England Surname Changes (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Surname Changes[edit | edit source]

In the English speaking world one could, and still can, change one’s surname in a variety of perfectly legal ways. The situation in other countries may not be the same, however, thus from the time of the first Revolution in France it has been forbidden to bear any first name (prenom) or surname other than that on the birth certificate, or to add any surname to the proper name in that country (Stevenson). One would assume that this applies to other areas under French influence but it is worth checking if your ancestry is French. Radical changes, by which I mean other than spelling variation however complex, are relatively unusual as they caused some temporary inconveniences.

It follows that there must have been a good reason why a change was made, and it behooves the researcher to ask himself what this was, in order to formulate further hypotheses on family movements and history. A classification of types of name changes from the point of view of the person affected is presented next.

Change by Choice[edit | edit source]

Legal Means of Changing a Name[edit | edit source]

Under English common law a person may assume a new surname without drawing up any formal record, as long as it is not done for fraudulent purposes. There are inconveniences to not having it ‘in writing,’ but there are expenses beyond the reach of most in doing so. In addition, many people did not want to be able to be tracked down, as a legal document would have enabled someone to do.

A surname may be changed legally to comply with the conditions of a will to inherit money, a title or property or perhaps at naturalization or denization. Searches for probates on both sides of the family at this time, or for naturalization and denization records may yield answers. Unless there was such a necessity most people wouldn’t have had the money or bothered to go to the trouble of legal documentation and so the change is hard to trace.

Phillimore and Fry’s An Index to Changes of Name 1760-1901, now also available on CD-ROM, lists the following British legal formal records:

  • Ÿ Acts of Parliament
  • Ÿ Royal Licences—but only those published in the London and Dublin Gazettes
  • Ÿ Notices published in The Times 1861-1901 and a few from other newspapers
  • Ÿ The Registers of the Lord Lyon (Scotland)
  • Ÿ Records of the Ulster King of Arms (Ireland)
  • Ÿ Some private information

It is a useful source but omits changes by Royal Licence not advertised in the London Gazette, and changes by Deed Poll or Statutory Declaration which have not been advertised in The Times, and simple newspaper advertisements which are also legal.

A ban on name changes for enemy aliens living in Britain came into effect in 1916, was extended to all foreigners in 1919 and not removed until 1971. It did not apply to women marrying and taking their husband’s surname, nor to a few exceptional cases by Royal Licence or permission from the Home Secretary, which were announced in the London Gazette and its equivalents in Dublin and Edinburgh.

For the 19th and 20th centuries Deed Poll, Statutory Declaration and Advertisement in the Press have been the commonest methods used and there are no really satisfactory indexes. Records are mainly at the PRO (Public Record Office) and further information should be sought from them; the leaflet #38 Change of Name is the starting place, and a note on the indexes is found in Camp (Changes of Name in The London Gazette. Family Tree Magazine Vol 15 #11, page 26. 1999). People who have changed their names by deed poll during the 20th century include Thomas Martin Fullalove who was probably tired of the jokes and condensed his surname to Fuller in 1907; Erwin Ludwig Rachwalsky who preferred the English sound of Rockwell in 1946; and Reginald Kenneth DWIGHT who in 1972 chose Elton Hercules JOHN, which seems to have improved his musical career!

The answers to most name problems lie in doing thorough research and adopting a broad approach. Be creative in the spelling variations to look for; readall the censuses, not just one; read the parish registers over a wide span both in time period and geographical area; read the Parish Registers and the Bishops Transcripts; look for other original and copied or compiled sources; read widely to see how others have solved similar problems; contact surname organizations such as The Guild of One-Name Studies.

Retention of Maiden Surname[edit | edit source]

In those countries where wives retained their maiden names after marriage, for example Scandinavia and Scotland, it is far simpler to track the women throughout their lives. For example a census of the lady as a widow with children still at home would appear as follows:

Margaret McLeod Head Widow Age 63
Alexander Thom Son Unmarried Age 30
Janet Thom Dau Unmarried Age 25

Thus, even at a late stage in her life you know her maiden name and this makes finding the births of children and her marriage far easier. However, because these countries have a smaller surname base, there are usually far more people having the same name as the one you seek. Tracking families as a unit is the practical way to proceed. A woman who was in Scotland or Scandinavia for a census, or died there, is more likely to have information on her maiden surname recorded at those times than if she lived elsewhere.

