How Surnames Began

By C.M. Matthews

An exploration of the origins and development of the British surname, and the events and social changes that influenced its evolution over the centuries.

ISBN: 9780718891541


C.M. Matthews traces the development of the surname over the centuries, from its conception, to its unquestioned acceptance. This development was subject to historical events and social change, occurrences which shaped the lives of our ancestors as they advanced toward a more complex society and ordered civilisation.

The first surnames were used purely to distinguish two people with the same Christian name. Many were simply a suffix to a name, a description which would specify a particular person. This usually fell to their occupation, some of the earliest surnames being Smith or Baker, a simple way to delineate one man from another.

However, occupation was not the only influence. Description, such as ‘Armstrong’, parentage, such as ‘Johnson’, or locality, also played a role. As time progressed, these names no longer referred to one person, but were attributed to other family members, or were passed down from one generation to another. Whether or not the son had the same occupation as the father, he retained the name.

As the author explains, this was not a conscious decision, but rather an organic process, which developed out of convenience. Surnames often changed from one generation to another, until finally one was adopted by the whole family, mainly after the Norman Conquest. By the 1400s, surnames had become permanently established in Britain. Matthews reappraises the extraordinary beginnings of this subject, which is taken so much for granted today.

Additional information

Dimensions 203 × 127 mm
Pages 152

Trade Information LPOD

About the Author

Constance Mary Matthews was born and educated in New Zealand where her father was the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral. Later, in England, she became interested in local history, and became adept at seeking out and reading early personal records of her neighbourhood. The oldest of these – manorial rolls from the 13th century – nurtured an interest in the history of surnames.

She has for many years been an active member of the Society of Genealogists, and is well informed of recent developments in this field.


1. How Surnames Began
2. Village Craftsmen
3. Tradesmen in Towns
4. The Manor
5. The Church
6. The Great Household
7. Human Appearance
8. Human Behaviour
9. Birds and Beasts
10. More Nicknames
11. Familiar Chrsian Names
12. Biblical Characters
13. Later Saints
14.Old English Names
15. Women’s Names
16. Towns and Villages
17. The Countryside
18. Foreigners
19. Wales, Scotland and Ireland
20. Problems to Solve

Sources and Further Reading
Time Chart of Saints
Time Chart of Kings