing their way into your own ancestry, there are some simple rules to follow. Don’t adopt anyone else’s family tree without checking each connection. Was it is based on guesswork, wishful thinking, idly clicking buttons on a wet afternoon, or on careful research using original records (which includes digitised images of original records)? Are there obvious howlers, such as people having children at an impossibly young age, or simultaneously being in three different parts of the country? Look at each generation carefully, and in full: siblings are important.  Occupations are important.  If there is a marriage or birth certificate to be had, get a copy.  And be wary of those innocent-looking little green leaves or links that the website waves at you. It is not thinking, it is only shuffling its data and showing you a few of its cards.

For further information on fake genealogy:

Gustav Anjou – Fraudulent Genealogist: lists the family names affected by Anjou’s misdemeanours, but contains broken internet links.

Fraudulent Genealogies: FamilySearch’s overview of the subject, with several useful links.

Baronage: sets out a number of errors, and the background thereof, in the 1970 edition of Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage.

Maidenhead spoons in old wills and inventories

One of the most fascinating genealogical tasks is reading old wills and inventories.  For a start, there is the humbling recognition that the goods and chattels of even a well-to-do householder, right up to the eighteenth centuryy, could be listed on a single page.  The will owill-fragmentr inventory of a Tudor or Stuart yeoman (or his widow) often takes us room by room around his house and outbuildings, enabling us to peer through the windows and see what kind of bed he slept on, what he wore, what he ate his food with, and even into the corners of the lumber rooms where miscellaneous and unnamed ‘thinges’ lurked.

Silver utensils, being of special value, were often described in some detail.  A wealthy Cornish yeoman of the parish of Saltash in 1581 left his wife, among other things, a dozen silver spoons ‘called by the name of the mayden head’; after her death, they were to be passed on to her daughters.

Maidenhead spoons 1580

Maidenhead spoons 1580

 

 

Maidenhead spoons – that is, spoons with a filial in the form of a female head –  feature in inventories from the fourteenth century.  The examples that survive – both in the documents and in reality – are usually silver, but no doubt there were wooden spoons that were similarly carved.  It has been suggested that they might have been wedding gifts.

 

The expression ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’ reflects the importance of the silver spoon as a mark of status and in particular of inherited wealth.

Precious as they were, it might have come as a surprise to the yeoman in question that a few centuries later, his maidenhead spoons would have fetched thousands of pounds.  A pair of Elizabeth maidenhead spoons, made ca 1580, was valued at between £5,000 and £7,000 in 2016.

The minute size of a spoon filial was a challenge to the craftsman.  Similar images, in wood and stone, are found in abundance in medieval church decoration, where the larger size allowed for a greater breadth of treatment.

Maidenhead spoon filial 1607

Maidenhead  filial 1607

Like other traditional forms of decoration, the maiden’s head had a symbolic meaning.  An inventory from Durham Priory (1446) makes it clear that two of its spoons (which were perhaps used liturgically for incense) had ‘the image of the Holy Mary at their ends’.  Over time, as with other emblems, generations of craftsmen adapted the image as they chose, so that some of the female heads on the ends of spoons were not obviously maidenly.

Small wonder that, come the revolution, a new fashion for Puritan spoons emerged, with plain lines and no decoration.

 

Sources & Further reading:

T Kent, West Country Silver Spoons and Their Makers, 1550-1750 (J H  Bourdon-Smith Limited, 1992).

C M Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England, 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016).

Roberta Gilchrist, Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Boydell Press, 2012)..

Online catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Woolley & Wallis, Salisbury: www.woolleyandwallis.co.uk.

J H Bourdon-Smith, London: www.bourdonsmith.co.uk.

 

 

Colwell Wood and Colwell Wood Cottage

Colwell Wood Cottage

Colwell Wood Cottage

In a clearing in the heart of Colwell Wood, in the parish of Offwell, near Honiton in Devon, stands a seemingly insignificant cottage known as Colwell Wood Cottage.  This property, and the land around it, was the subject of one of our first ventures into house history back in the 1980s.  It proved a remarkably rich subject for research, yielding links with some of the most powerful landed families in medieval England, a Napoleonic war hero and a King.

