Why did my ancestor change their name?

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02 March 2021
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Why change your name? Many family historians can hit a research snag when an ancestor seems to disappear from the records. Wayne Shepheard explains why an ancestor might have undergone a name change.

Why do people choose to change their names, or go by different surnames at various times of their lives? And, in those changes, why might they opt for either a new name or a compound version of their old name. There are a handful of reasons, but in the end, decisions are decidedly personal:

• There may be a desire to acknowledge a family pedigree or ancestral line

• Adding a second name or replacing a surname might demonstrate a relationship with a family line that had, or has, more influence or power

• Hiding from past acts is probably a frequent reason

• A new or changed surname may provide an opportunity for a new start within a community, particularly if their old name was associated with disreputable acts of forebears

• Pure vanity may induce a change, with an individual seeking to raise his personal stature or recognition in a community

• Admiration, gratitude or respect may persuade people to take on the names of mentors

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• A love of “adoptive” parents and a wish to become part of their family may induce someone to take on another’s name

Methods of changing names

Until 1926, legal adoption, including formally changing a child’s name, was not recognised in England and Wales. In that year, the Adoption of Children Act 1926  was passed by Parliament. It was followed by similar legislation in 1929 in Northern Ireland and in 1930 in Scotland. In other parts of the world, laws were or had been passed allowing formal adoption in an ad hoc manner.

Prior to adoption laws being proclaimed in Britain, guardians could be assigned under old poor laws for orphans or for children who had been deserted. Very often family members took over the care of children who had lost their parents without a formal recognition of the change of care or responsibility. These children often assumed the surnames of those caregivers, something that can confound family historians, especially those involved in one-name studies.

Individuals over the age of 16 in England and Wales can change their names utilising a deed poll, which is a legal document signed by the person desiring the change. The document may be “enrolled” or “unenrolled”. Enrolled means the document is registered with the court. The information may then be published in The Gazette, the official public record.

There is a useful wiki summary about changing surnames in England on the FamilySearch website, excerpted from an online course offered by The National Institute for Genealogic Studies. 

Article adapted from an in-depth study of name changes in the April 2021 issue of Family Tree.

About the author 

Wayne Shepheard is the author of ‘Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests: the effects of climate change and other natural phenomena have had on the lives of our ancestors (with examples from the British Isles)’ (2018). Visit his blog.