(A brief guide for family history researchers)
This website is intended as a guide to the local history of the town of Ammanford and the immediate district. It is not intended, however, as a family history website. Those who have attempted to trace their own family history are painfully aware how incredibly complex, time-consuming, frustrating, and expensive such an undertaking can be. Hundreds of pounds can be spent purchasing copies of birth, marriage and death certificates, and criss-crossing Wales (and other parts of the UK and Ireland) in search of archives, libraries, newspapers, parish and chapel records. Remote and windswept churches and chapels may have to be visited in order to scrutinise those gloomy reminders of our own mortality, tombstones. Add to this all the other endless expenses such as photocopying costs, purchase of books, subscriptions to genealogy internet sites, and fees for the services of professional genealogists, and the costs soon mount up, not to mention hundreds of hours in time.
For those who enjoy, and are fascinated by all this research, it is obviously money and time well spent. But others (including this author) soon abandon the quest, finding themselves hopelessly lost in the thickets of the innumerable Jones, Williams, Davies, Thomas and Evans that make up much of a typical Welsh family tree. When you add to this tiny number of surnames the even tinier number of Christian names used in earlier times (John, David, William, Thomas, for men; Anne, Mary, Elizabeth, Jane, for women), then only the very determined ever make it further back than three or four generations of their family tree, with plenty of gaps staring back where untraceable family members should be.
Despite this, there is a steady stream of emails to this website about family history, all of which have to be referred back to the writer with advice to consult a professional genealogist. A typical request would be as follows:
“Dear Sir, I live in America/Canada/Australia/New Zealand/England and my ancestor emigrated from Wales in the 17th/18th/19th century. His name was David Jones/Thomas Williams/Davies/Evans and he was a coal miner from Ammanford. Do you know where he lived and worked; do you have a photograph of him; do you know his date of birth? Do you know how to eliminate world poverty?”
That last request may have been made up (though it's probably the easiest to answer), but all the other requests have been received in some form or other. This section of the website, then, is intended to give a brief history of the growth of surnames in Wales in order to help the reader understand where our surnames come from and why there are so few of them compared to nearby England. The most common surnames will be identified along the way, with some discussion of the regional variation of many of them. Did you know, for example, that in the Bala region of Merionethshire over 30 percent of people are called Jones but that around St Davids in Pembrokeshire only 1 percent carry this surname? If would-be family historians still wish to continue after reading this article, then they will have to undertake their own researches, and some resources to help them will be found at the end of this article.
In all human societies surnames are extremely late in appearing in the written record, and are only found once a fully developed and centralized civil administration has evolved. The first names to appear in written records are always the major economic, political and military leaders: emperors, potentates, kings, queens, princes, lords, and major landowners, and they are usually referred to by their titles, not necessarily by their family names. Only when the population is large enough to require a sophisticated and distant bureaucracy to keep track of their dealings does the need to uniquely identify individuals arise.
A small community may know all its Thomas's, Davies's Jones', Evans' and Williams' personally, but a stranger writing down their tax obligations or court details needs something else that can identify them uniquely, without confusion with someone else. And so surnames gradually evolved, though they appeared much later in Wales than England. The trigger that launched most of these surnames was the most cataclysmic event in English history – the Norman conquest of 1066. Before this the Welsh had never used used surnames. But from the 12th century onwards, once the Norman bureaucracy had been created, thousands of surnames start to appear in the written records, faithfully recorded, or even created, by the bureaucratically-obsessed Norman-French, who would eventually become the English. And not only did the Normans create our modern surnames but they wiped out almost completely all the original Anglo-Saxon Christian Christian names as well. Anglo-Saxon and Viking names such as Wulfstan, Aethelstan, Eolfric, Ethelbert, Canute, Edwy, Ethelred and countless others all disappeared within a generation, as people took up the new Norman-French Christian names that came in with the Conqueror. Many of these Christian names would then later be converted into our modern surnames. Only a tiny few of the Anglo Saxon names have survived, while literally hundreds of others have disappeared completely. We still have some pre-Conquest names like Alfred, Edgar, Edmund, Edward, Edwin, Harold, Oswald, Piers, Wilfred, Audrey, Dawn, May and Edwina in our midst today, but very few of your friends will answer to Beowulf, Odin, Raedwald or Waltheof if called.
