The origin of English surnames 1: work and status

By , June 14, 2009 3:44 am

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.

William Rufus, King of England, from a contemporary illustration

William Rufus, King of England, from a contemporary illustration


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.

Occupational surnames

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:

  • Archer
  • Baker
  • Carter
  • Cook
  • Carpenter
  • Driver
  • Miller
  • Taylor
  • Weaver



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.

A 16th century Fuller at work

A 16th century Fuller at work

Examples include:

  • Arkwright
  • Bailey
  • Barker
  • Cartwright
  • Chapman
  • Cooper
  • Fletcher
  • Fuller
  • Turner
  • Wainwright
  • Ward
  • Wheelwright
  • Wright

“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.

"The Hay Wain", an 1821 painting by John Constable

"The Hay Wain", an 1821 painting by John Constable

“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.

False Friends

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.

Status surnames

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

34 Responses to “The origin of English surnames 1: work and status”

  1. John Percy says:

    “Fletchers made arrows, a now obsolete term.”

    I beg to differ. I am a fletcher by trade and I do not consider myself obsolete. I have many friends who are fletchers and I teach a course in fletching, so the tradition carries on. As a traditional archer I make my own bows, so I am a bowyer as well.

  2. Mike says:

    How is the word turner obsolete? There are thousands of wood turners around the world, I would place a bet that there even a few with the family name of Turner. I also know for a fact that cooper is still in use as there are many coopers making the worlds barrels for wine, whiskey etc.

    • avjones says:

      It’s certainly a trade which isn’t wholly historic, but there are a lot fewer turners and coopers than they used to be. I reckon most people wouldn’t know what either term meant in relation to work, what do you think?

    • mmm says:

      “I would place a bet that there even a few with the family name of Turner”
      i know/know of at least 10 different families with the surname turner… it’s not very rare.
      i’m english by the way

    • Phill says:

      I agree with Mike, I hope Turner is not an obsolete occupation as at the moment I am currently am a Turner (CNC Turner to be exact!)

    • Lauren says:

      I think you are missing the point. Of course there are plenty of people with these surnames because these jobs were once common and the surname passed down the families. The point is, the jobs are no longer common and as such, a lot of people are unaware of their origin.

  3. E. Carr says:

    what about surnames based on where people live?
    such as Carr, mean someone who traditionally lived near a bog :) (no, not as in a toilet :P )

  4. Steve says:

    I know this is English surnames, but the old ‘son of’ thing comes to play in lots of languages. In English we have names like Stephenson or Thomson and in Welsh they had Ab Huw (son of Huw) which became Pugh over time.

    Surnames are very interesting!

  5. I found your article interesting and informative. Even though now I am a social worker, I was originally a aircraft mechanic. I wonder If I would be Chris the Aircraft Mechanic if it was still used today. I think I wouldn’t mind that.

    • avjones says:

      Maybe something a bit briefer, though, like “Chris the Plane-man”. Aircraft Mechanic would be a bit of a mouthful for a surname! And Chris Planeman would distinguish you from Chris the Builder down the road, or Chris, son of John in the next street.

  6. Gary L Skeers says:

    Is Skeer surname a English name. There are letters that as far as King James I and the name had different spellings up to the current Skeers spelling. I could be Irish or Scottish. Is there an expert that knows this. Skeer/Skear came to the United States in the 1750′s.

    • Hobittual says:

      Mr Skeers. You relinquish all rights as an English man when you go to the colonies. But Americans tell us that the US is the best country in the world, although they refuse to justify why, so why the interest now? Would you like to be connected with a Brit with bad teeth, horrible food and socialist medicine?

      • Gary Skeers says:

        yeah why not i need to know how the name come about

        • Skeers probably derives from the place name Skiers, there are several small places in the Barnsley area of South Yorkshire England called Skiers. One at Hoyland Common, one at Hemingfield now lost, and another is an area of Brierley. A John Skyrys of Alderthwaite is named in a Yorkshire deed dated 1452, and a family called de Skyers is recorded in a Yorkshire deed dated1596. De Skiers means from or born in Skiers.

