Occupational Surnames in Britain

Author: The Forgotten Family, https://www.theforgottenfamily.co.uk

In this post, I am going to talk about one of the types of English surnames – the occupational surname. I will start by briefly liking at the history and evolution of the use of surnames in Britain.

cooper-illustrationThe first question I am going to address is “why do we have surnames?” There is a simple answer to this, namely that it helps us identify people. The pool of first names is limited, so while a single name is adequate for identifying people in smaller communities, as the population expands it becomes necessary to add further identifiers, such as a surname.[i] We can look at last year’s naming statistics as an example. In 2015, there were 697,852 live births in England and Wales and although there were over 27,000 boys’ names and over 35,000 girls’ names used, the top 100 names accounted for approximately half of all first names given. What that means, is that out of the nearly 700,000 children named last year, the 200 most popular names (boys’ and girls’ names combined) were given to roughly 350,000 children.[ii] With such a large duplication of names it becomes necessary to add additional identifiers. Just think back to the school yard days. I am sure most of us had nicknames that allowed us to distinguish between Thomas A and Thomas B in our class. Surnames provide an official way of doing this alongside national identification number systems such as the National Insurance Number, Social Security Number, or Central Persons Register systems. Another feature of English surnames is that they are largely hereditary and passed down through the paternal line. In addition to identification on an individual level, this also allows, to some extent, identification on a family level. As we shall see below, the system of hereditary patrilinear surnames were introduced during the medieval period.

Prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066 hereditary surnames were practically non-existent in Britain. People would simply be identified by their first name and possibly by a nickname, which could relate to their place of birth, an object, a physical feature, their occupation, etc. although this practice was by no means standardised. While the formal use of identifying surnames introduced by the Norman barons did not take immediate effect, the practice eventually spread across the country. By around 1400, most English families and those from lowland Scotland were using hereditary surnames passed down through the paternal line. [iii] English surnames can generally be divided into five categories; locational, occupational, patronymic, nicknames, and baptismal names. In this post, we are going to be looking at only occupational surnames.

Occupational surnames, as the name suggests, are derived from a person’s occupation. This type of surname has been used since before the Norman Conquest, although rarely hereditary prior to this. They were initially used as a way to identify members of a community and distinguish them from each other. So, in one community you may have had Edward the Smith, Edward the Thatcher, and Edward the Miller. The son of Edward the Miller might have been a cooper, so he might have become known at Richard the Cooper. These surnames eventually turned hereditary and became the Smith, Thatcher, Miller, and Cooper (and many others) families of today.


Modern distribution of the Smith surname

When doing genealogy research, it is worth remembering that occupational surnames are polygenetic and do not have a single point of origin. Take for example the Cooper surname. In 2002, there were roughly 124,712 individuals bearing the Cooper family name. All of these have not descended from a single Cooper ancestor. What it does mean is that the various Cooper families that exist today have descended directly from one or other of the several thousandunrelated medieval head-of-family bearing the name Cooper.[iv]

The distribution and high frequency of occupational surnames today attest to the importance of the various occupations during the medieval period. Today, the most common surname in the UK is Smith – other occupational surnames amongst the 25 most common surnames in the UK are Walker, Wright, Taylor, and Clarke.[v]

[i] BBC 2011. What’s In a Name? Your Link to the Past. Retrieved 25 January 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/get_started/surnames_01.shtml

[ii] Office for National Statistics 2016. Baby Names in England and Wales: 2015. Retrieved 25 January 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/babynamesenglandandwales/2015

[iii] Hanks, P., Coates, R. and McClure, P. (eds.) 2016. Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland, volume 1. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Embury-Dennis, T. 2016 The 25 Most Common Surnames in Britain – and What They Say about Your Family History. The Independent, Friday 18 November 2016.


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