Not Smith and Jones – rare British surnames on the cusp of extinction

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28 September 2020
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Do you have a rare surname? Could your family be amongst the final bearers of near extinct British surnames?

If your surname is Miracle, Villan, Relish or Tumbler for example, then you’re a dying breed in Britain. If your surname is Bread or Spinster…then we will be surprised as you’re presumed extinct! Read more to find out!

MyHeritage has identified the rarest British surnames: unusual last names that have lingered for centuries but are on the cusp of extinction (with just a handful of bearers), endangered (with under 200 bearers), or now missing, presumed extinct. Here they reveal these names and the origins and history of each.

MyHeritage is also seeking the general public’s help to confirm whether surnames thought to be extinct have truly disappeared and, if so, just who the last bearers were. So if your surname is amongst the rare or presumed extinct names listed below – they would love to hear from you!

BRITISH SURNAMES ON THE BRINK – with under 20 bearers

Sallow (English)

Sallow (as distinct from the plural form of the surname, Sallows) was the common mediæval word for the willow tree, and would have been applied to one whose dwelling was near to such a tree or a copse of them. It is strictly speaking a ‘location’ nickname, and derives from the Old English word for the willow, sealh. An early bearer of the name was Nicholas de Sallowe, mentioned in the Shropshire Rotuli Hundredorum of 1254.

Fernsby (English)

Fernsby also appears to be diminishing in frequency. It is a hybrid of the Old English fearn – a fern and the Danish suffix –by, indicating a settlement, or even a farmstead. The meaning was clearly ‘a dwelling near the ferns’ and the surname was later derived from this.

Villin or Villan (English)

Villin (and Villan) referred to a commoner (the villein, as we have it today), though there could have been few reasons to single out such a man, unless he was a servant in a noble household.

The Norfolk pipe rolls for the year 1167 lists one, Ernald Vilein. There were only 2 people on the 2009 electoral roll by the name of Villin, located in London.

Miracle (Welsh)

The surname Miracle is Welsh in origin, first recorded in Anglesey. It is a Celtic in origin, derived from the personal name Meuric, which is the Welsh form of Maurice. The surname Miracle is ultimately derived from the Latin personal name Mauritius, which means dark.

Dankworth (English)

The name is made up of two elements, the first of which is probably a shortening of the Old German male personal name Tancred (having acquired the hardened initial letter ‘d’ in Englishmen’s speech). The second element, ‘-worth’, is a common Anglo-Saxon suffix, referring to a farmstead or an enclosed settlement – meaning that the name probably locates ‘the farmstead belonging to Tancred’.

Though 18th and 19th century migration resulted in the Dankworth surname becoming well-established in the US, particularly in Ohio and Texas (with the late, Texas-born Ed Dankworth being a Former Alaska legislator), the family in the UK has remained small, with fewer Dankworths appearing to be recorded in the 21st century than at the start of the last.

The most famous British bearer of the name was John Dankworth (1927-2010), the jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinettist, who was married to Cleo Laine, and whose children Jacqui and Alec have followed in their father’s footsteps as leading performers of British jazz.

Relish (English)

Relish was first recorded in English as a word during the 14th Century, to refer to ‘taste or flavor’ derived from the Old French ‘relaisse’, meaning “something remaining, that which is left behind”. It is not known when it first appeared as a surname in the UK, but is recorded in small numbers in 19th-century censuses.

MacQuoid (Scottish)

There are only two examples of the surname MacQuoid in the British electoral records. It seems likely that the name is related to MacQuaid (a name still found in Co Monaghan). The meaning of MacQuoid is obscure, and no authority offers an origin (although in Scotland, the name would appear to be affiliated with the MacKay clan).

Loughty (Scottish)

Loughty is considered as a variation of Lochty, the name of two villages in Tayside (one a couple of miles west of Perth; the other about 6 miles west of Brechin).  It is most likely that Loughty, Lochty (also Loughtie) are surnames from a place name. The word ‘loch’ is, of course, ‘a lake or inlet’; and the suffix ‘-ty’ usually signified the diminutive, the implied meaning being ‘of, or by a small lake’.

Surnames linked to locations

Birdwhistle (English)

Birdwhistle relates to any of these ‘lost’ medieval villages: Birtwisle, near the town of Padiham in Lancashire; Briestwistle near Dewsbury in Yorkshire; or Breretwisel near Wath-upon-Dearne (also in Yorkshire).

