Guide to North East Surnames: F

North East Surnames: Faa to French

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Faa surname

Northern Gypsy surname

This was the name of a prominent Border gypsy clan who also sometimes used the spelling ‘Faw’. The clan was centred upon Yetholm in the Scottish Borders just outside the region but included ‘gypsy kings’ whose influence spread throughout the North of England.

Fairbairn surname

Primarily a Scottish surname

A Scottish surname especially in south east Scotland but with a notable North East presence. Fairbairn was listed by Henry Guppy as a surname ‘peculiar’ to Northumberland.

In legend the first member of the Armstrong family was originally a Fairbairn. Surprisingly, early records of this surname point to Yorkshire where the surname featured in the Subsidy Rolls (1297) and poll tax returns (1379). The surname simply refers to a ‘beautiful child’.

In 1881 there were 2,313 Fairbairns in the Great Britain census. Of these, 1,317 lived in Scotland. The remaining 996 were spread across England with 497 of these in the three northern counties of Northumberland (291), Durham (171) and Cumberland (30). Yorkshire and Lancashire were home to 94 and 47 Fairbairns respectively.

Fawcett surname

Primarily a Yorkshire name

Early records of the surname occur in Scotland, Lancashire, Cumberland and Yorkshire. The name comes from Forcett, a place in the Richmondshire area of North Yorkshire only two miles south of the River Tees to the south west of Darlington. It is close to the famous Iron Age hillfort of Stanwick.

The Fawcett name has a connection with the City of Sunderland where Fawcett Street, built on land that belonged to a Christopher Fawcett, is a principal thoroughfare of that city.

High Street West Sunderland
19th century view of High Street West in Sunderland near the junction with Fawcett Street

In 1881 of the 6,764 Fawcetts (with some variations of the spelling) in Great Britain there were 3,219 residing in Yorkshire. County Durham was a home to 636 Fawcetts and Lancashire 683. There were 275 in Lincolnshire, 204 in Cumberland and 186 in Northumberland.

Westmorland was home to 218 Fawcetts in 1881, a significant number given this county’s relatively tiny population (see introduction). It was the 37th most common surname in Westmorland but did not feature in the top fifty surnames for any of the other northern counties. There were 105 Fawcetts in Scotland with the remaining mostly focused upon London and the South East.

Featherstonehaugh surname

Surname of Northumberland origin

This very long surname which fools many who try to pronounce every syllable. It should be pronounced ‘Fanshaw’. The surname derives from a place called Featherstonehaugh near Haltwhistle in Northumberland. If we take the name to pieces it means the ‘riverside meadow near the feather-shaped stone’.

A William Fetherstonehalgh and Richard Fetherstonehalgh are featured in Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80) in relation to Stanhope and  Wolsingham  while a John Fetherstonehaghe is recorded in the survey called the Visitation of Durham in 1575 in connection with Stanhope. In Northumberland a famous member of the family name was Albany Featherstonehaugh, a sixteenth century High Sheriff of Northumberland who was murdered by a band of notorious Tynedale thieves called the Ridleys and Thirlwalls. The murder is commemorated in a ballad by the Victorian historian of County Durham Robert Surtees of Mainsforth:

Hoot awa’ lads, hoot awa’,

Ha’ ye heard how the Ridleys

and Thirlwalls and a’,

had set upon Albany Featherstonehaugh

and taken his life at the Deadmanshaw.

There was Williemontswick and Hardriding Dick

and Hughie o’ Hawden and Will o’ the wa’

I canno tell a’ I canno tell a’,

there was many a mair that the Devil may knaw

The verse fooled Sir Walter Scott who thought it was a genuine ancient ballad. The Featherstonehaugh surname (along with Featherstonhaugh and Fetherstonehaugh) surname occurs a little over a hundred times in the 1881 census, consisting of a small number of families spread across the country including Northumberland and Durham.

A Sir Thomas Fetherstonhalgh was an MP for County Durham from 1679 and a Matthew Fetherstonehaugh was the Mayor of Newcastle in 1711 and in 1723.

The shorter surname Featherstone was described by Henry Guppy as a ‘Weardale clan’, though it has an important presence in North Yorkshire.

