How unusual or common your family names are can have a big impact on how easy you will find it to research your family tree. Most people who are researching all their lines, and not just the people carrying their family name, will find a variety in their tree. I have both very common names like Smith, Jones and Clarke in my tree, as well as the much rarer Earwaker, Jearrad and Spivey.
What can be surprising, is to find out that while surnames were quickly adopted in some places after the beginning of the Norman kings in the 11th and 12th centuries, in others, like Cornwall, Dorset and Wales, surnames weren’t fixed until much later – in some cases not until the early 19th century.
Before the Norman conquest, English people (many with an Anglo-Saxon lineage) tended to call their children by a unique name. That’s why you have so many Kings with odd names, rather than a run of the same name before 1066. Aethelwulf, Aethelbald, Aethelbert, not three Aethelwulfs. Naming conventions were more like the American Indian sort – they gave names to children which reflected their personal qualities or qualities they might aspire to. There was no need to add a family name or surname if your name was unique.
After 1066, people all over the country rapidly adopted Norman and biblical names for their children, and suddenly there were large numbers of Williams, Johns, Humphreys, Roberts, Bernards… it’s amazing how quickly the way in which the English named their children changed. And once you have five Johns living in close proximity, you need a way of identifying one from another.
There were several ways in which people were identified, and those ways led to the surnames we have now. They might refer to a person’s appearance – so they might be Redhead, Small, or Strong. They might refer to their profession – Smith, Clarke, Butcher, or Priest. They might refer to where someone lived: Hill, Undercroft, or Wood for example. They might refer to a place like Openshaw, Bradford, or Birmingham. They might refer to a family relationship – like Johnson, Jones, or Jameson.
What many people don’t know, is that surnames weren’t necessarily fixed in the early years, in many places. Thus, you might have three brothers who went by entirely different surnames… one might be Smith because of his profession, one might be Strong because of his physique, and another might be Underhill, because of the place he lived in. For some time, the concept of a fixed surname was quite foreign – and in some places this was something that carried on for centuries.
You’re pretty safe in assuming that surnames will not change about in the 20th and 19th centuries, except for the most remote communities in Cornwall, but beyond that, it is best to keep an open mind about it. In my own family, the Jearrad family from Milton Abbas in Dorset, seem to have used Jearrad and Dirent as interchangeable surnames until David Dirent Jearrad adopted one as a middle name and the other as a surname which was fixed from that generation onwards.
One possible situation which can cause surname confusion is illegitimacy, where a baby is given the name of his or her mother instead of the father. This can mislead especially if the child later adopts his or her father’s surname. It can be even more difficult to unravel if the mother later marries the father, because it is difficult to know if the illegitimate child is actually the son of the husband or a previous partner… sometimes traditional forenames in families can help unravel the case.
Whatever stage you have reached in your family history, keeping a list of surnames, with location and dates, which you add to as you research, can be a very useful aide-memoire.