Thursday 19 May 2011

Family Names in the UK project

Back in April I attended the Guild of One-Name Studies conference in Warrington, Cheshire. This is the first time I have attended a Guild conference. It was a very enjoyable weekend and gave me the opportunity to catch up with some of my friends from the Guild and to make some new friends as well. One of the highlights of the conference was the talk by Dr Patrick Hanks on the exciting new Family Names in the UK Project (FanUK) at the University of the West of England (UWE) which aims to create the largest ever database of the UK's family surnames and make the results available online. Dr Hanks is an eminent lexicographer who is best known for his work on A Dictionary of Surnames (Oxford University Press, 1988) and the three-volume Dictionary of American Family Names (Oxford University Press, USA, 2003). He is now the lead researcher on the Family Names project, and is working in collaboration with Professor Richard Coates from the Bristol Centre for Linguistics at UWE. The Family Names project aims to explain the origins, history and geographical distribution of all family names in Britain that have more than one hundred current name-bearers. The database will also include stub entries for recent immigrant surnames such as Patel which is now the 32nd most common surname in Britain. In addition the project will also include surnames listed in Reaney and Wilson with between one and one hundred living name-bearers (P H Reaney and R M Wilson. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Routledge Hardback Edition, 1976; Oxford Paperback Reference, 2005). Dr Hanks explained that Reaney and Wilson's book was a heroic achievement for its time, but with the benefit of today's sophisticated resources it has become apparent that over 40% of their explanations are untenable. In addition, over 20,000 well-established English and Scottish surnames such as Adshead and Blair are missing entirely from Reaney and Wilson.

The project hopes to have entries on 40,000 names available online by April 2014. In addition, they have a further 150,000 names on the reserve list. A questionnaire in electronic form will be prepared for members of the Guild of One-Name Studies who will be invited to answer questions about their registered surname(s). The questionnaire will be carefully structured so that the researchers get the answers they are seeking rather than the information that Guild members might like to provide!

The project will record the names and dates of the earliest known name-bearers for each surname and an attempt will be made to link these references to modern forms. The frequency and distribution of each surname in the present day and in 1881 will also be recorded. Steve Archer's British 19th-Century Surnames Atlas is being used to map the distribution of surnames in 1881. One of the key resources to be used for early surname references is Carolyn Fenwick's 14th-century Poll Tax Returns (The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, three volumes, Oxford University Press, 1988). This seminal work serves as a proxy census of 14th-century Britain. Fenwick published an index of place names and a glossary of occupations, but ran out of steam and no surname index was ever published, making it a time-consuming exercise to extract data on a single surname and its variants. The UWE team have applied to the British Academy for funding for a project to create a personal names index to the Poll Taxes which, if approved, will be a valuable resource for surname researchers. Carolyn Fenwick is now retired and living in Australia but she has kindly donated her database to the researchers at the UWE.

For later surname references the project will rely on a mixture of primary data sources and the IGI. The project is currently working with Family Search to standardise the place names used in the IGI. Members of the Guild have also been invited to get involved in this project and are now in the process of checking place names in each county and "quarantining" place names which cannot be found in other sources.

The Family Names Project currently has no plans to incorporate genetic data from DNA projects. However, Dr Hanks attended Chris Pomery's talk at the conference on "The Value of DNA Projects to One-Name Studies" and he was particularly interested in the way that DNA projects have uncovered genetic matches with different surname variants such as the link between the names Crews and Screws which has been found in my own project. He was also intrigued to learn that Guild member Alan Moorhouse had a DNA match with someone with the surname Morris. Dr Hanks has asked us for suggestions as to how genetic data could be incorporated in the project, and is arranging to discuss the matter further at a meeting in Bristol with Chris Pomery which I'm also hoping to attend.

© Debbie Kennett 2011


John S Sermon said...

I have been researching the Sermon/Sirman/Surman families for over fifty years and we started a DNA project some eight years ago

There are various branches in; The Severn Valley, Thames Valley, the Chilterns, Wiltshire, London, Belgium, Germany and Eastern Europe, all with differing DNA

The DNA study has been marvellous in identifying origins of the various branches and the possible evolution of the Surnames, and the connections of the various families dispersed over the World

John S Sermon
GOON No 197

Debbie Kennett said...

I thought I was already aware of all the large DNA projects run by Guild members but yours had somehow escaped my attention and was not previously known to me. It's particularly interesting that your surname is found in so many different countries. It would be impossible to prove or disprove such links without DNA evidence. I'm sure Patrick Hanks will be very interested in the findings that you have made about your surname after so many years of research. A DNA project is certainly an excellent tool for researching a surname, though it doesn't always provide all the answers.

Unknown said...

How is the grant at the British Academy going? It would be fantastic to get a copy of Fenwick's database in digital form!

Debbie Kennett said...

The last I heard FaNUK had done a test run of an index on one letter of the alphabet. I've not heard if they've had the go ahead to do the full index, but I'm really hoping they will be able to do so.