There were 2,704 Featherstone individuals in the 1881 census, primarily in Yorkshire (722) and in Durham (328) with only 28 in Northumberland, with most of the rest spread across the south of England. A rarer variation Featherston (without the ‘e’ at the end) had a similar pattern of distribution but with only 299 individuals, Yorkshire (105) and Durham (76) being the most prominent for this surname.

Fenwick surname

Border Reiver family surname Northumberland surname

Robert de Ffenwick (sic) is the first recorded person of the surname Fenwick and lived in the Scottish Borders around 1220. The next recorded Fenwicks are Walter del Feneweke in Lincolnshire 1275 and Thomas de Fenwyck of Northumberland in 1279. The surname derives from a place-name. There is a Fenwick north of Belford in north Northumberland and a Fenwick near Stamfordham in the south of the county and Fenwick north of Doncaster in Yorkshire. Fenwick Tower near Matfen in Northumberland was the home of a Henry Fenwick (Henrici Fenwyke) in the survey of Northumberland castle and towers compiled in 1415.

Wallington Hall.
Wallington Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Northumberland and Scottish Fenwicks were a famous border clan found on both sides of the border and are thought to take their name from Fenwick near Kyloe in Northumberland (north of Belford). Fenwick means ‘the farm or trading place on the fen’. Some Fenwicks, with origins slightly further south, may take their name from the Fenwick in Yorkshire. Fenwicks seem to have achieved notoriety throughout their history and were frequently involved in the Border troubles of Tudor and Elizabethan times. A Cuthbert Fenwick of South Shields and a Tristram Fenwicke of Brinkburn in Northumberland were known supporters of the Rising of the North in 1569.

Their historic family seats included Kirkharle, Bywell on Tyne and the peel tower at Wallington which later made way for the site of Wallington Hall near Morpeth. During the Civil War, a Northumbrian called Sir John Fenwick was killed at Marston Moor, but it is a descendant of the same name, who lived during the reign of King William of Orange, who has gained greater fame.

This Sir John Fenwick was beheaded for High Treason after conspiring to murder the Dutch born protestant King of England. Sir John’s property and estate were confiscated by King William, who came into possession of Fenwick’s horse called Sorrel. This horse was later to throw the king from its saddle after it stumbled near a mole hill in the grounds of Hampton Court. Shortly afterwards King William died from his injuries. The horse had thus fulfilled the wishes of its original master. A number of Fenwicks were High Sheriffs of Northumberland and one of Newcastle’s oldest houses commemorates an Alderman of the city of the name Fenwick.

Alderman Fenwick's House
Alderman Fenwick’s House, Pilgrim Street, Newcastle © David Simpson 2021

The Fenwicks were certainly of high influence in Newcastle’s government in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. In the list of mayors of Newcastle upon Tyne, the name Nicholas Fenwick occurs in 1682, 1697, 1720, 1727, 1636, 1746 and in 1747. Nicholas Fenwick was also Newcastle’s MP from 1727-47. A Robert Fenwick was Mayor in 1708 and Cuthbert Fenwick Mayor in 1727 and 1739.

Several Fenwicks were MPs for Northumberland as far back as 1378 when a Sir John Fenwick was MP for the county. A notable Sir John Fenwick of later times was MP for the county on numerous occasions during the seventeenth century as was William Fenwick and Robert Fenwick. Another John Fenwick was MP for the county in 1741 and there was a Sunderland MP by the name of Henry Fenwick in 1855.

Fenwick, Northumberland Street
Fenwick, Northumberland Street © David Simpson 2021

The famed Fenwick Department store in Newcastle upon Tyne was established by John James Fenwick (born Richmond, North Yorkshire, 1846) in Newcastle in 1882 initially as a shop selling silks and fabrics but was broadened into a department store by John’s son Fred Fenwick.

In 1881 there were 4,247 Fenwicks in Great Britain with the most significant number residing in the northern counties and Scotland. There were 1,203 Fenwicks in Durham; 705 in Northumberland; 30 in Cumberland; 631 in Yorkshire and 140 in Lancashire with 467 found in Scotland.

See also Sir John Fenwick in our hall of fame.