2. WHY ARE THERE SO FEW WELSH SURNAMES?
The Welsh created surnames in a way which was fundamentally different from the way surnames were used by the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman-French after them, and this is why there are far fewer Welsh surnames today than English ones. There are currently over 30,000 different surnames in use in England, but less than 5,000 in Wales, with most of these being non-Welsh in origin, brought in by centuries of immigration. This difference needs to be explained somehow.
From 1066 until the present day England has experienced a steady influx of immigrants, often as a result of major political and religious events in Europe. With the Norman Conquest came thousands of French invaders, eager to take possession of land which was confiscated from the defeated English, usually with the utmost brutality. In later centuries other parts of Europe supplied new immigrants (and therefore new names) to England in a more peaceful manner, through migration rather than invasion. Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, were just some of the places they came from, usually as the result of trade between Britain and these countries, but religious persecution after the 16th century Protestant Reformation also brought large numbers of people to these shores in search of refuge. Wales, in contrast, experienced little immigration other than Norman-French incursions from the 11th century onwards. With the final defeat of the Welsh by Edward I in 1282, the last enforced immigration into Wales began as English supporters of Edward and the successive English Kings were given confiscated Welsh lands. The Welsh may have gradually adopted the Christian names which the English brought with them but they continued to use the Welsh ‘patronymic' system for their names for some centuries after 1282 (see below).
It was noticed some time ago that native English surnames fall into four broad categories:
Those derived from personal names: Richards, Jones, Johnson, Robinson, Thomas, Martin, Williams, Matthews, Jackson, etc.
Those derived from place names or geographic features: Essex, Kent, York, Telford, Stokes, Carlisle, London, Marston, Lancaster, Charlton, Dover, Wood, Hill, Bush, Green, Field, Moore, Moss, Marsh, Waters, Lake, Hedges, Banks, Burn, Hall, Towns, etc.
Those derived from occupations: Butcher, Baker, Smith, Mason, Shepherd, Farmer, Cooper, Hooper, Fletcher, Thatcher, Taylor, Wright, Skinner, Carpenter, Joiner, Weaver, Cook, Miller, etc.
Those derived from nicknames or physical descriptions: Grey, Black, White, Green, King, Lord, Baron, Earl, Noble, Bishop, Bold, Strong, Armstrong, Quick, Young, Long/Lang, Short, Broad, etc.
The overwhelming number of surnames found in Wales are those formed from personal names. Some surnames from the other three categories are present but these make up a small fraction of native Welsh names, which is why so few surnames exist, to the frustration of today's family historians. Because there are a small number of Christian names in the first place, the result is an equally small number of surnames. If, say, only a hundred or so Christian names are in circulation in a region, then only the same number of surnames can be constructed from them. Even more confusingly, it was the common practice for the first-born son to be given the Christian name of his grandfather, so that the same names were recycled again and again down the generations.
Some Welsh surnames derive from pure Celtic sources like Owen (Owain); Morgan; Meredith (from the native Welsh personal name Maredudd); Llewelyn (which became anglicised to Lewis in time). Rhys is another native Welsh personal name which has furnished the modern Rees, Reese and Reece, while Tudur is today's Tudor. Merrick comes from Meurig; Gruffydd has given us Grifftihs and Hywel has become Howells, but the total list of surnames of pure Welsh origins is small, having been supplanted by English personal names.
Descriptive/nicknames in Welsh
There are a small number of these surnames, like Lloyd (from the Welsh Llwyd, grey); Gwynn/Wynn (from the Welsh gwyn, white); Vaughan (from the Welsh fychan, meaning boy, or the younger). Coch (red), mutated to goch and corrupted in speech and writing became Gough, Goff and Gooch. Du (black) has come down to us as Dee. Brace, from the Welsh bras (gross, coarse) is another, but there are not many more.
