North East surnames: Introduction
About North East Surnames
These pages cover surnames associated with the North East of England, namely the historic counties of Northumberland, Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire. Defining a ‘North East surname’ is not always straightforward but generally where we have found a surname that was unusually frequent in the region compared to other regions or counties we have tried to include that surname in the list.
In most cases we have been guided by the distribution of surnames in the 1881 census along with the study of names by the nineteenth century surname scholar, Henry Guppy as well as drawing on our knowledge of familiar surnames in the history of Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire. For each surname we have included links to pages on the England’s North East site that feature the history of some of the localities mentioned in the entries especially where there is a strong link to the surname.
The surnames we have identified range from those of powerful baronial families of medieval times – such as the Nevilles, Balliols and Percys to the kind of surnames you might have found amongst the workers in the coal mines and heavy industries of the region in the nineteenth century: Elliott; Patterson; Thompson; Armstrong and so on.
Some surnames are known to have been connected with the region since medieval times but, like Neville may not have a strong presence or in some cases have no presence at all in the region today. Other surnames, like Umfraville may be completely extinct everywhere, though they may have played their part in the lineage of other family histories.
Where surnames played a prominent role in the region’s history over a significant period of time, we have also tried to include them in these pages, even if they are surnames not widely found across the region. The Vane family of Raby Castle in County Durham for example are not particularly numerous in the North and the surname is ultimately of Welsh origin but they are an important part of our region’s history. The Tempests of Durham and Yorkshire have a more established link with the region and in the course of time became connected with a family branch of the Vanes as Vane Tempest.
When attempting to trace surnames back to their early origins, one of the things to bear in mind with surnames or ‘given names’ recorded throughout the medieval era is that they are not usually hereditary surnames at all. Just because someone called say John de Marsh (a hypothetical example) is recorded in a medieval document in say 1262 doesn’t mean that he was an ancestor of anyone with the surname Marsh today.
The likelihood is that John de Marsh may well have lived at or owned land at or near a marsh but that doesn’t necessarily mean de Marsh became a hereditary surname. This John might have an only son called Edward, who then comes to be known as Edward filius John, (Edward, the son of John or Edward Johnson) but that doesn’t mean Edward was an early ancestor of people with the surname Johnson.
In fact this hypothetical Edward Johnson may go by more than one name. He might be a blacksmith by trade and so he might also be known as Edward le Smith (Edward Smith) but that doesn’t necessarily make him an ancestor of the numerous individuals of the Smith surname that are around today. The point is that second names or surnames in medieval times were fluid rather than fixed so a record of an early surname only represents a possibility of an ancestor of someone who bears that same surname centuries later.
As the medieval period progressed hereditary surnames became more common but often ‘second names’ were still not fixed in the way they are now and this sometimes continued to be the case well into the fifteenth and sixteenth century.
The balance of probability and abundance of records in medieval times can make us more cautiously confident about the continuity and origins of certain names. If the name De Ogle (Ogle) regularly appears in the ownership of land in medieval times in Northumberland then we might be more confident in saying that this is the early origin of the relatively uncommon Northumberland surname Ogle of today that derives from the Northumberland village of that name. Usually where ‘de’ is combined with the name of a village it signifies ownership but ownership can change over time.
The famous Washington family, ancestors of the first President of the United States were originally called De Wessyngton reflecting their ownership of Wessyngton (an old spelling of the place near Sunderland now called Washington from which they are named). However, the De Washingtons were originally called De Hartburn from their manor of Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees which they sold to the Bishop of Durham in exchange for Washington. They changed their name upon the acquisition of their new property.
Surnames from Places
Many North East surnames derive from particular place-names in the region. In these incidences we have included a small number of surnames of interest that may have little presence in the North East such as the surname Durham (mostly a Midlands surname) and Sunderland (a surname of West Yorkshire) as these surnames may ultimately have a North Eastern root.
Billingham is a surname primarily of the Midlands (at least in 1881) but had its roots in the place of that name to the north of the River Tees and is a surname that was once closely associated with the City of Durham. At least some people of the name Ferry may have ancestors from Ferry on ye Hill (Ferryhill) in Durham and those by the name of Haswell will ultimately hail from Haswell in the east of the county.
