Discover your medieval ancestors through your surname

What can your family name tell you about your medieval ancestors?

Firstly, it may be able to tell you something about the occupation, parentage or location of a distant ancestor.

My Collier name comes from the occupation of charcoal burner, or coal seller, so (assuming there has been no illegitimacy) at least one of my ancestors from about 700 years ago worked in this industry.

Robinson is another name that appears in my tree, and so I can assume that another 13th or 14th century ancestor was called Robin or Robert.

Finally, my Blatchford ancestors take their name from Blatchford in Devon and so another branch of my tree would have been living there in about 1300.

The meanings of other surnames are harder to interpret. Was the first Mr Lilley the son of Elizabeth, a child with a fair complexion or from Lilley in Hertfordshire or Berkshire?

There are many surname dictionaries published and one very useful online site The Internet Surname Database. These offer suggestions of the meanings of surnames, but it is worth remembering that these sources are continually updated as the study of surname origins is continuous. As more information becomes available, more accurate definitions can be given to a surname.

But surnames can give more information about your ancestors than simply its meaning.

Distribution maps

A study has been done of the surnames recorded in the 1881 census. These are published online at Great British Family Names. Here, all names that had more than 100 bearers in 1998, have been mapped by (modern) postcode district.

A similar map can be found on the Ancestry website, using data from the 1891 census.

Searching the map shows how surnames were distributed throughout the UK. This can be an interesting exercise, as even common names, such as Collier, have densely populated areas, and areas where they don’t occur at all.

The Collier name was distributed along the western side of England, from south Lancashire to Dorset but, with the exception of Yorkshire, was rare in eastern England.

Although Robinson is also a relatively common name, its distribution was heavily weighted to the north of England. So I can now say that there was a likelihood that my ancestor called Robin/Robert lived in the north of England in c1300.

And, as anticipated, the name Blatchford was rarely found outside of Devon and Cornwall, confirming that this branch of my family line was almost certainly from south-west England.

Although there was migration in the UK before 1881, there is a surprising level of consistency between where a surname is based in 1881 and where it originated. Looking at the distribution of a surname can help to narrow down the options of where the surname began and where your medieval ancestors lived.

DNA testing

One relatively new way to help determine a surname’s origin is to use DNA testing. Using the Y-chromosome, which is passed from father to son in the same way that surnames are, can help to show whether bearers of a surname are related along their paternal line.

There is room for error, as what’s called non-paternity events can mean a surname does not reflect a direct male line (for example illegitimacy or adoption). However, if a reasonable sample of a surname is taken, it can help to identify how many origins the surname might have and can put people in touch with other family members who share their male line.
Sharing their family history research could help to identify their shared ancestor.

There are several companies that offer this, including familytreedna, Britain’s DNA and ancestryDNA.

We haven’t yet tested the Collier DNA, but as prices come down and the number of DNA samples collected increase, it is increasingly worth considering having it done.

Further reading: Surnames, DNA and Family History by George Redmonds, Turi King and David Hey.

I sincerely hope to see them all in court!

Court records can provide a level of detail not found elsewhere.

The website for the proceedings of the Old Bailey offers full transcriptions of all cases held at the Central Criminal Court from 1674-1913. Statements are recorded verbatim, so it allows us to see the words spoken by witnesses, prosecutors and defendants alike.

Take the case of Joseph Catling Gibbons, aged 52, who was tried for bigamy on 20th October 1890. He was being prosecuted by the wife of his bigamous marriage, who said:

I became acquainted with the prisoner two years ago, and went out with him for five Sundays—some information then came to me, and I wrote him a letter breaking off the acquaintance, and ceased to keep company with him about Christmas, 1888 about September, 1889, I met him and asked him if he knew me—he said, “What! after the letter you wrote to me?”—I said, “I wrote that in a temper; are you a married man?”—he said, “I have no time to speak to you now”—I said I would see him the next night—I met him the next evening, and he said, “I hope I may be struck dead if I am not a single man”—I then walked out with him till we were married on 8th July in the registry at Whitechapel—I lived with him six weeks at my mother’s house up to a fortnight ago; I was then told something, and went and saw his wife—that is her (pointing) I gave him in charge the same evening.