  7. Bill Stone says:

    Any ideas on the origins of Slinger? I married one
    Their understanding is that it too is associated with bow making. My thoughts are that it’s more likely to be a port or dock working occupation – i.e. the roping and slinging of cargoes to and from vessels

  8. Steve Turner says:

    Small point; Henry I was Beauclerk, not Curthose. Beauclerk meant ‘learned’, as he was the only one of the family to learn to read (and also pretty sneaky to boot, as both his brothers would find out to their costs). Curthose was applied to his older brother Robert, Duke of Normandy.

  9. rt-sails says:

    Wrights worked with wood, as oppposed to Smiths who worked with metal. If the type of metal wasn’t specified, it was usually iron — a blacksmith.

    I’m not so sure we should credit the Normans for surnames — not in the sense of family names passed down from fathers to all their children. The practice of adding a sobriquet was usual practice before the Normans, e.g., the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor (who lost to William the Conqueror) and Scots king Malcolm Canmore. William’s father was Robert, often called Deville, but more often “the Magnificent”. William’s sons all had different 2nd appellations, as did Henry’s.

    I believe we didn’t see true surnames in England until the Crusaders came through Venice on their way back from the wars and copied the practice in the late 12th century. Still, only the aristocracy had that privilege; it wasn’t until the Black Plague’s aftermath that common people needed to be told from each other so their taxes could be collected. That puts the date sometime in the reign of Edward III or after — mid-14th to early 15th centuries — about 300+ years after the Battle of Hastings.

  10. Carol B. says:

    My dad’s family came from England three generations ago. The last name was East. What would that name have come from?

  11. Lindsay says:

    What about Brown?

  12. Kate J £ngland says:

    My surname is England, what would that mean? My father picked up a history of the surname England but I’m not sure if that would apply to our family. Also, I’m American. :)

  13. Mike Ambrose says:

    England: Somebody from England. Ancestor possibly lived in another area of the British Isles (i.e. Scotland, Wales, etc.) during the 13th/12th/11th century, and had originally come from England.

    Brown refers to an ancestor whom had Brown hair. Just as Gray/Grey is derived from Grey hair, though other definitions may apply. Black refers again to hair colour or attribute of the same colour, not skin.

    East refers to an old anglo-saxon name that denotes somebody living in the East of a settlement, which seems to have been carried forth into the medieval period.

    Slinger may refer to somebody who slung rope round building stone. It may refer to someones nickname as a fine shot with a sling, or that he was commonly armed with a sling, i.e. hunters/soldiers. It is derived from Slingen of the old english refering to building work involving stone hoisting.

    -son suffixes refer to sons of the ancestor, i.e. Stevenson or shortened to Stevens, or from the Anglo-Norman, though not as common today FitzStephen. In welsh, ‘Gwillim ap Rhodri’ refers to William son of Roderick. However if the patronymic started with a vowel you would end up with ‘ab’ instead of ‘ap’, e.g. ‘Huw ab Owain’ – Hugh son of Owen. Mac and Mc, refer to the founder of the clan in question, i.e. MacGregor or McDonald.

    Simple surnames like my own, ‘Ambrose’ are derived from a single ancestor named Ambrose. The same is true for Ricky Gervais, whose ancestor would be Gervais/Gervase.

    Placenames, i.e. ‘Stephen Winchester, de Winchester’ refer to either Stephen as Stephen Winchester or as Stephen of Winchester, both meaning the same thing. Another example would be Walter de la Wode ‘Walter of the Wood’.

    Just a few pointers here that I’ve studied and come across, I hope they’ll be useful.

  14. Mike Ambrose says:

    Oh, quick addendum. FitzStephen refers to anglo-norman prefix to a patronymic, that is not restricted to royalty. For sons of royalty, see FitzRoy (Son of the King).

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