We have focused primarily on the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham along with the old North Riding of Yorkshire, so we include the present ‘Tyne and Wear’ and ‘Tees Valley’ regions too. Surnames often cluster across neighbouring counties so we have included, where appropriate, the surname numbers for Lancashire; Yorkshire’s West Riding and the old East Riding of Yorkshire as well as some surnames that were prominent in Cumberland, Westmorland and the Border counties of Scotland.
We have used the 1881 census as a guide to the distribution of a surname in Great Britain partly based on the data published in CD Rom format by the Mormon church. Of course over a millennia the pattern of distribution of a surname may have changed at least slightly from century to century, so 1881 is just a snapshot in time.
This will also be true to some extent with regard to changes in the distribution of particular surnames in the 140 years since the 1881 census was undertaken.
Surnames which occur in smaller numbers, consisting of three or four families in the 1881 census are more likely to be markedly affected by slight changes in their geographical movement where relocation of a small number of individuals may completely change the overall geographical focus of a surname. This is something that should be kept in mind and could have happened before the nineteenth century.
However, movement seems to have been less prominent in the medieval period prior to the Industrial Revolution as there are still many surnames which appear to be close to their original homes today. Surnames known to have derived from certain localities such as Shafto (from Shaftoe Crags), Swinburn; Errington or Bainbridge have often strayed only short distances from their apparent place of origin or perhaps only into a neighbouring county.
Needless to say someone who lived in the County of Durham would be unlikely to be given the surname ‘Durham’ unless he moved to another place where his county of origin would mark him out as particularly unusual, so he might have to stray further. This is perhaps why the surname ‘Durham’ is relatively rare in the North and why Henry Guppy identified the surname West as most prominent in the East of England.
On the other hand early names derived from specific places and particularly villages often identified the one-time owner or Lord of the manor, so these surnames may not stray too far from their place of origin. The Esh family (De Esh meaning of Esh) for example at the village of Esh in County Durham and so on.
Surnames from Northumberland places
Surnames derived from place-names in Northumberland include Alnwick; Bamburgh; Bewick; Biddleston (possibly); Blenkinsopp; Bolam; Corbridge (possibly); Craster (rare); Embleton; Errington; Featherstonehaugh; Fenwick; Harbottle; Hepple; Heppell; Harle; Ilderton; Lilburn; Morpeth; Shafto; Ord; Swinburn and Widdrington.
Some of these surnames still have a strong representation in the county of Northumberland, while others such as Biddleston and Corbridge seem to have little significance in the region. Often, as is the case with Harle; Errington; Hepple and Heppell the surnames are better represented in the neighbouring county of Durham than they are in Northumberland.
We should note here that we are talking about the historic county of Durham (from Tyne to Tees) and the historic county of Northumberland (including Newcastle upon Tyne). Industries, burgeoning industrial towns and coal mines existed along the northern bank of the Tyne and in south east Northumberland in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and were no doubt a great draw for people from rural areas of Northumberland. So too was the County of Durham with its much larger population that encompassed half of Tyneside, half of Teesside, as well as Sunderland and the whole of Wearside plus the port of Hartlepool and the Durham coalfield which was much more extensive and populous than its Northumberland counterpart.
It is important to keep in mind the comparative sizes of county populations when considering the 1881 census and the distribution of surnames. So, for example if there are 100 individuals with a particular surname in Lancashire in 1881 this is not as significant as 100 individuals with the same surname in Cumberland because the population of Lancashire in 1881 was 3,466,597 while that of Cumberland was only 251,520. The comparative populations of the Northern counties in 1881 are given at the end of each of the surname pages including this one.
The mill towns and industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire were great magnets for population growth, bringing people in from neighbouring parishes and other northern counties as well as people from the counties in the Midlands, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Similarly London and the south east have always had a great pull on the population, so that even the most Northern or most Scottish of surnames might have a significant London and south east presence.
