Genealogist Elizabeth Walne uncovers the origins of some of the county’s most common family names - and reveals which ones could become extinct
There are eight categories of surnames - do you know which one yours falls under? Picture: Getty Images (Image: All Rights Reserved. Tel: 604-780-3255)
We all love delving deep into our family histories – but do you know where your surname comes from?
Some Norfolk surnames span centuries, and have some incredibly interesting origins.
Elizabeth Walne is a qualified genealogist based in East Anglia, and is here to explain where some of Norfolk’s most common surnames come from, how popular they are and why certain surnames could be on the cusp of dying out.
But to understand the lexicology of surnames, we should first get to grips with where they come from and how they came into being.
Elizabeth said: “Surnames arrived with the Norman barons after 1066, but it took some time for them to become ‘sticky’ to family lines, and to be passed down among ‘ordinary’ people. It is generally agreed that by about 1400, most English families used a hereditary surname – but not always as rigidly as we might imagine.
“It sounds simple, but people are nothing if not endlessly creative, and the spellings of British surnames have not been standardised for very much longer than the eldest of our population have been alive. When you think about how many pieces of post you get with an incorrect surname spelling, even in the digital age, you can see how names have had the opportunity to evolve and for spellings to vary over the centuries since surnames first became the norm.”
Elizabeth has rounded up 10 surnames that if you were to meet someone with one of these last names, they’re several times more likely to be from Norfolk than anywhere else in the country.
She said: “These names are relatively specific to Norfolk but also high-frequency enough to capture many of your readers and their communities. They are not the top 10 by frequency alone – the top five in 1881 were Smith, Wright, Brown, Green and Clarke - but ones selected by me as representative of places and names from across Norfolk that are likely to be familiar to many.
“You may also be interested to know that these names were quite unusual but Norfolk-specific in 1881 and were still fairly rare in 2016 which might be your ‘at risk’ names such as Rasberry, Shawl and Bassham.
Luke and Phil Platten from Platten's Fish and Chips in Wells. Anyone with the surname Platten is 41 times more likely to come from Norfolk than any other part of the country. Picture: Matthew Usher (Image: © Archant Norfolk 2013)
Top 10 surnames specific to Norfolk:
“You are 57 times more likely to be from Norfolk with this surname than from across the UK as a whole.
“While having a high-specificity to Norfolk, numbers of bearers were estimated to be around 100 in both 1881 and 2016 – so you might be less likely to be one than some of the other names I’ve picked.
“The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names suggests it to be perhaps a particularly Norfolk variation of Rawlinson. In 1851 it was most common around Great Fransham, Sporle and East Lexham.”
You’re 46 times more likely to come from Norfolk with Goodrum, which has done well over the last century and has more than doubled its number of bearers since 1881. The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names suggests it is a variant of Gooderham (more frequent south of the border) and that it’s possibly a relationship name from Old Scandinavian Guðormr; ‘battle’ + ‘snake’! However, there were also female names that could have influenced its frequency, as well as Gudram/Guthrum, the first Danish King of East Anglia.
“In 1851 almost three-quarters of Goodrums were in Norfolk, and they could be found in several clusters across the county.”
“Ketteringhams are 43 times more likely to come from Norfolk and is a great example of a name that’s immediately recognisable to locals as probably locative to the place of the same name. Another name that has more than doubled its frequency in the last 130 years, in the mid-19th century it was actually found most commonly in West Norfolk – King’s Lynn and Downham Market.”
“This one is likely to be a mainly Norfolk variant of the more frequently found ‘Warne’. Its origins are a little murky. It may be a reduced version of Warren, or perhaps locative to a similar-sounding place name, perhaps one across the English Channel – more research to be done here. It does seem to be distinct from my own surname of Walne in most cases.
“Whatever its origins, it has more bearers today than most on my list, right across central Norfolk and Norwich and you are 42 times more likely to come from Norfolk with this surname.
“You are 41 times more likely to be from Norfolk with Platten as a asurname. Often found north of Norwich in Aylsham and Erpingham enumeration districts in the 19th century, Platten may be an occupational nickname coming from Old French ‘platon’ for ‘metal plate’ - and therefore ‘platemaker’.”
“This one is 38 times more likely in Norfolk. The double ‘e’ spelling was relatively specific to Norfolk in 1881 and may come from the same root as ‘Leader’ - which could be leader of a dance, games - or probably more frequently, leading animals pulling carts of goods. However, Leader is much more widespread; a One-Name Study may throw up an alternative explanation.”
“Dacks are 37 more likely to be from Norfolk and this is one of the more populous today of all the names in this list, Dack may come from the personal name ‘Dacke’, and was particularly common in central Norfolk around (East) Dereham in the mid-1800s.”
“Another example where an ‘s’ has been added as a variant and has been relatively specific to the county. There are many origins possible here, and all have probably played a part in the evolution of the name. Could someone have been rich (‘riche’ in Old French), lived by a stream (Old English ‘ric’), or simply named for an ancestor with the personal name ‘Richard’ or similar?
Richard may be an uncommon name for a new-born today, but this related surname is thriving and you are 27 times more likely to be from Norfolk with this as your surname.
“The Oxford Dictionary suggests that in this area Rix is most likely a relationship or pet name variant of ‘Rick’, again related to ‘Richard’. Adding an ‘s’ in these parts, it becomes ‘Ricks’ or ‘Rix’. This is also a surname that continues to thrive in Norfolk - I would place a bet that most readers have met one.
“DNA studies have shown that variants Rix, Ricks and Rex have occasionally evolved from one to another. There is a sizeable One-Name Study for Rix that is well worth a look, and an annual gathering in non-Covid times. A Rix is 30 times more likely to be from Norfolk.”
“You are 37 times more likely to be from Norfolk with Curson as a surname. Particularly common in central Norfolk and up to Walsingham and Fakenham areas in the 19th century, this may be locative from Notre-Dame-de-Courson in Normandy. But is this the whole story?
“There is no registered One-Name Study to offer an additional explanation and any connection to the ‘z’ variant more common on other side of the country - yet!”