Surnames and Trees

Surnames, by and large, reflect our heritage. They may describe where our ancestors lived (e.g. near a wood), what they did for a living (e.g. a forester) or how they looked (e.g. tall, short, dark of fair haired).


An Introduction

The Industrial Revolution led to the creation of the factory. The factory system was largely responsible for the rise of the modern city and the urbanisation of the population. Large numbers of workers migrated from the countryside to the new cities in search of employment.

It is estimated that the world urban population in 1900 was 14%, by 2000 it was over 50% and by 2025 it will be 65% plus.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, Britain was an agrarian economy (agricultural based) and this fact is reflected in the nation's surnames.


The Origin of Surnames

The first Europeans to use surnames were the Venetians in the 10th or 11th centuries. The use of surnames slowly spread throughout Europe, initially being adopted by the nobility and eventually, after several hundred years, being used by members of all classes.

The original purpose of the surname was to distinguish between two individuals with the same first name. In the 13th century, about a third of the male population was named John, Richard or William.

Surnames often reflected the owner’s position within the family, physical attributes, employment or where they lived and are generally derived from one of these four sources, namely:

  • First Names - examples include Johnson, Williams and Thompson (sons of John, William and Thomas respectively).
  • Nicknames - examples include Brown (hair colour), Long (height), White (complexion) and Young (age).
  • Occupation - examples include Carpenter, Cartwright, Forrester and Sawyer (all craftsmen working with trees/wood in some form or other).
  • Topography (geographical location/lie of the land) – examples include Ashley/Ashleigh (lives near a field surrounded by ash trees), Holt, Woods and Woodland (all live near a wooded area).

The spelling of surnames has continuously evolved until the 20th century. Before this time, it was not unusual to see the same person's surname spelled in different ways. In the 1800's and before, when many people were illiterate, names were written down by clerks and other officials, including the clergy, as they heard the name pronounced.

This has lead to many different spellings of surnames with the same origin. The following are a few examples of the names of trees used as surnames and their derivatives:

Birch/Burchett, Alder/Allder, Ash/Ashe, Oak/Oakes/Oakleigh, Thorn/Thorner, Wood/Woods/Woodland