One of the witnesses was Rose S Hales, Joseph’s daughter. She told the court:

…the prisoner is my father, and the lady who has been produced is his wife—they have been parted for sixteen year—he allowed her 2s. a week up to Christmas last—she lives in the same house with me—my father called there about four months ago, and saw my mother and me; I cannot give the date accurately—he came to see his son’s baby, which was three days old—it was born four months ago—my mother was in good health at the time.

She later said:

you allowed her 2s. a week for ten weeks in the year, when you were at the Drury Lane pantomime—you were pantaloon there.

This kind of detail is rarely found in family papers, and cannot be deduced from census entries alone. It gives a clear insight into the dramas of this family (no pun intended).

Joseph Catling Gibbon’s defence was:

I left my wife eighteen years ago owing to her misconduct; she has lived with three different men, and has had several children, and I thought she was dead.

Rose Hales further stated that:

her mother had two children by another man, one of which was seven and the other two years old.

Joseph Catling Gibbons was an actor throughout his life. He used the stage name Tully Louis. There is a newspaper report in the Pall Mall Gazette on the 28 October 1890, found using the British Newspaper Archive at findmypast, which refers to his court case for bigamy under his stage name, confirming that they are one and the same. Tully Louis was a well-known pantomimist and comic actor of his time.

He perhaps wasn’t as much the injured party as he suggested at the Old Bailey. He married his first wife in 1860. By the 1871 census she was living with their two daughters and described herself as a ‘widow’. Joseph appears to have been missed off (or mistranscribed) in this census. In 1881, however, he records himself under his stage name, Tully Louis, and was living with Charlotte Louis and their 3 children, Eugene, Nellie and Josephine. There is no evidence of him having married Charlotte.

Six months after the hearing at the Old Bailey, the 1891 census was taken. Joseph was recorded under the name ‘Joseph Catling’ and lived with 6 children all with the Catling surname (including Eugene, Nellie and Josephine). His youngest son was 3 years old, so he must have been born shortly before Joseph began courting the unsuspecting Caroline Wooton in 1888. It seems that Caroline was ignorant of his first wife, so it seems likely she was also unaware of his 6 children and relationship with Charlotte.

Here’s proof of the tantalising glimpses court records can give into the lives of your ancestors. A criminal in your past can be of great use in providing new insights into your family history.

History of English facial hair

It’s Movember once again, and I’m starting to see men around the town with the beginnings of this year’s autumnal facial displays!

But moustaches have been around for a while. When Caesar came to Britain, he recorded that the ancient Britons wore no beards except upon the upper lip. This was different to many European nations where it was most common for full beards to be worn.

When the Anglo-Saxons came to England, they wore full beards, but as they converted to Christianity, the clergy were obliged to be clean shaven, to distinguish them from the lay person. Over time Englishmen began to imitate the clergy and shave their beards, once again just leaving their moustaches.

The Normans went completely clean shaven, and William the Conqueror decreed that Englishmen must shave off their moustaches. Some men were reportedly so appalled at the idea that they chose to leave the country rather than give up their moustache.

In 1535, King Henry VIII introduced a beard tax, which was graded according to the social status of the wearer. Later, his daughter Queen Elizabeth I reintroduced the tax on all beards which had more than two weeks’ growth, making the beard a rich man’s accessory.

Perhaps part of the success of Movember is because it taps into an ancient British tradition and has reawakened the desire to have a hairy upper lip that lies deep within the genes of modern British men!


The Great Storm of 1703

Today’s ‘St Jude’s Day storm’ (as the British media appear to have named it) couldn’t have been given more media coverage; before, during and after the event. Much of this has also looked back to the Great Storm of 1987, which many of us can remember. Occasionally, reporters have mentioned the lesser known storm of 1703 – the worst recorded natural disaster in southern England. I was interested to find out more about it, and the damage it caused.

The Great Storm of 1703 was a catastrophic hurricane that ripped through southern England, leaving devastation in its wake.