Occupational names in Welsh
Even fewer occupational surnames exist in Welsh, not least because an almost entirely agricultural society would have a limited number of occupations to provide surnames, and what few do exist are even rarer than descriptive names. Gwas (servant) has become the rare Welsh surname Wace; Crowther is another uncommon Welsh surname, derived from crythor, the player of the crwth (a stringed instrument). The Welsh saer (carpenter) has become Sear/s around the Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire border.
Surnames derived from Welsh place names
Some names of this type exist, but not many. A few wealthy families took their surnames from the names of their landed estates: Mostyn, Pennant and Nanny are said to be such examples in north-East Wales and Mansell is found in the south. But more often the ordinary people in an area adopted their towns or region as a surname, such as Gower, Conway, Laugharne, Pembroke, Roch/Roach. Glyn as a surname derives from glyn, a valley. Once again these are not only rare surnames, except in localised areas, but tiny in number as well.
Without surnames from other sources, and without major immigration into Wales to bring in other surnames and Christian names into the population before the 19th century industrial revolution, the resulting pool of surnames is impoverished compared to England.
A table compiled by a notable Welsh family historian show this difference in stark terms:
…. by combining the information contained in the Report of the Registrar General published in 1856 (in which he gives details of the incidence of the fifty most common surnames in England and Wales combined) …. it is possible to derive separate listings for each country, and hence to draw some broad comparisons.
A list of the ten most common names in each country is given below and clearly shows that 'common' in a Welsh context covers a dramatically greater proportion of the population than is the case for England.
WALES ENGLAND Surname % Surname % 1 Jones 13.84 Smith 1.37 2 Williams 8.91 Taylor 0.68 3 Davies 7.09 Brown 0.57 4 Thomas 5.70 Jones 0.43 5 Evans 5.46 Johnson 0.38 6 Roberts 3.69 Robinson 0.36 7 Hughes 2.98 Wilson 0.36 8 Lewis 2.97 Wright 0.34 9 Morgan 2.63 Wood 0.33 10 Griffiths 2.58 Hall 0.33 Total 55.85 Total 5.15
(Second Stages in Researching Welsh Ancestry, John and Sheila Rowlands, page 162.)
Over half of Welsh surnames are taken by just ten names, compared to only 5 percent for the ten most common English surnames, a startling difference indeed. And when we look at the 35 most common surnames in the two countries then the difference becomes even more marked. The 35 most common surnames in Wales make up 80.65 percent of all surnames, whereas the 35 most common English surnames make up a mere 11.71 % of their total. In descending order of incidence, the 35 most common surnames in Wales in 1856 were:
Jones, Williams, Davies, Thomas, Evans, Roberts, Hughes, Lewis, Morgan, Griffiths, Owen, Edwards, Rees, James, Jenkins, Price, Morris, Richards, Lloyd, Phillips, Parry, David, Harris, John, Powell, Prichard, Howells, Watkins, Rowlands, Bowen, Humphreys, Ellis, Pugh, Llewelyn, and Hopkins.
(Rowlands and Rowlands, page 164)
Only one of these 35 Welsh surnames is not derived from a personal name – Lloyd – which is a descriptive name, being an anglicised spelling of the Welsh llwyd, grey.
But his distribution is by no means even throughout Wales: there are major regional variations, with some surnames being extremely common in one area but almost non-existent in others. This map shows this variation for the most common surname in Wales, Jones. Or, rather, common in some parts but decidedly uncommon in others:
Map: Distribution and incidence of the surname Jones
(Rowlands and Rowlands, page 164)
From this map we can see that the white areas — Pembrokeshire, the Gower peninsular and South Glamorgan — have less than five percent occurrence of the surname Jones. It can be no co-incidence that these were the first areas to be conquered by the Normans, who occupied the easily-accessed South Wales coastal strip by 1093 and settled the land with their followers, who brought their own, non-Welsh, surnames with them. It would be another 200 years before the rest of Wales was finally conquered.