Ferry surname

Brawn-killing surname from ‘Ferry on ye Hill’

There were 1,720 individuals called Ferry, Ferrow or Ferrie in Great Britain in 1881. Of these 660 were resident in Scotland particularly Lanarkshire (the Glasgow area) where the surname predominantly occurred in the form ‘Ferrie’. A significant number of the heads of households for these Scottish Ferries were born in Ireland (where variations of the Ferry surname are of note, particularly in Ulster).

In England the surname with the spelling Ferry predominates over the spelling Ferrie. The county with the highest number of Ferrys in 1881 was County Durham with 224 (20 of whom used a spelling Ferrey) but the typical Scottish-Irish variation Ferrie does not occur at all in the County Durham census details.

Old Manor House Ferryhill
Old Manor House Ferryhill. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Of the Ferrys (and Ferreys) in County Durham, only 6 gave their birthplace as Ireland, of which only one was a family head with the majority of the Durham Ferrys born in the county. In Northumberland there are 70 individuals with the Ferry name or its variants and curiously around half of these are recorded with the spelling ‘Ferrow’ (perhaps a completely different name) with the remainder mostly using ‘Ferry’.

It looks like there may be more than one origin for these different surnames with a less common variant perhaps originating in Ireland. Although it has been suggested that the Ferry name might derive from Ferrybridge in Yorkshire (there is a mention of a John Del Fery in the Poll tax returns for Yorkshire in 1379) it seems that Ferryhill in County Durham is the most likely source for the surname.

From the previous century, a Walter De Ferie is mentioned with regard to the year 1217 in the Feodarium Prioratus Dunelmensis which was a survey of the estates of the prior and convent of Durham (a compilation made in the fifteenth century highlighting land grants of earlier centuries). In Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80) a Thos Ferry is mentioned in connection with Stanhope.

Ferryhill in County Durham was historically simply called ‘Ferry’ in medieval times and the very earliest recorded spelling of the place-name is ‘Feregenne’ which points to an Anglo-Saxon word ‘fergen’ meaning ‘hill’ so Ferryhill means ‘hill hill’.

Cleves Cross
Cleves Cross and views. Photo © David Simpson 2018

According to the Durham historian, Robert Surtees, in legend a Hodge (or Roger) of Ferry (Roger De Fery) was a champion hero who around the year 1200 captured and killed the notorious Brancepeth Brawn – a huge wild boar – that had terrorised County Durham. It was captured near Ferry (Ferryhill) at a site marked by Cleve’s Cross.

A notable Ferry from the North East is the singer and songwriter Bryan Ferry best known as the lead singer in the band Roxy Music who was born at Washington in County Durham.

Fishburn surname

County Durham and Yorkshire surname

This surname is likely from the village of Fishburn near Sedgefield in County Durham, which of course means ‘fish stream’ –  a reference to the River Skerne. Of the 457 Fishburns (and variations) in the 1881 census for Great Britain 119 resided in County Durham all with the spelling ‘Fishburn’. In Yorkshire the surname occurred 202 times but 11 of these were recorded with the spelling ‘Fishbourn’ or ‘Fishbourne’.

In Northumberland there were 11 Fishburns but no occurrences of the Fishbourn variant. In Lancashire there were 21 Fishburns and 4 Fishbournes. In the Midlands Fishburn did not occur but there were 20 Fishbournes or Fishbourns with the remainder in the London and East Anglia regions being a mix of Fishbourn(e) and Fishburn. Fishburn was clearly the dominant name with a focus in Durham and Yorkshire.

A Richard de Fisseburn is mentioned in the Curia Regis Rolls for Leicestershire in 1206 and the name first occurs in Durham about 1250 as mentioned in the Feodarium prioratus Dunelmensis: a survey of the estates of the prior and convent of Durham. In Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80) a Sir Randolph Fishburn of Fishburn is listed as one of the knights of Durham.

Forster surname

Border Reiver surname Northumberland and Durham surname

A prominent name in North East England, especially when compared to the more widespread and similar sounding English surname Foster, though the Foster surname also features strongly in the region. Henry Guppy considered both surnames to be widely distributed across England but especially northern England, with Forster he considered the ‘north country variation’ of the name especially numerous in Northumberland. Forster means ‘forester’ as may Foster though this could alternatively mean ‘fostered child or foster parent’ in many incidences. It is likely that the two surnames have been confused and interchangeable over time.