After weeks of gales and storms, another strong storm blew up on the night of 26th November. After two hours of winds of up to 70 mph, the full fury of the tempest was unleashed. In the early hours of 27th November, the hurricane, with winds of up to 120 mph, swept across southern England from the river Severn to the Thames and on to the East Anglian coast. It destroyed houses, churches and mills and brought floods to the Severn Estuary and the city of Bristol.

The storm coincided with an increase in English journalism, and so was one of the first weather events to be a national story. There were reports that men and animals were lifted off their feet and carried along in the air. Daniel Defoe described the storm as:

“the tempest that destroyed woods and forests all over England… No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it”

Due to lack of warning of the disaster, the Royal Navy lost 13 ships and about 1,500 seamen. It’s estimated 40 merchant vessels and at least 8,000 seamen were also lost. In the New Forest, 4,000 oak trees fell, and all of London’s 120 churches suffered some damage.

Great Storm 1703

The tempest of 1703 killed between 8000-15000 seamen and caused the loss of 13 Royal Navy ships.

We have been following the approach of the St Jude’s Day storm for a week, and people and services have had plenty of time to prepare for the event. Sadly, four people still lost their lives, but without the advanced warning, many more people would have been engaging in their usual daily routines, and undoubtedly more lives would have been lost and property damaged.

The unsuspecting population of southern England in 1703 wouldn’t have known about the storm until it was upon them. Add to that the fact that the Great Storm of 1703 was much longer and stronger, with winds up to 40 mph faster than those recorded today and lasting for many hours, and it’s no wonder that the loss of human life and damage to property was so much more severe.

The storm was interpreted as punishment from God for the ‘ungodliness of the country’ and a national day of fasting was held in January 1704. The storm was used in sermons for half a century or more after the event to remind churchgoers of the consequences of ungodliness.

See these informative articles for more details:

Who sent that message in a bottle?

I read an interesting story on the BBC news this week about a family appealing for information about the sender of a message in a bottle, found in Norway.

Message found in a bottle in Norway

Message found in a bottle in Norway

This appealed to the detective in me, so I began examining the records to see if I could solve the mystery. The sender’s name is hard to read in the photograph, but the article told us she was Loretta Brooks. If she was 12 in July 1996, she would have been born between August 1983 and July 1984. I searched the GRO births index on ancestry and found there was a birth of a Lorretta Christine Brooks in Q3 (Jul-Sep) 1983 in Reading and Wokingham. In 1996 the letter writer claims to be from London, but she may have moved in this time. states that there is still a Lorretta Brooks living in Reading today. This could be the answer.

However, taking a closer look at the letter, the name is spelt with a single ‘r’, whilst Lorretta Brooks in Reading is spelt with a double ‘rr’. Although I’m used to seeing people spell their names in a variety of ways within historical records, it would be quite uncommon for someone in the 1990s to be inconsistent in this. From the picture of the letter, it looks as though the original part of the letter with her name on has worn away, and the name Loretta has been written in on the previous line. This calls into question its accuracy.

Another question is raised by the grammar used. Although you might expect to see spelling mistakes from a 12 year old, such as her spelling ‘adress’ with one ‘d’, the grammatical errors, such as ‘please write on English’ and ‘I’m a girl on 12 years old’ suggest that perhaps the sender wasn’t Loretta from London at all, but someone using English as a second language – perhaps even from Norway itself?

I hope the children who found the bottle are able to solve their mystery one way or another. It’s every child’s dream to find a message in a bottle, and even if it only came from relatively close to their home, being able to track its history, like tracing a family history, would provide a great sense of closure to their story.

Vivid description of PC Ryeland

Sometimes in my research I find something that makes me laugh out loud, as did this extract from Charles Booth’s notebooks:

Walk with police constable W R Ryeland of the Hoxton subdivision of the G or Finsbury division of the Metropolitan Police…..

Ryeland is a man between 40-45. Has been 20 years in the police force. Always in Hoxton. Was on the GWR before joining. Brown short beard and moustache, teetotaller, pay 34/- per week. Rather over medium height. Black soft felt hat. Knows district well. Offends a little by his self-conscious righteousness but is really good, I think.