3. EARLY WELSH SURNAMES
Surnames derived from ‘ap' or ‘ab' (son of)
Surnames were never used in Wales until the arrival of the Normans, who conquered the border areas and south Wales coastal areas during the 11th century, and then only by Welsh gentry families eager to copy their new masters. This process was accelerated somewhat after the final conquest of Wales by Edward I in 1282, but it wasn't until the highly centralised Tudor state created by the Welshman thHenry VII and his successors that the system already in place in England became applied to ordinary Welsh men and women. Before this the Welsh used the system of patronymics (from the Latin ‘pater', father) whereby a son would carry his father's Christian name after his own, with the word 'ab' or 'ap' (from the Welsh 'map' or ‘mab', son). Thus Rhys ap Thomas means Rhys, son of Thomas. If he named his son Gruffydd, then he would become Gruffydd ap Rhys (Gruffydd, son of Rhys) and so on.
A specialist in Welsh family history has written
In Wales surnames only started to be taken on any scale in the sixteenth century, a full hundred years after they had become the norm in England. Prior to the sixteenth century the traditional naming system in Wales involved a person having a given name and attaching to it the given name of (normally) the father and, if necessary, the given names of as many earlier generations as would uniquely identify the bearer within their particular community. With the Acts of Union (1536-43), the people of Wales became fully subject to English law and administration for the first time. They also became subject to pressures to conform to English practices regarding surnames.
( Rowlands and Rowlands, page 165.)
Naturally, the switchover to the English system wasn't immediate, and it took several centuries before the Welsh finally abandoned their patronymics and adopted the English system of adding the possessive ‘s' to many Christian names to create a surname:
However, things did not change overnight, nor did they change in an even way across Wales. Instead surnames were adopted earlier by the gentry than the ordinary people; earlier in those areas subject to greatest English influence; and earlier in the richer lowlands than the poorer, more isolated upland areas. The process of transition took place over an extended period and it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the patronymic system could be said to have been fully replaced.
(Rowlands & Rowlands, pages 165-166)
There was a transition phase in which the word ‘ap' (son of) or ‘ab' (before a vowel) was dropped, with the second Christian name retained. Another process saw the ‘ap' and ‘ab' absorbed into the second Christian name to create a brand-new surname. So Thomas ap Hywel (Thomas, son of Hywel) would first become anglicised to Thomas ap Howell before becoming plain Thomas Howell. Similarly, John ab Owen would become John Owen. In time, the possessive ‘s' would be added to create the surnames Howells and Owens, and both forms of these survive in Wales today. Similarly ap Gruffydd could become plain Gruffydd before finally becoming Griffiths, with an anglicising of spelling thrown in for good measure. Ap David and ap John became the surnames David and John before becoming Davies and Jones. But there were regional variations in this process also:
Of particular interest, however, is the effect this had on those holding the patronymic names David or John. In those areas in which surnames became fixed relatively soon after the dropping of the ap prefix this resulted in the survival as surnames of David and not Davies, John and not Jones, as would be the case later on. Thus we have a high incidence of both David and John as surnames in south Glamorgan (often well in excess of 5%), in south Carmarthenshire (sometimes exceeding 5%), and in the northern part of Pembrokeshire (often approaching 5%).
(Rowlands and Rowlands, page 167)
As a result of this dropping of ‘ap' and retaining the personal name, there are many Christian names in Wales today which are also surnames. A surname such as Arthur, David, John, Howell, Owen, George, Harry would give the owner a good chance of being either Welsh or of Welsh ancestry. Christian names which are Old Testament in origin (see below) also became surnames but often without the possessive ‘s' at the end. So Samuel, Daniel, Isaac, Abraham, Joseph are Christian names and surnames which are found in Wales along with Samuels, Daniels, Isaacs, Abrahams, Josephs.
The other group of patronymics to undergo a transitional phase were the ones where the ‘ap' or ‘ab' was absorbed into the following patronymic to create a special class of surnames unique to Wales:
ab Owen (son of Owen), becomes Bowen; ab Evan, Bevan; ab Einon, Beynon; ap Harry, Parry; ap Huw, Pugh; ap Hywel, Powell; ap Rhys, Preece and Price; ap Richard, Prichard; ap Henry, Penry; ap Robert, Probert; ap Rhydderch, Prothero; ap Rosser, Prosser; ap Robin, Probyn.