Our general observation from this research is that some surnames can occur in certain counties in exceptionally high numbers but may not feature in the top fifty names for neighbouring counties. Lancashire, the most populous of the northern counties in 1881 has a number of noticeably distinct surnames in its top fifty names for 1881 that do not make it into the top fifty in any of the other northern counties: Ashworth, Butterworth, Chadwick, Edwards, Hargreaves, Holden, Holt, Howarth, Hughes, Kay, Lord, Roberts, Schofield, Yates.
The same is true to an extent in Yorkshire, often in the West Riding: Cooper, Ellis, Firth, Green, Greenwood, Haigh, Hirst, Holmes, Hudson, Parker, Sutcliffe and Sykes. Hill and Hartley feature in both Lancashire and Yorkshire’s top 50 most numerous names in 1881 but are nowhere to be seen in the top fifty for Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland or Westmorland. That is not to say that a few of these surnames are unfamiliar in the North East, it’s just that they don’t have anything like the prominence.
Widespread ‘Northern’ surnames
Some surnames are found everywhere of course: Smith and Brown are especially prominent just about everywhere in Britain including the six traditional northern counties of England. Jackson, a more generally northerly surname in nature is also numerous, occurring in the top fifty 1881 surnames of all six northern counties as too does Johnson (except in Cumberland where instead we have Johnston). Simpson with its ‘parasitic glide consonant’ (the ‘p’) is in the top fifty most numerous surnames for all six traditional northern counties of England except Lancashire but the name has a strong representation in Scotland.
Other surnames that are found just about everywhere in Britain in significant numbers but with a particularly strong representation in all or most of the northern counties include Atkinson; Robinson; Gibson; Harrison; Richardson; Wilkinson and Williamson.
There are some surnames in ‘-son’ that may be numerous in a more localised northern sense such as Dixon; Hodgson; Nicholson; Nixon and Hutchinson. While Wilson and Watson, the sons of William and Watt (Walter) are important both sides of the Border.
‘North East’ surnames
In truth, very few surnames can be described as ‘regional’ in the broadest ‘Northern England’ sense but there are numerous surnames that can be described as ‘North Eastern’. However, using the term ‘North Eastern’ is not a straightforward definition. It might refer to ‘Northumberland and Durham’ or perhaps ‘Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire’ or perhaps all three of the traditional North Eastern counties.
There seems to have been a strong circle of movement between these three counties, though some surnames are almost exclusively Northumberland and Durham and some almost exclusively Durham and Yorkshire and others such as Barras; Blackett and Wake seem to be spread across all three.
The Northumberland and Durham groupings of course often have a focus on what we now call ‘Tyne and Wear’ where the heavy industries including coal mining of times past were a great magnet but these surnames may also be broadly spread across the Northumberland and Durham coalfield beyond Tyne and Wear.
Surnames with a particular County Durham focus both of the rare and numerous kind located between the Tyne and Tees include Applegarth; Appleby; Blakiston; Burdon; Burnip; Coatsworth; Elstob; Emerson; Gatis; Greenwell; Kirton; Lackenby; Littlefair; Maddison; Makepeace; Pallister; Proud; Raine; Shadforth; Sheraton; Stainthorpe; Surtees; Teasdale; Toward; Tinkler; Wearmouth and Westgarth.
Some of these surnames quite clearly derive from places in the historic county of Durham such as Burdon (Great Burdon); Burnip (Burnhope); Elstob; Eggleston; Shadforth; Sheraton and Wearmouth and in the case of Lackenby, from a neighbouring county. Others may not be so obvious such as Stainthorpe (Staindrop) or Surtees which means ‘on the Tees’ and comes from Dinsdale (Dinsdale is also a surname) near Darlington while Teasdale is of course originally from Teesdale, though less obviously Wardle is from Weardale, though there is a possible Cheshire origin for this name too.
Other ‘valley’ surnames from slightly further afield might also crop up in Durham. Tweddell, and somewhat surprisingly Weddell and Tulip derive from the River Tweed while less surprisingly Tyndale and Tindale derive from the Tyne. To the south, Coverdale has made its mark as a Yorkshire surname.
Some surnames with a significant Durham representation might have their roots further north in Northumberland such as Blenkinsopp, Hindmarsh, Rodham, Shafto and Thirlwell (or Thirlwall) the last of which has its roots on Hadrian’s Wall.