Charles Booth researched his poverty map of London in 1898-1899 by walking the beat with local police officers and learning about the type of people who lived in each street. I’m not sure what value there was to recording such detail about a police constable. Perhaps it was to help remind himself of the place when he has returned to his desk to revisit his notes and complete his maps. Or perhaps it was simply for personal amusement?

The Charles Booth online archive holds digitised versions of the notebooks. These aren’t transcribed, but if there is a Metropolitan Police Constable in your family tree, and you know which division they served with, it might be worth browsing the notebooks to see if they met Charles Booth and what he had to say about them. Hopefully your ancestor won’t ‘offend’ at all!

Adding detail to an ancestor’s occupational history

I’ve recently used the services of three occupational organisations and have been reminded of what a great job these smaller archives centres do.

I had great help and quick service from the Metropolitan Police Archives, through which I found the records for four brothers from Kent who joined the force; from the British Dental Association Museum archives, that provided a record in the first published Dental Register; and from the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, who searched their records to look for a south London shoemaker’s apprenticeship.

Without these valuable resources, these types of records would be lost to family historians, and all of the additional information that provide such colour to a family tree (such as one of the policeman brothers being dismissed after six months of service) would not be available to us.

The miserly butcher!

Mr John Taylor of Great Dunmow, Essex, butcher, recently deceased, by his industry and economy had accumulated a considerable property, the knowledge of which he was desirous of keeping from the world; and, to gratify such a propensity, he secured his money in various parts of his apparel, where some of it has lain in a state of idleness for 80 years and upwards. A few days only previous to his death, Mr Taylor, at the earnest solicitation of his friends, made a will, but even then he did not disclose the whole of his property, which already proves to amount to several thousand pounds.

Bury and Ipswich Post, Wednesday 13 April 1825

Who Do You Think You Are? Series 10

Well, it’s been an up and down kind of series, with some truly gripping programmes, and one or two (in my opinion) stories that were slow to emerge.

Here are my favourite quotes of the series so far:

Marianne Faithfull: “It’s always a thing to realise that your mother is much more than your mother, that she was a human being and a person with a real mission in life… This journey has given me truth and this is what I needed and really wanted. Much more than stories and fantasies and illusions… Your family is the ground you stand on and what has happened is that the ground has been put back. I’m very lucky, thank you.”

Sarah Millican: “I was unprepared for how protective I would feel of my ancestors and you know, family is family, dead or alive, family is family.”

Nitin Ganatra: “I’ve got some kind of treasure I can hold onto that feels like it’s mine and my family’s.”

I’m looking forward to John Simpson’s episode which rounds the season off next week.

Emberton parish registers – a true delight

Emberton Post Office

Emberton Post Office

Occasionally you come across a parish vicar who loved attention to detail. Perhaps it was because he was a vicar of the small village of Emberton in Buckinghamshire and so knew his parishioners well, but the Reverend C G Hulton recorded all sorts of useful information in his registers. And it seems his successors continued his love of detail because right through the 19th century, the Emberton baptisms and burials were recorded with a host of interesting facts about the people involved.

Baptisms included the maiden name of the mother, and sometimes their parish of origin too. Burials included details of how they died, sometimes how long they were ill for, where they were from and which area of the churchyard they were buried in.

When John Hale was buried, aged 48, on 12 November 1861, Hulton records he is buried ‘East under the oak he had planted as an acorn’.

We’re told that Hugh Booth, buried on 28 January 1874 aged 48 years, was a joiner and that ‘He died on the anniversary of his birthday’. The next entry in the register is for the burial of William Booth ‘(father of Hugh)’.

Rebecca Hale was buried on 14 February 1873 aged 84 years and in her margin is written ‘On the 14th Feb Miss Hale always gave a bun to every school child’.

The baptisms, as well as citing the mother’s maiden name and including the child’s date of birth, names the sponsor of the baptism (the godparent). It’s interesting to see how often two couples will sponsor each other’s children. It’s a great way of knowing who each family was friends with.

This level of detail is such a treat to a social historian and gives wonderful colour to the list of names and dates usually associated with parish registers. These are details it would be impossible to find during normal family history research.