The incidence of surnames incorporating ‘ap' or ‘ab' in this way is overwhelmingly found in two areas of Wales. The Welsh areas bordering with England were the first to be colonised by the Normans, and later Anglicised by the English, so these are where the highest distribution is to be found. These surnames are also found in north Wales but are relatively rare in the south and west of the country, except for south-east Carmarthenshire and the Gower peninsular.
Incidence by location of surnames incorporating Ap:
(Rowlands and Rowlands, page 168)
O, my America, my Newfoundland land ….
To add to your store of useless information, the name America could possibly be derived from a Welsh patronymic name. An intriguing modern theory claims that America comes from the Bristol merchant Richard Amerike who financed John Cabot's voyages to the north-east seaboard of America in 1497. The Welsh connection? Amerike's name comes from the Welsh patronymic ‘ap Meric', or son of Meric/Meurig.
The name America (applied initially only to present-day Brazil) appeared for what is believed the first time on the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller's world map of 1507. The map is thought to have been based on measurements of latitude and longitude made by the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci during his several landfalls on mainland South America between 1497 and 1504. As the old song almost says: “You say Amerigo, I say Amerike …”
4. SURNAMES DERIVED FROM OLD TESTAMENT GIVEN NAMES
Biblical names are common throughout the Christian world. But the various Christian denominations differ as to where these names are taken from. Catholic and Anglican Christian names are taken overwhelmingly from the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Simon, Paul, Thomas, James, Andrew, Philip, etc. Some Catholic countries will even go so far as naming children Jesus or Xavier (ie Saviour,) though British Protestantism tends to stop short at these names (the Welsh, however, have been happy in the past to give children the Christian name Christmas). Needless to say the name Judas is never given to children in the Christian world.
In Wales however, the nonconformist churches became the majority denominations from the 19th century onwards, with the Independents (Congregationalists), Calvinistic Methodists and Baptists being the three largest denominations. There are also a host of smaller denominations vying for our attention, and Ammanford has over twenty churches and chapels for its 6,000 population to worship in (or not, as is increasingly becoming the case). These worshippers overwhelmingly chose Old Testament Christian names for the children, which later also became surnames: Aaron; Abraham/Abrahams; Daniel/Daniels; Elias (the Welsh form of Elisha); Emanuel/Emanuels; Enoch, Gabriel, Isaac/Isaacs, Joseph/Josephs; Moses; Samuel/Samuels; Solomon; Jeremiah, are often thought to be Jewish surnames in Wales, but they are Welsh nonconformist in origin, with a particularly high incidence in parts of South Wales. Bearers of these Christian names or surnames are almost certain to have Welsh nonconformity in their ancestry, rather than the Church of England. (The origins of the surname Daniel is a little ambiguous, however, as some Daniel/Daniels surnames may possibly derive from the native Welsh Christian name Deiniol.) Surnames derived from New, rather than Old Testament personal names which are common in Wales are Matthews, James and Philips.
The incidence by location of Old Testament names
(Rowlands and Rowlands, page 168)
5. SURNAMES ENDING IN ‘S'
But by far the greatest number of modern Welsh surnames have been created by adopting the English system of adding the possessive ‘s' to a Christian name. This is in fact is also a patronymic system, as Williams simply means William's son; Jones, John's son; Davies, David's son and so on. Thus common Welsh surnames such as Jones, William, Davies, Evans, Roberts, Richards, Hughes have been created by simply adding ‘s' to the Christian names John, William, David, Evan (itself a variant of John), Robert, Richard, and Hugh respectively, all originally French Christian names introduced by the Normans and their successors.
6. RESOURCES FOR FAMILY RESEARCHERS
If you are new to family history research then the best place to start is with the oldest members of your family, such as grandparents or, if none of these are still alive, then parents, uncles, aunts etc. If you are have an address of an ancestor then the census return for that address will give you the names, occupations, and ages of all those who were in the property at the time the census was taken. The ages of the occupants will give you an approximate date of birth of the inhabitants and this will make it easier to find birth certificates. Birth certificates give the names and ages of the parents, the father's occupation, and the address they were living at the time of the birth. Marriage certificates give the maiden name of the wife and address at the time the marriage was registered. Death certificates give age at death, address at time of death and cause of death. Cross referencing census and birth, marriage and death details in this way can yield much of the information you need.
