One-Name Studies: Why Study Just One Surname?

I’d accepted a job in the Netherlands to manage an acquisition for my firm but my kids were at an age when we wanted a settled home life for them.  So I commuted monthly across the Atlantic for four years.  While I was away, my younger son, David, was accepted into his school’s “gifted and talented” program and his project for the year was to trace his family history.  The school generously provided access to’s US resources to help.  Problem was, we were immigrants, with no prior US roots!  Worse even, my father had fallen out with his family many years prior to his death and we had very little information to go on.

Having evenings to myself in Amsterdam I volunteered to help.  That was nine years ago when British census images were just emerging on CD – heady days!  Fortunately, as I worked back I found that almost all of my family were from Norfolk, just across the North Sea from Holland.  Occasional weekend breaks in Norfolk found me poring over microfilm and parish registers in the Record Office, the local library and the Norfolk Family History Society (NFHS).  Mid-week nights were spent exploring the internet looking for leads and resources.

A few months later, when we printed the tree out for David’s teacher, it ran to 22 feet by 3 feet, including about 600 ancestors!  She was shocked, as you might expect.  Over the next few years I managed to extend the tree a few generations here and there as more resources came online.  It seemed like a real success but I was frustrated

HOWES it going?  Not very well!

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It turned out that my father had two separate lines of ancestors named Howes and my mother had another line in her family!  Of all the many lines to track back, the Howes connections were those I’d made the least progress with, in the case of my main paternal line, only as far as 1796.

I’d been fortunate to get help from researchers into the Harmer and Batch families from people who specialized in those names.  The Harmers have a worldwide family association with extensive genealogies already made after 30 years of work and the person researching the Batch name does it all on her own.  From seeing how they worked I realized that there were practically no online resources for the Howes name, apart from the descendants of a couple who arrived in the US in 1637, and I resolved to do something about that.

After talking with my cousin, Ian Howes, whom I’d met during the research, we decided to try to collect all of the information we could on the Howes name in Norfolk.  We thought that we’d be able to bludgeon our way through our brick walls.  So we started with the 1901 census and began working back.

I should say at this point that Howes was a “local name”  in Norfolk with between 2.5 and 3 nameholders per 1,000 of population, depending upon which year one chooses.  In some parts of the county the frequency was 3 or 4 times higher than the average, sometimes making it very difficult to sort out which William or Thomas goes with which family.  The name extends through much of Southern England but Norfolk is the place where it is most common.

I wrote an article for the NFHS magazine about our efforts, asking for help.  We had contact from  several researchers and within a year went online  at with a database of about 5,000 people.  That was four years ago.  The magazine article also started some back and forth with a committee member of the Guild of One-Name Studies, which we have since joined and on whose committee I myself now sit.

Today, our database exceeds 510,000 facts for over 70,000 people from well over 30 countries.  We are far from complete yet but well under way.  Every month we are contacted by 10-12 researchers many of whom are kind enough to help by adding what they know.

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We have also extended our study to the names HOUSE, HOWSE and HOWS, but more of them next time.

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