Never Trust a Document – or a Patronymic

Hi chaps,

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.

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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.

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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)

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.

19 thoughts on “Never Trust a Document – or a Patronymic”

  1. Linda, I shall refer to you from now on as the IcingLady…… and my apologies to your husband – I have one who naps at the drop of a hat, bless him. We are on holiday in Cyprus this week, so I have had to put up rather more’n usual with the napping (and snoring), since it’s more difficult on holiday to be doing other stuff and ignoring MrNappySnoreyMan. Still, he is presently and VERY kindly sitting reading the paper and waiting patiently for me to finish picking up emails etc at a free-wi-fi-cafe (a bit of a Luddite when it comes to technology), so I must be kinder (not the first time in our marriage that this thought has crossed my mind).

  2. Jan, If you trace your Bowens to St Davids, let me know – I know a Bowen family member who is looking into chasing her wider family. And ‘Boyce’ is a good Welsh name, of course……

  3. What a wonderful read!! I’ve got welsh ancestry via my great grandmother, who was a Bowen from Haverfordwest! This explains a lot of why I’ve only got details of her father (as his name’s entered on her marriage certificate!).

  4. Linda Schreiber

    “Icing on the cake” fits well for my earlier Americanism…. I thought I was having a bit of a time with French-Canadian ‘dit’ names. Similar to “Jones the redhead” vs “Jones of the big farm’, but in French, of course, and the family lines carried carried the names on. Michel Provost becomes Michel Roux or Michel Grandchamps. But the Welsh variations!! I’m assuming that ‘oh, dear’ has many privately expressed variations….. I have one Welsh ancestress I haven’t researched yet. I may wait just a little longer….
    I tried to stifle my laughter reading your post, but finally just couldn’t hold it in. I woke my husband from his nap anyways.

  5. Audrey, I live near Curry Rivel; if you need anything looked up at the Somerset Heritage Centre, let me know?

  6. I can understand a bit of the frustration with Welsh ancestry. One of my ancestors William Sansom of Curry Rivel, Somerset, married Mary Nichols of Pembroke Wales in 1820. They had a son James in Troedyraur Wales in 1822, and emigrated to Canada shortly thereafter. Mary never changed her name, the family gravestone shows it as still being Mary Nichols. Attempts to find Mary’s parents have been fruitless. It is interesting to know that they might have a different name and so ensuring that we’ll not find them easily. Thanks for the blog.

  7. Shirley Johnson

    Great article. Well, that explains why I am having such a devil of a time with my great grandmother’s identity…Mary Tiley (maybe). There MIGHT be one line of my family that hasn’t had their name changed by someone somewhere.

  8. Thank you for answering my question. Now I am excited to get to my Welsh family. I thought that the Ap
    was meaning that the name following that was the name of the village they came from or country. Well, now I know and can look for mistakes that I have copied and shouldn’t have without my own research.
    Thank you again. You may hear from me again about my Welsh side. Linda

  9. Oh dear, Gaye – that’s what I call a challenge! I come from “over the mountain” from Merthyr,in the next valley. But the sheer explosion of population there in the middle of the C19 makes searching a nightmare – and names like John and Jane Jones……well……

  10. I understand the frustration with Welsh ancestry (and the pride and blessings of it, too.) I’m looking for John and Jane Jones in Merthyr Tydfil. Interesting since Welsh doesn’t have a J!

  11. My greatgreatgrandfather is listed in the Pennsylvania census as being Welsh. His name was Henry Chappel . Thanks for your article.

  12. The Spanish do the same, Susan – must be a cultural thing, and taken to Mexico – wonder if all Spanish-speaking cultures have the same practice?
    Is “the Norse way” the -son/-dottir ending, or is it different? And what happens now – does this practice continue, or has it changed in recent years?
    At least none of my ancestors were called BlueTooth or ForkBeard……!

  13. Here I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because my Swedish ancestors used the Norse way of doing things, but you Welsh had it just as bad!

    I really loved doing the little bit of Mexican genealogy I’ve done for my brother-in-law. Everyone there had two last names – first your maternal last name (your mother’s last name), and then your paternal last name (your father’s last name). Love it! It’s a genealogist’s dream! God bless those Mexicans!

  14. It’s enough to tear your hair out and explains why I have clumps of hair in the folder with my cousin’s family, the Hughes. Great article.

    I’ve just shared this with the British Isles Genealogy Group on Facebook.

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