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Unique Family Name Website Is Boon To Linking Past & Present


The popular BBC series ‘Who do you think you are?’ describes the quest of celebrities to trace their family histories back to the 19th century and beyond. Now a fascinating new study allows us all to explore the geography of our family histories, using a unique website that tracks how many people have our surnames, their origins and where they live today.

The Surname Profiler website (at is part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) sponsored study led by Professors Paul Longley and Richard Webber of University College, London. It uses 46 million surname records supplied by Experian to identify the origins and past and present locations of Britain’s top 25,000 family names, and where they can be found in Ireland, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Methods developed in the study are also being used in a bid to understand patterns of population movement, social mobility, regional economic development and cultural identity.

Professor Longley said: “Along with providing a fascinating source of information for people wanting to trace their family roots, our study was aimed at understanding patterns of regional economic development, population movement and cultural identity.

“This databank will boost our ability to analyse such things as patterns of emigration from Britain. And it will be a boon to those working on issues from integration and assimilation into mainstream society to strategies for local policing.”

Methods developed in the study are also being used in a bid to improve health care, in an ESRC Knowledge Transfer Partnership co-sponsored by Camden Primary Care Trust (CPT) in North-West London. Researchers are investigating how the surname databank can be used in health promotion campaigns aimed at people from ethnic backgrounds prone to particular diseases.

The study revealed that 30 generations after our ancestors were first assigned a family name, surnames are still extremely regional. Delving back to the Census of 1881 it found that, perhaps surprisingly, Britain has actually seen little dispersal among most of the working population.

Smith remains the number one name, used by more than half a million in the UK. Today, as then, it is most concentrated in Lerwick, in Shetland. Between 1881 and 1998 the area in which individuals named ‘Paxman’ were most concentrated shifted from Cambridge to Romford, although they have done well for themselves: today only 1% of people have a more high status name. In New Zealand the name Paxman occurs most frequently in Auckland, while in the US the Paxmans have gravitated towards Utah.

Patel, a relatively new entrant to the charts, shot up from nil recorded in 1881 to more than 80,000 in the electoral register of 1998, making it Britain’s 40th most common surname. And the place with the largest number of Patels is Harrow, in North London.

Jones retains its position as the number two surname, with almost 400,000 bearing it. Blaenau Ffestiniog, in North Wales, remains their stronghold, with the highest grouping among upland hill farmers. Williams and Brown also keep their positions as the third and fourth most common names.

Professor Webber said: “We are very pleased and optimistic with this development, and believe that it represents an interesting example of the use of basic research to further the ESRC’s mission in health and lifestyles analysis, as well as improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public service delivery.”

Alexandra Saxon | alfa
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