Largest ever study of UK family names launched by University of West of England

By Culture24 Staff | 14 December 2009
close up of four cursive signatures in a column with the centre two surnames reading Hesketh

Signatures of WT Hesketh and Alice Hesketh as they appear on the online 1806 anti-slave trade petition. © Parliamentary Archives

The UK's largest ever research project into family names is set to create a vast public database of surnames.

Researchers from the University of the West of England in Bristol will list up to 150,000 names, aimed at supporting further work by family historians and genealogists.

Concentrating on English and Scottish families through sources dating back to the 11th century, the study will also examine Norman French, Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish names as well as Huguenot, Jewish and later immigrant ones.

"There is widespread interest in family names and their history," explained lead researcher Richard Coates, of the Bristol Centre for Linguistics at UWE.

"Our project will use the most up-to-date techniques and evidence available to create a more detailed and accurate resource than those currently available."

a docuemt with names written on it

© Parliamentary Archives

"Some names can have origins that are occupational – obvious examples are Smith and Baker," added Coates. "Names can also be linked to a place – for example the names Hill or Green [referring to village greens].

"Surnames which are 'patronymic' are those which enshrine the father's name, such as Jackson, or Jenkinson. There are also names where the origin describes the original bearer, such as Brown, Short or Thin."

Lead researcher Dr Patrick Hanks, an eminent lexicographer who is a visiting professor at the UWE, will assist the scheme. Czech centre The Faculty of Informatics, at Masaryk University in Brno, will also provide technical support.

The project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant of £834,350.

"As someone who has always been curious about my own surname, I welcome this project," added Professor Rick Rylance, Chief Executive of the AHRC.

"It has great potential to illuminate crucial aspects of personal, family and social history which will be of interest to academics and the public alike."

Work will begin in April 2010 and is scheduled for completion by March 2014.

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