Early Durham Surnames

An analysis of the historic distribution and incidence of surnames in County Durham in the sixteenth century.

About the Project

Since 2004, Ken Coleman of Durham Records Online has been transcribing parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, working on the earliest registers mainly from a collection of manuscripts bequeathed to Newcastle Library by the genealogist, Herbert Maxwell Wood.

Whilst trawling through these early parish records, it soon became apparent how spellings of surnames varied widely between the registers of the various Durham parishes. Although one would expect curates to be literate, some were not. Very often they were not from the parish and would not be familiar with the spelling of some surnames. Also, names may have been spelt differently if they had moved from one curacy to another. In the 16th century (and later) the majority of the inhabitants were illiterate, so spellings were largely down to the literacy or imagination of a curate or clerk.

One member of our team with a particular interest in the Tudor period sought a better understanding of the demographic history of the North East in Tudor times [It may be worth noting that the population of what is now County Durham, in 1569 was about 75,000]. This interest prompted a major research project to be undertaken in 2014 known as the Durnam (Durham Surnames) project, which aimed to gather information, study and analyse the geographic and historic distribution of surnames. It became clear that there was merit in putting the collected data on a statistical basis, in other words, quantifying the examples of each version of the surname, and it was reasoned that analysing the frequency may be helpful in distinguishing the genuine variants from those fleeting versions arising from simple errors.

The creation of a separate database integrated within the website was a natural progression, mainly because it facilitates ongoing research work, enables quick updates and, perhaps more importantly, it also provides the means for researchers of their Durham ancestry to identify parishes and years of vital events, and then go onto the main Search Service section of this website to obtain further information about individuals.

The principal source of database records is some 60,000 entries of baptisms, marriages and burials, between 1538-1599, in surviving 16th century registers of fifty seven parish churches in the diocese of Durham. Other valuable sources which are a work in progress include the collection of Halmote Court books (Manorial records), commencing in 1519; Wills and Probate from 1537; Calenders of Patent Rolls (Pardons for Rising in the North in 1569), Homberston's Survey of 1570, and various Quarter Sessions, Bishop's administrative records and periodic official surveys. As a means of capturing the myriad of surnames recorded in pre-parish registers, their inclusion within the 'Births' category of vital events was conceived. If, for example, an individual is recorded in a manorial court roll in 1519 he will be identified as a 'birth' in 1500.

In all instances, surnames have been transcribed as they appear in the records, even when it is believed the clerk made a mistake. No attempt has been made to normalise surnames because of the danger of making false assumptions. However, a concerted effort has been made to determine the primary name, with that being the most commonly used and generally accepted, and associated variant and deviant spellings have been linked so that they also display. Decisions on variant spellings are based on earlier studies of surnames, and considerable involvement with parish registers and seventeenth century returns has been made without the luxury of acquiring genealogical evidence by tracing any particular family line back. In this regard, we apologize for any errors and inconsistencies, and welcome viewpoints and constructive criticism.

Research work and data uploading is ongoing and, as the database grows steadily, it is hoped that it will develop beyond merely a platform for discovering surnames and their variants, but within the website emerge as the pre-eminent online source of information on Durham inhabitants during Tudor times. If successful, it may even pave the way for seventeenth century data to be presented in the same way.