Durham and North Yorkshire surnames
The Durham-North Yorkshire area is also an important ‘region’ that’s often overlooked, especially with our modern obsession for demarking regions with somewhat strict boundaries. The surname link between the two occurs across the Durham Dales and northern Yorkshire Dales, into Darlington and industrial Teesside and into the pit villages of the whole Durham coalfield from south to north into Tyneside.
Surnames found across Durham and Yorkshire, both numerous and rare might include the esteemed names of Bowes and Bulmer. In this region we also find Collingwood; Jordison; Kipling; Laverick; Longstaff; Lumley; Marley; Parnaby; Tempest and Weighell.
Of these surnames Bowes; Bulmer; Kipling and Weighell (from Wighill) all derive from the names of places in the historic county of Yorkshire (though Bowes village is now in the county of Durham). Lumley is of course from a place in County Durham.
Guppy’s County names : Yeoman Farmers
Our listed surnames include the ‘peculiar to a county names’ of yeoman farmers in Durham, Northumberland and North Yorkshire that were identified by Henry Guppy in his work of 1890 and we have compared those North East surnames identified by Guppy to the distribution in the 1881 census.
Guppy did not have the resources of modern technology for his research but his study was extensive and based on the idea that yeoman farmers were the most ‘stop at home class’ with surnames most likely to be associated with a particular county over a long period of time. He used a number of categories to define how closely connected with particular counties or regions such surnames might be. See our page on Guppy’s surnames for details of these categories.
With regard to the origin and explanation of the meanings of surnames, in the very simplest terms they can be broken into four categories:
- 1) Patronymic surnames: eg Thompson – ‘son of Thomas’ type surnames. Sometimes, especially in the case of Welsh surnames these may take a simpler form like the surname ‘Thomas’ which again means a descendant of someone called Thomas. A rare variation on patronymic surnames are metonymic names derived from a female name.
- 2) Descriptive nicknames: such as Armstrong – ‘strong in the arm’ or White meaning fair-skinned, fair-haired and so on.
- 3) Locality surnames: which refer to a place or geographical feature from which someone originated such as a Carr (poorly drained land); Bulmer ‘the Bull’s mere’ or Bainbridge (a North Yorkshire village).
- 4) Occupational names – the most obvious example being Smith -which usually derives from a blacksmith. As a very general rule occupational names are more likely to originate in the South of England whereas patronymic names are often Northern.
Most surnames originated in the decades and centuries that followed shortly after the Norman Conquest and we should be cautious about surnames that claim to be traced back before those times to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period. Vikings may often have had second names that ended in ‘son’ Olaf Guthfrithson and that kind of thing but these were not surnames in the modern sense.
If Olaf had a son and called him Eric, he would become Eric Olafsson (because he was literally the son of Olaf) and if Eric then had a son he called Guthred he would be Guthred Ericsson and so on. It has been argued that the possible use of ‘son’ in these names had a later influence on the prominence of ‘son’ surnames in the Scandinavian settled north after the Norman Conquest.
It is not to say Vikings didn’t have an influence on surnames. Viking personal names, Viking dialect features, words and place-names survived beyond the Norman Conquest and had some influence on surnames. Havelock and Kell are derived from Scandinavian personal names; Sotheran is a Viking word describing someone’s southern origin; Carr is from a topographical feature with a Viking name (poorly-drained land).
Border Surnames and Scottish surnames
Border surnames are another important group of surnames that cut across regional and national boundaries. Surnames numerous in Dumfriesshire and Cumberland may stray into Northumberland, Roxhburghshire and Berwickshire or vice versa.
Border surnames have also found their way into industrial Tyne and Wear, into Teesside and into the North East coalfield with all its associated industries. Many a miner could be found with the name of Robson, Armstrong or Charlton.
Some surnames that are more generally widespread in Scotland also have a significant prominence in the North of England and the North East counties in particular. Anderson and Henderson are two examples which occur in significant numbers.