The meaning of the name has been given as a fork or junction on a river where birds nest, from the pre 7th century “bridd – twissel”. It has also been recorded in the spellings Birdwistle, Birdwhistell, Birtwhistle and Burtwhistle.

Berrycloth (English)

This location name is from the place called ‘Barrowclough’ near Halifax in West Yorkshire. The derivation of the place name is from the Old English pre 7th Century ‘beara’, meaning grove, or wood; and “cloh” (a ravine or steep slope).

Locational names were distributed around the country when those who bore the name moved from their original homes and went to live or work in another town or village, becoming known as ‘Berrycloth’.

Surnames linked to occupations

Culpepper (English)

Culpepper was an occupational name for a herbalist or spicer, from Middle English cull(en) to pluck, pick and peper (Old English piper – pepper). The prefix ‘cole’ means ‘false’ in some constructions: ‘Coleprophet’ means a false prophet, so another explanation is that Culpepper may mean a ‘false pepperer’, or ‘sham grocer’ i.e., one who traded outside the Fraternity of Pepperers, the Guild whence sprang the Grocers’ Company, incorporated in 1345.

Tumbler (English/Scottish)

The Tumbler was an acrobat and sometimes an acrobatic dancer, often recruited to a nobleman’s court to provide entertainment, though just as often, he would be an itinerant performer. The name has long been shortened, in characteristic English fashion, to Tumber.

Tumbur is mentioned in an Oxfordshire document dated 1276. The origin of the word may be the Old English tombere – a dancer or acrobat, or Old French tombeor of the same meaning. There are a small number of Tumblers located in the area of Strathclyde, Scotland.

Surnames linked to the calendar

Other British surnames that are within a hair’s breadth of vanishing are those which recall the months January, February, April, June, September, October, November and December.

BRITISH SURNAMES THAT ARE ENDANGERED – with under 200 bearers in the UK

Ajax (Welsh)

This very unusual surname seems to have arrived in Wales in the late 17th century. It is possible that the name was brought by Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution in France. The Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 and large numbers of Protestants fled the country around that time.

Edevane (Welsh)

A rare Welsh surname, believed to be of Cornish origin. This surname is made up of two elements. ‘Ed’ is not a shortened form of Edward, but derives from the ancient (Old English?) ‘ead’ meaning ‘prosperity’ and/or ‘happiness’. This also gave rise to names like Edmund (‘prosperity protector’), Edward, (meaning ‘prosperity guardian’) and Edwin (‘prosperity friend’). The second element, ‘vean’ or ‘vane’ means ‘little’ or ‘the younger’.

The Cornish ‘byghan’ became mutated in the same way as the Welsh ‘bychan’ became ‘fychan’ (i.e. ‘vychan’) when added to a personal name, and performed the same service of distinguishing between father and son where they had the same name. In Wales, this ultimately led to the well-known surname Vaughan. Edevane and variants, therefore, would seem to have the sense ‘the younger happy one’ or ‘the younger prosperous one’.

Gastrell (English)

The original meaning of the surname Gastrell is uncertain. It appears to have a mediaeval Norman diminutive suffix ‘-el’ (which signifies affection), which may be coincidental. There are currently 44 listed in nationwide electoral records (though in the 1901 census 148 were listed – showing a significant decline). The Gastrell family crest is a snarling lion’s head, and the USA has a larger proportion of bearers of the name than the UK.

Gastrell (English)

The name Gastrell – despite its rarity – has the unique feature of being banned in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is owing to the dramatic action of Reverend Francis Gastrell, who resided in New Place (once William Shakespeare’s home) during the 18th Century.  Irritated by the large numbers of passers-by staring at the Bard of Avon’s former residence (particularly a mulberry tree supposedly planted by the poet, which enticed people to trespass and steal cuttings from it), Gastrell cut down the tree and chopped it to pieces. An alternative story suggests that Gastrell believed this action would lessen the value of the property (and the amount of tax he would have to pay).

In an apparent bid to avoid taxes, Gastrell went so far as to have New Place pulled to the ground entirely in 1759. This unforgivable action resulted in Gastrell being forced to leave the town, never to return. To ensure that neither the Reverend (nor his descendents) ever entered Stratford again, a bylaw was passed prohibiting anyone with the name Gastrell from taking residence in the area.