To Escape A Previous Life or Evade the Law[edit | edit source]

When someone wished to escape from a previous background it was not unusual to adopt a new name. Factors would include escaping from creditors, from an upcoming unacceptable arranged marriage, or from an overbearing father. Spouses leaving their partners, deserters from the army or navy, and runaway apprentices have all changed their names. Others were blackballed from work because of involvement in protests or early union-type activities, or perhaps they were evading the authorities after committing a crime. For the researcher trying to work backwards it is helpful to know that the most common surname choice was their mother’s maiden name.

To Avoid Persecution During Conflicts[edit | edit source]

During wars and other unsettled times those perceived to be of the opposing nationality or religion could be victimized, and many have changed their names to sound more like those around them. As an example, during the two World Wars, thousands of inhabitants of Britain with Germanic-sounding surnames, (even if they were actually of Dutch, Polish or other non-German descent), took this precaution to safeguard their families.

The Anglo-German FHS journal Mitteilungsblatt is replete with examples of such anglicizations. A case was quoted by Titford ( Forename Surname in Genealogical Miscellany. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #4, page 13. 1995) concerning two brothers who were shopkeepers in London in the early 1900s, and thus had very visible names prone to unpopularity prior to the Great War. Henry Degenhardt renamed himself Henry Hart, whilst his brotherFrederick Charles Degenhardt used his middle name as his surname over his shop, as F. Charles. Even the British royal family changed their surnames from Battenberg to Mountbatten, and Wettin to Windsor in 1917 in response to anti-German feeling during the First World War.

Most name changes were done without any official paperwork, but some can be found under Naturalization and Denization Papers that are available on GSU microfilms. The researcher should be alert to the possibility of a slight anglicization, or even a drastic change of surname, if the well of information suddenly dries up at a period of conflict or disruption in that country.

To Gain an Inheritance or Title[edit | edit source]

Plenty of men have been persuaded to change their surname to their mother’s or wife’s maiden name if a legacy or title was proffered. These were usually well documented by probate and legal change of name. More modest inheritances may be harder to ascertain but should not prove overwhelming. Examples include the St. John family, deriving from Adam de Port (died before 1213), who married the heiress of the St. John family and adopted her surname. A more recent one is the father of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) who changed his name from Shore on inheriting the fortune of an uncle of that name.

Stage Names and Noms-de-Plume[edit | edit source]

Would Doris Kappelhoff and Archibald Leach have gotten as far in film if they hadn’t changed their names to Doris Day and Cary Grant? These were deliberate attempts to capture the public imagination. In earlier eras women writers used male pen names to ensure serious consideration, for example Charlotte, Emma and Anne Brontë styled themselves Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, whilst George Eliot was really Mary Ann Evans. People from ballerinas to politicians have used invented names to further their careers, or to separate their public and private lives. Dozens of examples can be found in Dunkling (1989).

Unique Circumstances[edit | edit source]

Picasso took his mother’s name because his father didn’t like his style of painting.

Change by Circumstance[edit | edit source]

Adoption[edit | edit source]

Until adoption laws came into force, and this was quite recently, for example 1 Jan 1927 in England, the process was not generally regulated or recorded. Those born since 1927, upon reaching the age of 18, may apply for release of the names of their biological parents after counselling procedures. Before 1927 there may be some information through a children’s’ home or orphanage such as Dr. Barnardo’s, but chances are slim. It is wise to consider the whole family picture as informal adoptions were often arranged within families. A childless couple would take in a sibling’s or cousin’s illegitimate baby and treat it as their own, or grandpa and grandma would raise their daughter’s offspring. The change of name may be relatively easy to identify if this situation has occurred. Two references mentioned by Mark D. Herber (Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Genealogical Publishing Company) will be found useful for British cases, namely Rogers (1992) and Stafford.

Women’s Surname Change at Marriage[edit | edit source]

It was customary in English-speaking countries for a woman to exchange her father’s surname for her husband’s upon marriage, formerly indicating the ‘change of ownership,’ if you like. In countries using the patronymic system of naming, such as Wales, parts of Scotland, and Scandinavia, this obviously wasn’t logical and was not the custom. In yet other nations, a woman keeps her maiden name and adds her husband’s, for example in Spain with a connecting de. Graves (quoted in Leslie Ann Dunkling’s, The Guinness Book of Names, Guinness Books. 1989) gives two, perhaps apocryphal, examples:

  • Ÿ ‘On marrying Wifredo Las Rocas, our Majorcan friend Rosa, born an Espinosa, became Rosa Espinosa de Las Rocas—a very happy combination. It means ‘Lady Thorny Rose from the Rocks.’
  • Ÿ ‘Her maternal cousin, Dolores Fuertes, thoughtlessly married a lawyer named Tomas Barriga, and is now Dolores Fuertes de Barriga, or ‘Violent Pains of the Stomach.’


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.