Sometimes surnames in the North East of England with a Scottish root or at least a Scottish equivalent may take on a form all of their own. There are several examples of these. Thompson for example was the most numerous surname in Northumberland and is likely an English name but in 1881 this surname barely occurs in Scotland where it usually occurs as Thomson without that extra consonant. The Stephenson and Stevenson surnames are another similar example of a variation between the North East and Scottish forms of a surname that basically have the same meaning.
It is perhaps less obvious that Straughan is the Northumbrian variant of Strachan or that Gillhespy is the Northumbrian variant of the Scottish Gillespie. Similarly Heslop is the Northumbrian form of the Scottish surnames Hislop and Hyslop. Laidler is very likely the North East England form of the Scottish Laidlaw, though it has also been suggested they were the makers of ladles. The Scottish surname Tait has found its way into the northern counties of England where it lives alongside the more general Northern English surname, Tate.
Also in the North East the Scottish surnames Howie; Paterson; Davidson; Jamieson and Kerr become Howey; Patterson; Davison; Jameson and Carr sometimes alongside the more typically Scottish forms. Davison in fact seems to give way to Dawson in Yorkshire.
We should note here that variations can occur within England too. Allan seems to be a Scottish and Northumbrian name whereas Allen belongs to England’s south. Forster seems to be more Northumbrian in nature than the more widespread English surname Foster (though in truth they may have separate meanings). Reay and Wray are possible Durham and Yorkshire counterparts of the same name. Story may have been a Cumberland variant of Storey and Jobling and Jopling are arguably Northumberland and Durham versions of the same ‘foolish’ name.
The Reid, Reed and Reade group of surnames is another interesting example of variation. Reid is certainly the most Scottish of the three, while Reed is more typically Northumbrian. Reade, however is a surname of the south of England. Reid likely means ‘red’ while more obviously in the scheme of colours Grey is the Northumbrian form of the much more numerous and primarily Scottish surname, Gray. However, Gray still outnumbers Grey even in Northumberland.
Some Border surnames that derive from place-names not too far to the north of the Scottish Border are not uncommon in the North East. Moffat, Douglas, Minto, Liddel, Rutherford and Middlemas are examples of these.
Border Reiver Surnames
A particularly important group of surnames often found in the region are those surnames associated with a ‘Border Reiving’ history. The Border Reivers were lawless clans whose raiding culture predominated in the Tudor and Elizabethan period on the borders of England and Scotland in the counties of Northumberland, Cumberland, Roxburghshire, Berwickshire and Dumfriesshire.
Many of the surnames, which were found on both sides of the border are still frequently found in the North East of England including the historic County of Durham which lay just outside the area of reiving but is often a major centre or prime focus for many of these surnames today. Reiver names that are particularly prominent across the North East include Armstrong; Charlton; Dodd; Elliott; Graham; Milburn; Ridley; Scott; Robson and Turnbull.
Border Reiver surnames included: Anderson, Armstrong, Beattie, Bell, Blackadder, Bromfield, Burn, Carlisle, Carnaby, Carr, Carruthers, Charlton, Collingwood, Cranston, Craw, Croser, Crozier, Curwen, Dacre, Davison, Dixon, Dodd, Douglas, Dunn, Elliot, Fenwick, Forster, Gilchrist, Glendenning, Graham, Gray, Hall, Harden, Hedley, Henderson, Heron, Hetherington, Hodgson, Hume, Hunter, Irvine, Jamieson, Jardine, Johnstone, Kerr, Laidlaw, Latimer, Little, Lowther, Maxwell, Medford, Milburn, Mitford, Moffat, Musgrave, Nixon, Noble, Ogle, Oliver, Potts, Pringle, Radcliffe, Reed, Ridley, Robson, Routledge, Rowell, Rutherford, Salkeld, Scott, Selby, Shaftoe, Simpson, Stamper, Stapleton, Stokoe, Storey, Tailor, Tait, Thompson, Thomson, Trotter, Turnbull, Turner, Wake, Wilkinson, Wilson, Witherington, Yarrow, Young.
To find out more about North East surnames and their distribution, including some of the Border Reiver surnames listed above use the lettered links below which cover more than 300 surnames.
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.
North East Surnames beginning with