Past Talks

The Origins of Surnames

Date: 18th June 2007
Speaker: Dr Cyril Dunsley

The Meeting was held at St Edburg’s Church Hall, Bicester. Forty two members and guests attended the Meeting. Bob introduced the speaker, Dr Cyril Dunsley.

Surnames reveal the origin of peoples’ past. River names were in use in Celtic times and earlier, place names often display an Anglo Saxon origin in Southern Britain and Norse origin in Northern Britain. Surnames became common between 1200 and 1400. They were derived from:

  • Occupations
  • Father’s name
  • Location
  • Nicknames

In 1200 no one had a second name. By 200 years later they were common i.e: Hereward the Wake, Rufus the Red etc. The second name was not passed on. With increasing population and need to identify people for legal reasons surnames became necessary.


  • Occupations: Smith, Taylor, Cooper etc. Less obvious – Archer, Suter (shoemaker), Mellors (gatherer of honey & nuts), Cartwright, Hayward (decided when hay was cut), Catchpole (chicken catcher), Dyer (wool dyer), Hoggard (looked after hogs).
  • Father’s Names: Early names ending in son (Jackson, Peterson...) In Welsh – Ab or Ap, Scottish – Mac, Irish O’ all meaning son of.
  • Location:
    • Norse – by, Thorpe, thwaite.
    • Saxon – ford, ham, ton.
    • Lived by – green, wood, marsh, lee.
  • Nicknames: Appearance, hair colour, temperament, deformity, moods, habits, physique.

Dr Dunsley had requested a list of Society members surnames and proceeded to describe the origins of each name.

The Meeting concluded at 8:53pm following a question session.