In Bishop Hatfield’s survey of 1377-80 the name Forester occurs in connection with West Auckland and Newton Cap and in the survey of 1575 called the Visitation, a John Forser is noted in connection with Kelloe. Over the years several branches of the Forster family formed part of the gentry in Northumberland, for example at Adderstone and Warenford.

There have been a number of civic dignitaries of the name Forster in the North East down the years. Mayors of Durham have included the names Henry Forster in 1721, 1728 and 1734; William Forster in 1742 and 1748; John Henry Forster in 1850, 1855 and 1861; John Forster in 1868 and Frederick Forster in 1946.

Mayors of Newcastle have included the names Francis Forster 1769, 1779; Joseph Forster 1801, 1808 and 1818; George Forster 1811, 1820 and 1825 and John James Forster in 1908.

Northumberland Members of Parliament have included William Forster, elected in 1689; Ferdinando Forster in 1701; Thomas Forster in 1705 and Thomas Forster junior in 1708.

There were 9,853 people called Forster in the 1881 Great Britain census with 2,639 residing in Durham; 1,957 in Northumberland; 810 in Lancashire; 588 in Yorkshire and 497 in Cumberland. There were more Forsters in Northumberland and Durham than in the entire Midlands, South East, East Anglia and Wales combined. Only 139 Forsters could be found in Scotland in 1881.

Forster was the 24th most numerous surname in Northumberland in the 1881 census and the 38th most numerous in County Durham but did not feature in the top fifty surnames for Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire or Lancashire.

The Foster surname

The similar and much more numerous surname Foster consisted of 40,254 individuals in the 1881 Great Britain census with the northern counties of England plus Scotland being most significant for the surname with the rest focused primarily in the south eastern counties. Yorkshire was home to 7,848 Fosters; Lancashire 5,065; Durham 2,123; Northumberland 850; Cumberland 558 and Westmorland 77. There were 1,408 Fosters in Scotland.

Unlike Forster, Foster did not feature in the top fifty names in Northumberland in 1881 but it was the 47th most common in County Durham (where Forster ranked higher at 38th). In Yorkshire Foster was the 36th most numerous name in the county but it did not make it into the fifty most numerous names for Cumberland, Westmorland or Lancashire.

Foxton surname

Primarily a Yorkshire surname

Listed as a Guppy farmers’ surname peculiar to the North or East Riding of Yorkshire. Very much a Yorkshire surname in the 1881 census where 340 of Great Britain’s 517 Foxtons resided. Also a notable name in Durham where there were 64 individuals called Foxton. Lancashire was home to 23; Northumberland had only one individual called Foxton with the remaining 89 individuals were scattered across the rest of England. There are places called Foxton near Sedgefield in Durham; near Osmotherley in North Yorkshire and near Alnmouth in Northumberland.

French surname

Possible partly Durham surname

Curiously, this was considered by Henry Guppy to be a surname confined to the southern half of England with the exception of the County of Durham. There were 14,368 people called French in the 1881 census with around half of these focused upon London and the South East. In Scotland there were 886 people of this name.

In the northern counties the numbers were 645 in Lancashire; 544 in Yorkshire; 528 in Durham; 143 in Northumberland; 72 in Cumberland and 10 in Westmorland. When the actual populations of the northern counties are taken into account (see below) it is proportionally most significant in Durham but it would be hard to describe this as a true North East surname and ultimately of course it refers to someone who originated from France.

