Suffolk’s top 10 most common surnames
- Credit: Archant
Genealogist Elizabeth Walne uncovers the origins of some of the county’s most common family names - and reveals which ones could become extinct.
We all love delving deep into our family histories and finding out where we come from - but do you know where your surname comes from?
Some Suffolk surnames span centuries, and have some incredibly interesting origins.
Elizabeth Walne is a qualified genealogist based in East Anglia, and is here to explain where some of Suffolk’s most common surnames come from, how popular they are and why certain surnames could be on the cusp of dying out.
But to understand the lexicology of surnames, we should first get to grips with where they come from and how they came into being.
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“Surnames arrived with the Norman barons after 1066, but it took some time for them to become ‘sticky’ to family lines, and to be passed down among ‘ordinary’ people. It is generally agreed that by about 1400, most English families used a hereditary surname - but not always as rigidly as we might imagine.”
Historians have since been able to categorise surnames into one of eight types – locative, occupational, postholder, patronymic, matronymic, diminutive forename, genitive and nickname.
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Locative is the most common kind, and is in reference to the place that someone had lived or came from, and could refer to either a geographical feature, such as Green, or a particular place, such as Hastings.
Examples of occupational or postholder surnames include Abbot or Draper, or Bailey respectively. A patronymic surname is derived from the father’s name (i.e Richardson), whereas a matronymic surname, which is less common, is derived from the mother’s name (i.e Margetson), and a diminutive forename is a first name that has been altered to become a surname (i.e Bartlett, which is an altered version of the given name Bartholomew.).
Genitive surnames imply ownership of some sort, i.e Squires - and an example of a nickname surname would be Short.
“It sounds simple, but people are nothing if not endlessly creative, and the spellings of British surnames have not been standardised for very much longer than the eldest of our population have been alive. When you think about how many pieces of post you get with an incorrect surname spelling, even in the digital age, you can see how names have had the opportunity to evolve and for spellings to vary over the centuries since surnames first became the norm.
“Many a beginner family historian will have bemoaned the ‘wrong’ spelling in the search room over the years. But the truth is that until we had to write surnames down frequently and consistently, different spellings were recorded phonetically - and interchangeably - by various clergy and authorities. Inevitably, some individuals will have deliberately changed names, but most have ended up where they are following a process of variation.”
“It only adds to the variation when you consider that even long ago, people moved surprising distances. Incorporating different accents and levels of literacy into the mix, this variation resulted in names that now sound, or look, utterly foreign to each other even though they have the same origin. Even siblings sometimes signed marriage registers with different spellings to each other, and I’ve found headstones of husband and wife - right next to each other in the churchyard - with variations, too. This glorious variety has resulted in well over 45,000 surnames in the UK today.”
With just under 50,000 surnames in use across the country, it’s no surprise that some last names are more common than others. We all know a Brown, a Smith, a Jones or a Williams – but did you know some surnames are very Suffolk-centric?
Elizabeth has rounded up 10 surnames that if you were to meet someone with one of these last names, they’re several times more likely to be from Suffolk than anywhere else in the country.
“I’ve selected these names from a much more extensive list from 1881 census transcriptions. They appear because they are of a reasonably high frequency, but also specificity, to Suffolk. I don’t doubt that many readers will instantly see themselves, or know of friends, relatives, alumni and colleagues that share these names today.”
You are 60 times more likely to pick at random someone with the surname Mouser in Suffolk than across the general population as a whole. “This surname either stems from the plant mouse-ear hawkweed, or was a nickname for someone that hunted mice - there’s no straight-forward answer here. Early entries of this name stem from Norfolk, but by 1881 it was much more common in Suffolk. There are clusters of it in various places, but it was particularly prominent around Badingham, Boulge and Cratfield in 1881.”
Someone who’s called Pallant is 55 times more likely to be living in or coming from Suffolk. “This was the top surname by frequency in 1881, with plenty of Pallants living in surrounding villages and the seaside town of Aldeburgh. It is possible Pallant is a variant of Palling, which is locative to Sea Palling over in Norfolk.”
The surname Arbon is 46 times more common in Suffolk than anywhere else in the UK. “Arbon is possibly from the Middle-English forename ‘Arbern’, which was particularly common, again in 1881, in places north and south of Bury St Edmunds.”
