Guide to North East Surnames: U

Surnames: Umfraville to Usher

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Umfraville surname

Northumberland baronial name of medieval times

A obsolete baronial surname of medieval times associated with Northumberland. The De Umfravilles arrived in England at the Norman Conquest and were related to William the Conqueror. The family became the Lords of Redesdale and were barons of Prudhoe from the late eleventh century (later confirmed in the reign of King Henry I). They also held lands in Scotland where they settled in the reign of King David I, holding lands in Stirlingshire.

An Odinel Umfraville, who died in 1182, held lands in Scotland, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Rutland and Suffolk. In addition to Prudhoe Castle, the Umfravilles at one time or another had been owners of Langley Castle in South Tynedale; Elsdon Castle in Redesdale; the early Otterburn Castle (Otterburn Tower) also in Redesdale; Harbottle Castle in Coquetdale and Whitton Tower near Rothbury.

Site of Harbottle Castle
Site of Harbottle Castle © David Simpson

Sir Robert Umfraville was recorded as the owner of the castle of Harbottle and Tower of Otterburn in 1415 when a list of castles and towers in Northumberland was compiled. The name Sir Thomas Umfraville is listed in connection with Lanchester in Bishop Hatfield’s survey of Durham (1377-80). A Sir Thomas Unfraville was the MP for Northumberland in 1388 and 1390.

In 1388 Sir Thomas Umfraville commanded a unit at the Battle of Otterburn and in 1414 a Sir Robert Umfraville, known as Robin ‘Mend the Market’ from his destructive raids upon Scottish Border towns, defeated an army of some 4,000 Scots at Yeavering.

The family held lands in Durham too at Holmeside near Edmondsley where their descendants included members of the Tempest family. Although the Umfraville family died out, Umfravilles had intermarried into several notable northern families over the centuries “So widely was the blood of Umfraville scattered amongst the gentry of the North” as the Durham historian Robert Surtees remarked.

Unthank surname

Northern surname with probable Northumberland roots

There are several places in the North East called Unthank and the surname will derive from one such place. They include three places called Unthank in Durham found in Weardale; in Teesdale and near New Brancepeth west of Durham City. Places in Northumberland called Unthank can be found near Haltwhistle; one close to Alnham and one near Berwick. Unthank Hall near Haltwhistle was associated with the ‘Oxford Martyr’ Nicholas Ridley.

In Yorkshire there is an Unthank near Constable Burton in lower Wensleydale. There are also places called Unthank in Cumbria (at least three) as well as in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and in Scotland where there are at least four.

One theory is that Unthank referred to land that was once occupied by squatters, being an interpretation of this old Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘without leave’ but a likely explanation is that it refers to a place with stubborn soil that was a thankless task to farm.

The name is mentioned in connection with Northumberland in 1242 (a John De Unthanc) and in the subsidy rolls relating to Cumberland (Alan de Unthanke) in 1332.

In the 1881 census it was a rare surname with only 256 individuals in Great Britain. Of these 119 resided in Yorkshire but just as proportionally significant were 44 individuals in Durham. There were 15 in Northumberland; 5 each in Lancashire and Cumberland and 3 in Berwickshire in Scotland. The small remaining number of Unthanks could be found across the midlands and the south east, including 16 residing in London and 22 in Kent.

The noted North East folk duo Rachel and Becky Unthank who perform as ‘The Unthanks’ hail from Ryton on Tyneside.

Urpeth surname

Unusual North East surname

Urpeth (sometimes with the spelling ‘Orpeth’) is a surname that derives from Urpeth near Beamish in County Durham. In Bishop Hatfield’s survey (1377-80) a Ricardus Urpath is recorded in connection with Newfield (near Beamish) and a John Urpath at Greencroft near Stanley.

High Urpeth
High Urpeth near Beamish © David Simpson

In the 1881 Great Britain census this is a very rare surname indeed with only 20 individuals. Seventeen of these reside in Northumberland including two of whom are listed as ‘Orpeth’. The remaining three are a sister and brother living in Essex and a lady of around 68 years of age residing in Suffolk.

Usher surname

Northumberland and Durham name

Listed as a Northumberland surname by Henry Guppy but frequent in Durham and Yorkshire too. Ushers owned property in the Morpeth area in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

It is tempting to link this surname to the place called Ushaw (pronounced ‘usher’) in County Durham, however early forms in the thirteenth and fourteenth century ‘le Usser’ and ‘le Uscher’ occurring in the south east of England suggest an occupational name from an old Anglo-French word meaning ‘door keeper’. In the north an Adam Husser occurs in the Subsidy Rolls for Cumberland in 1332 and a John Huscher in the Register of the Guild of the Corpus Christi in York in 1506.

Lantern tower of St Nicholas Cathedral. Newcastle.
Lantern tower of St Nicholas Cathedral. Newcastle © David Simpson

In 1417 two Newcastle women called Matilda Burgh and Margaret Usher were arrested after dressing up as men to visit St Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham Cathedral. As a punishment they were ordered to be humiliated by having to dress as men at religious processions held on Holy Days outside St Nicholas church in Newcastle (now Newcastle cathedral).

Tomb of St. Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
Tomb of St. Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

In the 1881 census there were 3,309 people in Great Britain called Usher. Of these, there were 495 individuals in County Durham; 412 in Yorkshire; 220 in Lancashire and 202 in Northumberland. There were 29 in Cumberland and 16 in Westmorland. In Scotland there were only 74 people called Usher. The remaining Ushers were spread broadly across the midlands and south east with 418 in London.

In addition to Usher, the similar surname or variation Ushaw occurs 30 times in the 1881 census, with five individuals in Durham and 25 in Yorkshire. It occurs nowhere else.

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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Introduction to North East surnames

Border Reivers

Guppy’s surnames

North East Notable People


Border Reiver Surnames of the Anglo-Scottish Border. Poster Print.


North East England History and Culture