Genealogist Elizabeth Walne uncovers the origins of some of the county’s most frequently occurring family names - and reveals which ones are more rare

East Anglian Daily Times: While many surnames are widespread, some are more specific to certain regions and areas Picture: Getty ImagesWhile many surnames are widespread, some are more specific to certain regions and areas Picture: Getty Images (Image: ZoltanFabian)

Surnames are a fascinating subject to study. We all have one - but do we know its origins, and how far widespread it is?

With many last names spanning centuries, some have managed to become popular across the entire country – such as Brown, Smith, Jones and Taylor – while others are more particular to certain areas.

Following extensive research, qualified genealogist Elizabeth Walne has compiled a list of the top 10 surnames that occur most frequently in Essex, based on a baseline in 1881. “Transcriptions always give a bit of ‘wiggle room’ on figures - which is why the in-depth study on each surname is so important,” she says.

Essex differs greatly to Suffolk however, partly due to the fact that its people have migrated around the south of England more – specifically towards London.

“The proximity of Essex to London may well have a part to play in why the multiples and total bearers are sometimes somewhat less than the Suffolk and Norfolk equivalents. Many names were also found in similar numbers in the capital by the turn of the 20th century, which makes them less specific to the county by 1881 - even if they originated in Essex.”


At the top of the list is Allston – as you’re 43 times more likely to meet someone with this surname from Essex than anywhere else. “Although relatively few people were transcribed with a double ‘l’ in 1881, and fewer than 100 are thought to hold the surname today, this spelling does seem to be fairly specific to Essex, especially Colchester and West Bergholt, where some families used it consistently.

“It’s much more frequently found with a single ‘l’ elsewhere, and perhaps comes from the personal name ‘Alstan’, which comes from ‘elf-stone’ or ‘old-stone’. In other parts of the country, there are locative influences as well.”


Lazzell is 35 times more likely to stem from Essex than elsewhere in the country.

“As with many names, it’s worth being careful with transcriptions here - but Lazzell, although unusual, seems to have become a consistent spelling for some families in Essex during the 19th century. Back then, many of those bearing the name could be found between Lexden, Chelmsford and Rochford.

“Layzell and Lazell both have concentrations in Essex and they may all ultimately trace back to Lawshall, across the border in Suffolk.”


If your surname is Ruggles, chances are you have Essex roots.

“Through the mid-19th century, there were consistently more Ruggles residing in Essex than elsewhere else, with many of them around Halstead and just over the border into the Sudbury area.”

With its meaning uncertain, the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names believes it to be a variant of ‘Ruggle’, which is now rare - or extinct, in the eyes of the Dictionary.


“Earlier censuses show most Playles were based in eastern Essex, although many later migrated to London. The name Playle is possibly locative from an unidentified place in Essex, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names, postulating it could mean ‘play, sport’ and ‘hill’ in Old English.”

Playle is found 30 times more in Essex than anywhere else.


Today, there are around 400 more Munsons than there were 130 years ago, and this surname is 27 times more likely to show up in Essex than any other part of the country.

“Munson may well be a relationship name, stemming from the ‘son of Mund’, or a pet form of English names with a ‘-mund’ ending, including ‘Edmund’. In the 1840s and 1850s, it frequently occurred in Lexden and Colchester.”

READ MORE: Suffolk’s top 10 most common surnames


One of the surnames with a more obvious origin, Gentry is likely to come from the Old French word ‘genterie’, meaning ‘nobility of birth or of character’.

“Well over a thousand people are thought to bear the name today, and even in 1841, it was found in many Essex districts, including several families in Bocking.” This surname is 25 times more likely to show up in the county than elsewhere.


If you’re an Owers, you’re 24 times more likely to be from Essex. “In 1841, lots of the Essex Owers could be found around the Dunmow, Braintree and Chelmsford area. The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names suggests the name referred initially to someone living near steep banks or slopes.”


According to Elizabeth, Smee is a particularly Essex surname as far as the baseline data goes. “There are several possibilities when it comes to name origins, but Smee’s roots are shrouded in mystery. The owner of the Smee One-Name Study does not have evidence that the name is a variant of Smeeth, and ultimately Smith, as the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names suggests.”

22 times more likely to occur in Essex, Elizabeth has a few ideas where the Smee name could originate from. “The Middle English ‘smethe’ could refer to someone with smooth skin or hair, or perhaps a calm and gentle manner. I quite like the reference in the dictionary to ‘Smetheberd’, which means ‘smooth beard’. As a third origin story - and they are perhaps all (or none) in the mix - it could be locative to a flat or open place, with a ‘smethe’ being a term in East Anglia for that type of landscape. Future research could uncover another option.”


“Byford is one of the most frequently occurring surnames in this list, and is also over 20 times more likely to be picked at random from Essex than from the UK as a whole. Although most concentrated in Essex, particularly in the first half of the 19th century, there were almost equal numbers in London by 1891. A good number were around Halstead and Great Saling in 1841. The name is most likely locative, meaning literally ‘by the ford’ - although probably not the same one. Today there are well over 1,500 bearers of the surname.”


“A great one to finish off with, Dowsett may come from the Middle English word ‘doucet’, related to ‘doux’, meaning ‘sweet, pleasing, or agreeable’. Having gained several hundred bearers in 130 years, it’s a name that seems to be doing well. In the 1841 census, a sizeable proportion could be found in the Chelmsford area and south of the city into the Rochford area, but it has since spread far and wide.”

On the other end of the spectrum however, there are a handful of surnames that are declining in frequency. Reasons differ as to why some surnames suffer such a fate – perhaps the bearers don’t carry the name on, or the spelling of a surname has changed so drastically over the years, it has become totally separate from the original.

The following rare surnames are quite specific to Essex, and had less than 200 holders in 1881 - and still did as of 2016. The below figures have been taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names.

- Saines: 96 in 1881; 134 in 2016

- Whybrew: 101 in 1881; to 82 in 2016

- Angier: 123 in 1881; 149 in 2016

- Straight: 105 in 1881; 112 in 2016

- Knopp: 122 in 1881; 158 in 2016

- Marrable: 133 in 1881; 165 in 2016

Do you have one of these surnames mentioned, or a variation? Or have you researched your surname and found some fascinating results? Get in touch with to share your story.