Never Trust a Document – or a Patronymic
popular sectionsGenealogy Resources Help and How-To Free Genealogy Search 50 Free Genealogy Sites
After my last blog, Linda gave me some food for thought. So we’re getting away from actual documents this time, and looking at patronymics. Not to be confused with patronising, which is something the British are REALLY good at. (British forces arrive in somebody else’s country: “Oh, you don’t have a flag? Oh dear. That’s a shame. You can’t have a country without a flag. Very sorry. Look, we’ll plant ours. Now your country belongs to us”)
Patronymics are the sort of surname where various members of the same family don’t share the same last name, but have their own. Think of Norse usage – ‘Svenson’ or ‘Andersdottir’.
But the reason I’ve had to grapple with patronymics isn’t because I’m a beautiful blonde Scandinavian. Au contraire – I come of Welsh stock, and am (as Flanders and Swann say about us in the lyrics of “The English” – check youtube if you haven’t come across them, they are very funny, tho’ now both dead), ‘little and dark, more like monkey than man’. But never mind, so are all my family.
Like many cultures, the Welsh took to surnames late. While the English were rejoicing in being called Reginald Bracegirdle or Freda Ramsbottom, we were calling ourselves John or Mary (actually, Sion or Mair, but for simplicity, we’ll stick here to the familiarity of English usage).
This of course was only of any use if the village was small enough that there was only one John or Mary at a time. Which there usually wasn’t. So John would take his father’s name, in the form ‘John son of Richard’ – which in Welsh would be ‘John ap Richard’. So everyone in the village would know which John he was. Sorted.
John ap Richard
In fact, most Welshmen would be expected to know their descent for seven generations, as the inheritance customs were also very different from the English primogeniture system. But a simple John ap Richard will do very well for our purposes here.
Our John ap Richard is living in interesting times. The Industrial Revolution is just beginning, and English ways are penetrating his remote valley. He is happy to stick to the old ways, but his brother Owen has a more cosmopolitan outlook. So Owen begins to call himself ‘Owen Richard’ – probably not all the time, and sometimes he will have his name written as ‘Owen Richards’ and sometimes still as ‘Owen ap Richard’. But it doesn’t matter – everyone in the village knows who he is, anyway.
John ap Richard Owen Richard
Their brother Hugh is torn between the new and the old ways; he rather likes the swagger of being Anglicised Mr Richard, but has pride in his culture. So he settles for being Mr ’pRichard (which soon gets written ‘Pritchard’)
/ / /
John ap Richard Owen Richard Hugh Pritchard
Their sons are even more of a mixed bunch:
/ / /
John ap Richard Owen Richard Hugh Pritchard
_______/______ ____________/________________ _______/_______________
/ / / / / / /
Tom John; Dick Richard Harry Richards; Fred Owens; Len Bowen Joe Pritchard; Jim Hugh
(and Tom’s (from ‘ab Owen’ (and Jim’s
children as the ‘p’ sound children
become Jones mutates into a’b’ become Hugh or
and John, before a vowel) Hughes, as the
as the fancy fancy takes them)
So Richard’s great-grandchildren will have the surnames John; Jones; Richard; Richards; Pritchard; Owens; Bowen; Hugh and Hughes. Not a Bracegirdle or a Ramsbottom among ’em.
We haven’t mentioned Richard’s daughter Mary. And this is where tracing family roots in Wales gets REALLY complicated.
Richard and his wife Elizabeth’s daughter might be ‘Mary Ferch (daughter of) Richard’; but equally she might be ‘Mary ferch (daughter of) Elizabeth’. H’m. And when she married her sweethqart Bill Evan, she might well keep her own name (remember, there was no concept of a ‘family surname’, so no reason for her to adopt her husband’s name). So the marriage entry in the Parish Register might say, ‘Mary ferch Richard married Bill Evan’ – and when her own daughter was born, the little thing might be known as Ellen Evan to Bill’s family, and Ellen ferch Mary to Mary’s family, and Ellen Bill to some folk in the village. Her friends might call her Ellen Evans or Ellen Bevan. Pity the girl baptised Elizabeth, who might end up as Betty or Lizzie or Beth….and have these various surnames as well …and pity me trying to find her a hundred and fifty years later. While the locals would be very happy with this plethora of names for our family, trying to trace ancestors through this fog is a dreadful business. I have worn out pencils drawing up permutations and possibilities.
Even the best-known websites can’t agree how to rationalise these last names. One branch of my family has the name Wilson, and the eldest son was always Griffith. Familysearch shows the baptisms of one generation under the surname Griffith, while FindMyPast has the same baptisms under Wilson…and Willson…and William. All these baptisms are of the children of my ancestor Griffith Wilson. This is where I wish we on this side of the Pond had a phrase like “go figure”! The best we have is “oh dear”.
One of the other problems with Welsh surnames is that there aren’t that many, since they are overwhelmingly derived from a small pool of first names. So communities are full of people with the same surname. But we are a canny race. In any village, you will find most people hardly bother with first names. Instead, everyone uses nicknames. So you will have Jones the Post and Jones the Meat and Jones the Bank and so on. One old joke has a policeman coming into a village and looking for an espionage agent. He approaches an old man and asks where Mr Evans lives. The old boy says, “Are you wanting Evans the Mill, or Evans the School, or Evans the Spy?” You get the picture.
PS – I’d better say that the comment about flags in the first paragraph isn’t original – Eddie Izzard said it first.
About Elaine Banks
My ancestry is mainly Welsh, though I live in England now. When you meet an Englishman, he asks, "What do you do?" but when you meet a Welshman, he asks, "Who do you belong to?". The Welsh have an atavistic need to slot you into the tribe. I have taken up genealogy in my retirement, mainly because it allows me to sit down for long periods of time, whilst drinking tea and eating digestive biscuits. While I could do this staring into space, I have retained enough dignity in old age to require an excuse. Family history is also my perfect pastime, in that it allows me to peer into other folks' lives without the public taint of nosiness; and since those other folks are my own family, sometimes the facts uncovered shed light on those half-forgotten whispers and mutterings overheard in my youth. Reason three for indulging in this hobby? The cousins-of-sorts I meet along the way. Infinitely generous with their information and their encouragement, even with their friendship and their accommodation. And the last reason, of course, is that I just can't help myself - the pleasures of the detective work, the joy of discovery, the satisfaction of joining-the-dots....I am in thrall to the most solitary of pleasures, because sadly NOT EVEN MY OWN FAMILY is at all interested in my passion. And that last reason is why I am tickled pink to be writing a blog.