The 1881 census website gives a list of useful websites for online census returns in the UK (note most of these sites are subscription sites):
The Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormans) has made the complete 1881 census available on CD Rom. “This file includes a national index and a viewer that allows users to quickly search the entire database of 30 million individuals from England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. The data is divided into seven regions (listed below). The automated index also includes people on boats or ships in port or who were living in poorhouses, mental institutions, workhouses, schools, hospitals, and other non-traditional residences at the time the census was taken. Regions: East Anglia; Greater London; Midlands; North Central; Northern Borders, Navy, and Misc.; Southwestern; Scotland; Wales and Monmouth.”
The item can be purchased online on their website at the Church of Latter Day Saints
Or type 1881 census into the Google search box.
1837 births, marriages and deaths Act
The introduction of the register of births, marriages and deaths on July 1 st 1837 compelled, by law, all these records to be kept in a central register. Before this date, records were kept by the church, chapel or registry office where the ceremony took place. As a result the historical record before 1837 is incomplete, as many parish and chapel registers have been lost. The record from 1st July 1837, however, is complete and is available on microfishe at all the county archives services in the UK. The records are recorded in a quarterly index so ideally you should know which quarter the birth, marriage or death was registered. Life gets very difficult indeed if you can't narrow the date any nearer than this. Once found, however, it is relatively easy to move backwards in time to the beginning of civil registration in 1837. Before this date, life isn't so easy for the family historian.
Birth, Marriage and death certificates
If you know the date of an ancestor's birth, marriage or death you can order a copy online for a fee at the General Register Office (GRO). A fee is charged for each copy obtained.
They also have a list of many of the registers you would need to help you trace your family tree on:
The Free Births, Marriages and Deaths website allows you to search for births, death and marriage details even if you do not know the date. (This website is being continuously updated by volunteers and is not yet complete.)
They do not, however, provide copies of certificates; for that you will need to order them from the General Register Office (GRO).
Internet search engines
Merely typing ‘how to research your family tree' or a similar phrase into Google, or any other search engine, will bring up a wealth of family history websites which offer advice on how to go about researching your family history.
National and County Archives
The national archive of Wales is held at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Website:
Each county council in the United Kingdom is required by law to keep and provide an archive service. Much historic data relating to family and local history is kept in these archives. In Carmarthenshire this is the Carmarthenshire County Council Archive Service who also offer – for a fee – a research service. This website also have a list of approved Private Record Agents (professional genealogists).
Censuses have been held in Britain every ten years since 1801, excluding 1941 when the nation was at war. Most of the early returns were unfortunately destroyed, although in some isolated instances they have been preserved. The census returns for 1841 were the first to be kept and all subsequent census are complete.
The website search.ancestry.co.uk/search/ has online records of many census and other returns (note: this is a subscription website). There is a hundred years' confidentiality law for all data in British censuses, so the latest census available to the public is for 1901.
As of March 2009 the 1911 census data is available to the public in England with the other regions soon to follow. Like other censuses, there is a charge made for searches.
The Genuki website is a good internet staring point for would-be family researchers. These useful pages are found on Genuki:
Professional Genealogy services
If you have been reading this article and still wish to pursue your family history you may want to consult a genealogist with local knowledge. The Time Machine is an approved agent for the Carmarthenshire County Council Archive Services.
The Origins of Welsh Christian and surnames website contains a list of many Welsh surnames and Christian names and their origins:
Two books offering advice on Welsh family history have proved useful in writing this article, so they may also prove helpful to those researching their own family history.
— Welsh Family History: A Guide to Research . Edited by John Rowlands and others. Published by The Association of Family History Societies of Wales in conjunction with The Federation of Family History Societies .
— Second Stages in Researching Welsh Ancestry. Edited by, John and Sheila Rowlands. Published by The Federation of Family History Societies in conjunction with The Department of Continuing Education , University of Wales, Aberystwth.
Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010