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AfriGeneas World Research Forum

New database puts names on the map

New database puts names on the map

By Jenifer Johnston

SCOTS will be able to trace their family roots one step further from today, with the launch of a new website that traces the history and geography of surnames across the UK.

The Surname Profiler project, developed by the Economic and Social Research Council, shows the origin of surnames, their frequency and geographical distribution, tracing the movement of people with the same names from the 19th century to today.

As well as mapping surnames across the UK the project has uncovered where common Scottish and British surnames can be found in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, giving another clue to patterns of migration.

The website details Britain’s top 25,000 names, and there are plans to increase that number to around 280,000 names in the future.

Unlike genealogical research, the project focuses on groups of people sharing a family name rather than on individuals. Census data from 1881 to 1998, electoral registers and more than 46 million surname records from credit reference company Experian were all used to give a comprehensive picture of where people with the same surname lived in the past and today.

Professor Richard Webber of University College London, one of the researchers on the study, told the Sunday Herald the project had become “a fascinating source of information for people wanting to trace their family roots”.

The project threw up some surprising results such as the number of people with Scottish surnames living in London’s Caribbean communities.

“Scots were amongst a number of plantation owners in the Caribbean and plantation workers and slaves took their names from the owners,” said Webber, “Through the years the names have remained with the descendants of those workers all the way back to Britain.

“We also see that Scottish surnames overseas are most highly concentrated in Tasmania rather than mainland Australia, giving some more clues about migration patterns.”

Social changes are also evident from the research – in 1881 the census found nobody named Patel in the UK; today the surname is the 40th most popular in the country.

Smith remains the number one surname in the UK, used by more than half a million people, and is most concentrated in Lerwick, Shetland. Almost 400,000 people are named Jones, with Williams and Brown in third and fourth position.

Delving back in time, the study also reveals that, 30 generations after our ancestors were first assigned a family name, surnames remain extremely regional, with some monickers still most highly concentrated in the area where they first emerged in the Middle Ages.

“Despite the mobility that education and wealth has brought, most clusters of surnames remain together, unchanged for hundreds of years,” Webber said.

In addition to helping trace family histories, the ESRC hopes the data can be used in health projects around TB and diabetes, to target specific, susceptible ethnic minority groups.

Since census records went online there has been a huge explosion in genealogy-related websites, TV programmes and books. Of the top ten “family” websites checked by web monitors Hitwise, eight were ancestry or genealogy sites such as Genes Reunited. Programmes such as the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, where celebrities trace their family roots, have also been a huge success.

The ESRC study took three years to complete and cost £45,500.

15 January 2006


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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