 Slora (Scottish)

Slora seems to have several variations, including Slorra, Slorah, Slorach and Slorrance. There are currently 41 records of Slora, 5 of Slorah and over 200 of Slorach listed in current mainland electoral rolls (which thought to predominate in the Banff and Buchan districts of Scotland). The names are likely to have originated in the Gaelic ‘sluagdach’ (‘leader’) and may initially have referred to the clan elder. The names are associated with Clan Davidson.

BRITISH SURNAMES PRESUMED EXTINCT

Bread (English)

Bread, as a relic of the occupation of baking, derives from the Old English bregdan (meaning to plait cord or yarn, and was associated with the emerging weaving industry). Geoffrey Braid is listed in 1198 in the Norfolk Fines archive.Though there were Breads in the mid-20th century, the family is name is thought to have died-out.

MacCaa (Scottish)

MacCaa has many clan associations; the most prominent being with the Stuarts of Bute, the Clan MacKay, the Clan MacFarlane, the Clan MacDonald and Clan Galloway. The name is a phonetic variation of MacKay, meaning ‘son of Aoh (ie the champion)’. Other similar names in the group are MacCaw, MacCay, MacGaw, MacGee and MacKee. There seem to be over 900 holders of the name in the USA.

Spinster (English)

Spinster is the old feminine form of Spinner (itself a rare surname with a nucleus of bearers in the Thanet and Canterbury districts.) The word is Old English in origin – spinnan – to spin thread. It was freely applied in mediæval times to unmarried women, with no family of their own and whose everyday tasks were therefore centred round the domestic spinning wheel. The surname’s earliest record is John le Spinner, Worcester, in 1270.

Pussett, Puscat and Pussmaid (English)

Some mediæval nicknames which look as though they may have vanished from the surname registers within the last century are Pussett, Puscat and Pussmaid. These may now have vanished. Puscat had indeed disappeared from all mainland telephone directories by the end of the 20thcentury and it is some years now since the name Pussmaid last appeared in the Severnside telephone book. Pussett was listed only once in the 2009 Tamworth (Staffs) telephone book.

These names were clearly used affectionately and probably most often applied to a little ‘minx’ of a girl by her parents, though a Thomas Pusekat, appears in a Northumberland document of 1256. Pussettillustrates the use of the French diminutive suffix –ett.

Bythesea and Bytheseashore (English)

‘Location’ names that may have gone for good are Bythesea (pronounced ‘Bithersee’) and Bytheseashore (‘Bitherseeshore’). The first was early represented in 1336 by William Bythesee in Somerset. The bearers of these descriptive names would have recalled someone whose abode was close to a lake or pool (Old English sæ – a lake and scieran – an edge or margin) or even a stream.

Why and how do surnames decline?

There are numerous explanations for the decline and disappearance of certain British surnames. Occupational surnames linked to common professions such as Smith and Baker enjoyed a natural head-start when last names first started to be recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries (Henry VIII making it compulsory for marital births to be recorded under the surname of the father): unusual names linked to localised topography or more niche professions were always going to be fewer in number.

In addition, the Napoleonic conflicts and the First World War saw entire generations of young men wiped out: boys who often bore distinctive surnames relating to the villages or hamlets from which they came. Likewise, migration resulted in already rare names leaving British shores, in some cases enjoying a new lease of life in the Americas or Australasia: an unusual trend is for British surnames which had become extinct being recently reintroduced to the UK as a consequence of economic migration by Americans now-resident in London. Another interesting development has been 19th-century migrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, anglicising their names and inadvertently breathing new life into an extinct British name.

A further explanation for decline is developing trends in slang and language, which have given once-innocent names crude or humorous connotations in the modern age, prompting bearers to seek to amend them to avoid ridicule or negative associations.

However in many cases the principal cause for a name dying-out is more linked to simple fate: in less enlightened times, a man with only daughters was guaranteed that his family name would end with him. 

If you’d like to do more research on your surname, start by visiting MyHeritage SuperSearch™. With over 9 billion historical records and counting you are bound to make some fascinating discoveries.

With thanks to William Lewis, author of What’s In Your Surname? for his research help.