Colwell was never a manor as such, but as a small estate its history can be traced back to the Domesday Book.  As part of much larger estates it passed through the hands of the great aristocratic families of de Courtenay, Hungerford and Hastings.  During the Wars of the Roses, and the period of Yorkist rule between 1461 and 1485, it was held by the ill-fated Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who finally became King Richard III.

The aristocrats were succeeded as landowners in Colwell by the local gentry – Franklin, Collins, Southcott, Marwood and Mayne – some of whose names live on in memorials in Offwell church.  This history of this period was a complex one, since the estate was fragmented, with different pieces of the jigsaw changing hands fairly frequently.

Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, who was second in command to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), bought Colwell Wood in 1798 for £1,210.  In 1805 he gave it to his daughter Mary, and shortly afterwards the Cottage was built.  The wood was a sound investment, for timber fetched high prices, but it had also acquired a new value.  Whereas natural woodland had traditionally been viewed with trepidation, full of danger and mystery, the Romantic age saw it with new eyes.  For those who had leisure, a ramble in the woods was now something to be relished, and the steep wooded dells of Offwell had already won the heart of the parish’s most famous son, Edward Copleston, Bishop of Llandaff, who in 1825 wrote to a friend:

Bluebells in Colwell Wood

Bluebells in Colwell Wood

Natural history is the food of my vacation hours, and I shall take your precious volume with me when I next go to saunter and ramble in my Offwell woods.  It would do my heart good to have you one day to join me in those rambles over the scenes of my infancy …

Thereafter, the dual functions of Colwell Wood can be traced more readily.  It firstly remained a valuable asset with its timber and cover for breeding game birds, and secondly it was a picturesque retreat.  In 1985 Colwell Wood was fortunate in being acquired by an owner who appreciates the natural beauty of the place over and above any commercial interests.  He has funded years of painstaking research, restored the Cottage, and striven to preserve its tranquility and natural habitat for the benefit of future generations.

The results of years of painstaking research are now available in our detailed, illustrated History of Colwell Wood and Cottage.  Pedigrees of the Graves, Mayne, Collins and Marwood-Elton families are included.  The volume will be of value to anyone with an interest in Devon history or in small English estates.  Above all, it demonstrates that no matter how small or apparently insignificant a piece of English property is, dig deep and a rich and varied history may emerge.

A History of Colwell Wood and Cottage is available via Amazon, and its companion volume A History of Offwell, generously sponsored by the same individual and sold in aid of Offwell parish church, can be purchased from Debrett Ancestry Research Ltd.

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.

 

 

 

Creating a Family Biography

We have recently relaunched a service that we first introduced in the 1980s (as our Family Heritage Programme).  We had a number of clients whose ancestry we had already traced, and who were now looking to obtain a lasting summary of their family history in a coherent single volume, to hand on to future generations.  From a series of research reports and a pile of family photographs we created a narrative: the story of the family, from the earliest known generation onwards, illustrated with photographs, maps and including a detailed pedigree chart or family tree.  We now call the final product a Family Biography.

In the 1980s, this involved a lot of travelling around, taking photographs, amassing local information and – quite literally – some physical cutting and pasting.   The process is now much more streamlined, but the finished product is still very much an individually crafted piece: a Family Biography.

A Family Biography will bring your ancestry to life, by setting the story in a wider context.  Just as each family is unique, we believe that each family history deserves individual and thoughtful treatment.   Using contemporary sources, the finished book will not just state (in full detail) what happened and where, but will seek to explain why a family moved to a particular location, or why their fortunes rose or fell.  We may not find all the answers, but setting a family in its historical and geographical context often makes sense of your family’s past.

Half-leather binding

Half-leather binding

Perfect binding

Perfect binding

Standard binding

Standard binding

The final product can be bound in a number of different formats. Craftsman leather binding is still the most popular, or for multiple copies, perfect binding provides a practical and economic finish.

Each biography includes a detailed family tree chart and we can also arrange to have this printed on acid-free paper, suitable for framing.

Prices are quoted individually.

For full details and sample pages see our new Family Biographies website.