Consider the following at the outset of your research:
- Surnames are a medieval innovation and do not begin to become hereditary or family names for the masses until the late 14th century. Surnames were chosen at random and an individual ancestor may have used several surnames before the one you use became hereditary.
- The more common the surname the more difficult the research. See "Common Surnames" below. Fortunately, this difficulty can be partially offset by an unusual given name or finding that the family was located in a geographical setting where the surname was uncommon. The latter is determined through what is known as a surname distribution study.
- There was no one way to spell the family surname until the mid-19th century or later. Be alert for variant spellings of each surname of interest.
- During research, if 6-8 surnames (plus any unusual variants) are too much to remember, it would be better to cut the number of names in half and search a given source more than once in order to avoid missing an entry vital to your research.
- The most common given or christening names for males from the 1500s onwards were: John, Richard, Robert, Thomas and William. For females, they were: Ann, Elizabeth, Jane or Joan, Margaret, Mary and Sarah. Each name will have pet forms such as Polly for Mary, or even alternates based on Latin forms preferred by the minister such as Jacob for James or Johannes or John. Abbreviations might also be challenging. See this FamilySearch Wiki page for a list of common historic nicknames.
- Middle names are rare before the late 18th century and uncommon as late as 1850. The use of a surname as a given or middle name might be a clue to the maiden name of an ancestress.
For more on the role of names in research, click here.
Some idea of how common or uncommon your surname is can be determined by checking the list compiled by Anthony J. Camp as "The Frequency of Common Surnames," Genealogists' Magazine 25 (September, 1997): 452-455. This periodical will be found under FHL 942 B2gm and BYU CS 410 .S61. The problem with a name like Thomas Wilson (Wilson is the 6th most popular name in Camp's list) is not finding the likely ancestor, rather it is finding too many possibilities. You must have more than a general idea of the time and place where he is to be found. Keep in mind that Thomas is as common as Wilson.
The popularity of a name and its variants in a given geographic area can be gleaned from a surname distribution study. You might start with Charles Bardsley’s dictionary of English and Welsh surnames online at Ancestry.com (Although this is a subscription site, you have free access to it when searching at the FHL, using the computers of the Family History section at BYU, or through a Family Search account using Partner Access). Bardsley gives the number of a surname in a given county based on A Return of Owners of Land published in 1873. Such will be identified at the end of the surname information by the initials MDB followed by the name of the county in parenthesis and then the number.
The computers at the FHS and the Family History section of the BYU library contain a program entitled, "British 19th Century Surname Atlas." This program maps out the surname or its variants in 1881 by county or poor law union. The latter is useful for searches in civil registration. It also gives some idea of the popularity of a given name from about 1771 forwards.
For an introduction to the history of surname patterns and a possible approach for constructing a surname pattern, see David H. Pratt's article, "Signposts and Surname Patterns," Genealogical Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1(1997):15-18. (FHL 973 D25gj and BYU CS 1 .G382) For a more recent explanation of surname patterns go to Localize Your Surname located at Price and Associates.
The best general approach to this topic is still P. H. Reaney's A Dictionary of British Surnames that appeared in 1958. Particularly helpful is the 3rd revised edition with corrections and additions by R. M. Wilson published in 1997 under the title A Dictionary of English Surnames. The FHL has only the 1st edition under Ref 942 D4r 1976 as well as back in the regular stacks. BYU has all of the editions, and the 3rd is under RELIGION/FAMILY HISTORY REF CS 2502 .R39 1997. Check also the catalogs of both libraries for the books of Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges on surnames and first names. Their most recent book, The Oxford Names Companion (2002) has sections on surnames, first names, and British place names. It is found under FHL Ref 942 D46h.
Of more specific help are the volumes of the English Surname Series sponsored by the University of Leicester. So far seven volumes have appeared for Yorkshire, West Riding; Norfolk & Suffolk; Oxfordshire; Lancashire; Sussex; Devon; and Leicestershire & Rutland. The FHL does not currently have volume 6 for Devon. The other volumes will be found under 942 B4e. BYU has all of the volumes under CS 2509 but the last part of the call number differs as follows: .D48 P67 1995 for Devon, .L3 M34 1981 for Lancashire, .L45 P67 1998 for Leicestershire, .N6 M29 for Norfolk, .O93 M38 1977 for Oxfordshire, .S96 M255x 1988 for Sussex, and .Y67 R4 for the West Riding of Yorkshire.
For pet forms or nicknames, alternate forms, and abbreviations, use Elizabeth G. Withycombe's The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names first published in 1947 with subsequent editions in 1950 and 1977. The FHL has the second edition under Ref 942 D4w 1950, and the first edition is back in the stacks. BYU has the first and third editions under RELIGION/FAMILY HISTORY REF CS 2375 .G7 W5. Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges have combined with Kate Hardcastle to produce an uptodate version with broader applications including appendices for Irish, Scottish and Welsh names under A Dictionary of First Names. Use the 2nd edition (2006) for the appendices on Irish and Welsh names. (FHL 929.44 H194d 2006 and BYU CS 2367 .H32 2006) For a recent scholarly study of names, see Scott Smith-Bannister's Names and Naming Patterns in England, 1538-1700 (BYU CS 2375 .G7 S555x 1997). See this FamilySearch Wiki page for a list of common historic nicknames.