Wales Names, Personal

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Before record keeping began, most people only had a first name. As the population increased, people began adding descriptive information, such as John "the smith," to a person’s name to distinguish him or her from others with the same name. At first, a surname applied only to one person and not to the whole family.

Patronymic Names in Wales

Patronymic surnames are based on the father’s given name. Generally, ap or ab was added between the child’s name and the father’s name. For example, David ab Owen is David son of Owen. For a woman’s name, the word ferch or verch, meaning daughter of, was used. There were many exceptions to this:

  • The family could drop the ab or ap. In this case, his name would have been simply David Owen.
  • The family could drop the a and attach the remaining p or b to the father’s name. For example, David ab Owen could have been David Bowen.

In dealing with patronymic names, remember:

  • The absence of ap or ab does not mean the family adopted a permanent surname. In South Wales particularly, patronymic surnames appeared without the ap or ab.
  • Different naming patterns were often used in the same family. For example, Harry John’s six sons were named Griffith ap Harry, John Parry, Harry Griffith, Richard Parry, Miles ap Harry, and Thomas Parry. They might equally have used the surname John(s) or Jones.
  • An illegitimate child may have used the given or surname of the reputed father, the surname of the mother, or the given or surname of the family who raised the child.
  • Some families used patronymics after adopting a permanent surname. Never assume that a surname is a permanent surname.
  • The father’s given name may be spelled differently as a surname even though it is pronounced the same (for example, Davies from David).
  • The name may have been anglicized.
  • Patronymic surnames changed with each generation.
  • A widow may have reverted to using her maiden surname.

Other Types of Surnames

Surnames also developed from the following sources:

Descriptive or Nickname. Surnames are sometimes based on a unique quality of a person. Occasionally this term was modified and accepted as a permanent surname. For example, Llwyd (meaning gray) was changed to Lloyd. Sometimes a descriptive term immediately followed the given name, such as Gwilym ap Fychan. (Fychan means small and often became Vaughan.)

Locality. Some surnames are based on the individual’s birthplace or residence. Thomas Mostyn lived in Mostyn.

Occupational. Other surnames are based on the person’s trade, such as Wil Saer (or Wil y Saer), meaning Will the carpenter. Occupational names are sometimes modified. For example, Saer could take the permanent form of Sayer.

Adopting a Surname

Some families adopted permanent surnames much earlier than others. Generally, families lower on the social scale used the patronymic system longer than those higher up the social scale. Patronymics lingered the longest in the north and central-western counties. Most noble families adopted surnames by the sixteenth century. The gentry adopted them during the eighteenth century, while some farmers, tenant farmers, and workers did not take surnames until the nineteenth century or later. Generally, the patronymic naming pattern and the various naming customs were coming to an end by 1837, but later usage occurs and there has been a modern revival of the practice.

Any one of the following patterns were used when adopting a surname. The pattern used by one generation was not always used by the next generation.

Father’s Given Name. Using the father’s given name as the surname was the most common. Sometimes, the father’s name was changed to serve as a surname. Iago son of Rhys could have been known as Iago Rees, Iago Prees, or Iago Price.

Father’s Surname. Sometimes a son was given his father’s surname. This is done today. Owen, the son of John Price, may have become Owen Price.

Grandfather’s Given Name. Occasionally, a family adopted the grandfather’s given name as a surname. For example, the surname of Thomas Pugh, son of Jasper ap Hugh is a form of his grandfather’s name, Hugh.

Maternal Grandfather’s Name. In some areas, the mother named her first-born son after her own family, usually her father. Godfrey Prydderch married Ann Lloyd, daughter of Reece Lloyd. Their eldest son’s surname is Lloyd.

Grandmother’s Name. An individual’s surname could be based on the grandmother’s family name. Rees Llewelyn married Gwenllian Lloyd. Their son, Griffith ab Rhys, named his son David Lloyd. David Lloyd’s descendants kept the surname Lloyd.

Many pre-1800 church registers record the father’s name in several different ways, one or more of which may be abbreviated. For example, "Jane Thomas, daughter of Thomas Dd. William James was baptized the 26th May 1732." Without further evidence, it is impossible to determine which name(s) the father used during his lifetime.

For more information on Welsh names, see:

Morgan, T. J., and Prys Morgan, Welsh Surnames. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 1985. (FHL book 942.9 D4m.)

Rowlands, John, and Sheila. The Surnames of Wales for Family Historians and Others. Genealogical Publishing Co.: Baltimore, Maryland. 1996. (FHL book 942.9 D4r.)

Welsh First Names for Children: Their Meanings Explained. Cardiff, Wales: Emeralda, 1978. (FHL book 942.9 D4w.)

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