“The surname Last actually has a well-established One-Name Study on it, run by my colleague Simon Last, and you’re 43 times more likely to meet a Last here in Suffolk than anywhere else. There are several possible origins for the name, including it being an occupational name, going from ‘Laster’ to ‘Last’, and in Dutch (in this area, many of our ancestors crossed the sea), it can be a nickname for an awkward character. In 1851, almost 1,000 of nearly 1,500 Lasts across the country were residents of Suffolk. Since then, their numbers have grown significantly - you can’t go far in Suffolk without bumping into one.”
“A large cluster of Garnhams surrounded Ipswich, with another cluster in Rickinghall, near Diss. Intriguingly, Garnham could come from, via variation, the Old French word for ‘moustache’.” You’re 40 times more likely to come across a Garnham in Suffolk than anywhere else.
“The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names suggests that Fisk is a variant of Fish, of Old Scandinavian ‘fiskr’ or Old English ‘fisc’. Therefore, related initially to someone with a job involving fish, or, potentially someone that resembled one! There certainly would have been plenty of the former in this part of the world, and there are several down the eastern coast, although nowhere near as many as Suffolk in the Victorian period. Dennington and Gislingham, among other villages, had several Fisks in 1871.”
“Large numbers of Garrods have been found around Ipswich, Woodbridge and up to Saxmundham through the 19th century. This surname possibly derives from the personal name ‘Gerad’ via ‘Garrett’, and then to the common Suffolk form of Garrod.”
“I’m not sure I’d immediately agree with the Oxford Dictionary of Family Name here, because it suggests that Newson is a locative origin from several north-country places of Newsome or similar. That’s not impossible by any means, but this one is crying out for a One-Namer to postulate a theory for the Suffolk families bearing the Newson name, as there were large numbers of Newsons from Lowestoft across to Framlingham as well as elsewhere.”
“In 1841, more than a quarter of Suffolk Lings were residing in Plomesgate, a district encompassing Framlingham, Wickham Market, Campsea Ashe and many other villages. The origins of ‘Ling’ are probably locative, either from the place ‘Lyng’ in Norfolk, ‘Ling Hill’ in Blythburgh or named after areas of heather and heathland, which were once known as ling.”
“In Suffolk, some believe Bloomfield, Blomfield and Blomefield have come from the place name of Blonville-sur-Mer in Normandy. Yet it could be simpler than this, relating to ‘blom’ for ‘flower’ and ‘feld’ for ‘field’. Either way, the heat map for Bloomfield - down from Norfolk and around to Kent, peaking here in Suffolk - suggests influences from beyond the sea, whether Norman or otherwise. There have been Bloomfields across much of the county for centuries, with a good proportion in central Suffolk.”
With a number of common Suffolk surnames successfully standing the test of time, regardless of origin, what about those on the verge of dying out?
“Once a surname declines to the point that less than 200 people bearing it, it is considered ‘at risk’. Some of those that are on the brink or perhaps even extinct include Bythesea, Bytheseashore, Relish, Berrycloth and Spinster.”
But why is that?
“Sometimes, of course, surnames are deliberately changed to avoid embarrassment or for other reasons, and perhaps their holders are relieved to see the back of them. Others just get lost over time, as for the last few centuries, in England at least, women have generally taken on their husband’s surname and passed that to their children. With this process not being as universal as it once was, it will be interesting to see how future surname distribution changes.”
If you’re interested in delving deeper into the roots of your own surname, Elizabeth has a number of tips that you can use to help you get started.
“During the first lockdown, free access was given to the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names for a time, and it’s now available for free online through many libraries. While it is undoubtedly the result of an enormous undertaking, take the analysis with a pinch of salt. It is an introduction, but the researchers were understandably not able to do exhaustive research related to each of the almost 50,000 surnames. Many entries rely on transcriptions, and as regular researchers will appreciate, these aren’t always accurate. Still, it can be an interesting jumping-off point, if not providing you with the whole story.
“You can also look for a One-Name Study for your surname. If there isn’t one, perhaps you could register one and start researching all the bearers of the surname yourself. Many One-Namers have been researching their study for decades, and the conclusions they come to through documentary and DNA evidence are usually far more reliable than the Google results that are keen to explain your surname and sell you a coat of arms.”
Do you have one of these surnames mentioned, or a variation? Or is your surname at risk of going extinct? Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.