A brief history of surnames in England
Surnames, in the sense of a fixed family name which passed down through the generations, came to England from the 11th century onwards, and pretty much universally during the 13th and 14th centuries.
In most towns, villages and areas before that, people would often have extra tags added to their names. If a village had 6 men called John in it, people would talk about John the Baker, John by the Church, John the Tall, and so forth. But John the Baker’s son Henry would, if he became a carpenter, be Henry the Carpenter, as an adult, not Henry Baker.
Surnames started off as an aristocratic idea – there may have been a few in Anglo-Saxon times, but the Norman Barons who came over with William the Conqueror really kicked it off.
William is a great example of pre-surnames – he was William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard, to his detractors) but his son, who followed him as King, was William Rufus (the red) because he had red hair or a red face. William the Conqueror’s next son to become King of England, Henry I, was commonly called Henry Curthose, because he wore short-lenght hose on his legs.
Many English surnames derive from occupations. As the 13th and 14th centuries drew on, John the Baker’s son was called Henry Baker, even if he followed another trade altogether.
The most common English surname today is “Smith”, as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths and so forth were abundant across England.
Obvious occupation-related surnames
Other fairly common surnames show an obvious link to trades and occupations:
Obsolete occupations and words
In many cases, surnames come from occupations which don’t exist any more, or where the word for the occupation has changed over time, and therefore the origin of the surname isn’t obvious.
“Bailey” is a corruption of “Bailiff”, a person who helped establish law and order, and often helped run a large, powerful aristocratic or gentry household. Bailliffs were also Royal Officials in towns and shires, to help keep the King’s Peace.
A barker was a man who tanned leather – so the surnames “Tanner” and “Barker” have a common origin. Tanning leather was a filthy line of work, involving rotting animal remains, and urine and dog muck used to cure the skins.
A chapman was a man who sold things, often a travelling salesman with a pack full of items such as needles, thread, and nails.
A cooper had an important job in any community, he made barrels. Many things were stored in barrels – beer, ale, wine, salt, flour and grain, for example. “Cooper” is a common English surname, as lots of barrels were made and used.
Fletchers made arrows, a now obsolete term. “Fletching” applied specifically to the process of balancing the arrow with fins or feathers, but the term “Fletcher” was used for arrow-makers in general.
“Turner” means a man who turned things on a lathe, usually to create wooden objects such as table-legs or poles.
“Ward” comes from someone who guarded or protected something, often a town’s or city’s walls. Similar words such as “warden” have a common origin.
“Wright” means a person who makes things, from the Old English word wryhta, meaning “worker”. So an Arkwright made chests and cupboards, a Cartwright made carts, a Wainwright made wagons or carts (from an old word wain, meaning wagon / cart) and a Wheelwright made wheels.
Some surnames look obvious, such as “Walker”, but the origins are actually different from what we might suppose. The surname Walker doesn’t derive from someone walking for a living, or being a messenger. A walker was a man who helped full cloth, that is, turn it into tougher, less shrinkable woolen material. It comes from the Middle English word walkcere, meaning a man who fulls cloth with his feet. The surnames “Fuller” and “Tucker” refer to men who worked in fulling cloth, too.
“Butler” is another false friend – it is partly an occupational surname, from the Old French word bouteillier, or servant in charge of wine supplies. There is a separate origin for the surname for descendants of Theobald Walter, who was a 12th century politician.
Many surnames appear to show a high-ranking status, such as Bishop, Lord, Duke, and King. In most cases, the surname was started by a man who was in the employ or service of a Lord or Bishop, rather than actually being one himself.
For the next blog post in this series, please see: Origin of English surnames 2: patronymics or father’s first name