North East Surnames beginning with:

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Historic counties of Great Britain and Ireland
Historic counties of Great Britain and Ireland showing the six northern counties of England © David Simpson and England’s North East 2021
Note on the populations of English counties in 1881

When comparing figures for individual numbers of a surname in 1881 it is important to be aware of the actual population of each of the Northern English counties. As you can see from the figures below, 500 individuals with a particular surname in Westmorland would be proportionally much more significant than 500 people of the same surname residing in Lancashire. You might well describe such a surname as a ‘Westmorland name’ but the numbers would not be significant enough to describe it as a ‘Lancashire surname’, at least not as defined by the 1881 distribution. The 1881 northern county populations were as follows:

  • Northumberland: Population 434,658. The county included Newcastle upon Tyne, Wallsend, North Shields, Tynemouth and Whitley Bay and a mining district in the south east of the county including the port of Blyth. As well as indigenous Northumbrian surnames, ‘Border names’ are often abundant in this county, occasionally taking on a form that is distinct from similar Scottish surnames.
  • Durham: Population 869,130. The county included Sunderland, Gateshead, South Shields, Jarrow, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees and Hartlepool. Numerous small mining towns and villages lie across the county between these major centres of population and like the industrial centres were often the home to surnames that originated in Northumberland and North Yorkshire as well as home-grown in County Durham.
  • Yorkshire: Population 2,895,049. This county included the iron town of Middlesbrough on the south bank of the River Tees in the north east corner of the county as well as ‘West Riding’ towns like Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Halifax, York, Huddersfield to the south. Most of the population of Yorkshire was and still is focused upon the urban and industrialised south west of the county where there is a close relationship in terms of surnames with neighbouring Lancashire across the Pennines. The far south of the county around Sheffield is also very populous. The rural East Riding along with the city of Hull may have a close relationship with neighbouring Lincolnshire. From a North East point of view many of the surnames we describe as ‘Durham and Yorkshire’ are almost always specifically focused upon North Yorkshire and south Durham, though often stretching across the whole of Durham in distribution.
  • Cumberland: Population 251,520. The main centres in this county included Carlisle and the industrial coastal towns of Whitehaven and Workington. As in Northumberland, ‘Border surnames’ have a strong influence here, often originating from or stretching into Scottish counties of the western borders, notably Dumfriesshire.
  • Westmorland: Population 64,204. This was a relatively small and rural county in terms of population. Characterised by small market towns and farming villages, it has its own distinct surname distribution. Along with Cumberland it is now part of Cumbria.
  • Lancashire: Population 3,466,597. This highly populated county included Liverpool and Manchester as well as major towns such as Bolton; Preston; Burnley; Oldham, Rochdale and a number of mill towns. The historic county also stretched into the south Lakeland area in what is now (along with Cumberland and Westmorland) part of Cumbria. The industries of Lancashire were a great draw for immigration from Scotland; Ireland and Wales, particularly in the nineteenth century.
  • Cheshire: We occasionally include details of surname distribution in Cheshire (its population in 1881 was 644,895) where relevant, though surnames in Cheshire and indeed Lancashire and to some extent West Yorkshire often take on a distinctly different character and pattern of distribution to surnames in the other northern counties. Welsh surnames are also quite significant in Cheshire given its location on the Welsh Border. In fact some suburbs of the city of Chester are located within Wales.
  • Counties of the Midlands and South: In addition to the six northernmost counties plus Cheshire, there were a further 32 other counties in England as follows: Bedfordshire; Berkshire; Buckinghamshire; Cambridgeshire; Cornwall; Derbyshire; Devon; Dorset; Essex; Gloucestershire; Hampshire; Hertfordshire; Hertfordshire; Huntingdonshire; Kent; Leicestershire; Lincolnshire; London (Middlesex); Norfolk; Northamptonshire; Nottinghamshire; Oxfordshire; Rutland; Shropshire; Somerset; Staffordshire; Suffolk; Surrey; Sussex; Warwickshire; Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
  • The South East: Of these other English counties, London and some of its neighbouring counties were particularly populous as of course they still are. There were just short of 3 million people in Middlesex (London) and additionally in Surrey there were 1.4 million people. In Essex there were more than half a million people and the population in Kent (996,770) was just short of a million. Such a populous region as the South East often inevitably includes Northern surnames that have gravitated southward but rarely do these surnames have any proportional significance within the population of the South East.
  • Scotland: The total population of Scotland in 1881 was 3.4 million, focused primarily on the central lowland belt stretching from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
  • Wales: The total population of Wales in 1881 was just over 1.5 million and focused upon Cardiff, Swansea and the industrial mining valleys of the south.

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