Jump to Navigation

Surnames of Occupation

Print this article   Email this article

By the close of the fourteenth century the English system of surnames had come into general use, many of them deriving from the trades and crafts followed by their bearers.

Modern English surnames are so many fragments of medieval conversation, crystallized into permanent form. Nicknames, relationships, places of abode, occupations—words or phrases used casually to differentiate one neighbour from another—these have stuck like tags and are still with us after six or seven centuries. In the thirteenth-and fourteenth-century rolls, we see the names as the clerk wrote them down, ‘Hugo filius Walteri’ or ‘Adam le piscator’; but the modern surname echoes the actual spoken word, Watson or Fisher.

Just how long ago these labels were finally fixed to our families is difficult to establish. Even before the Norman conquest, surnames were coming into use; but there followed a fluid period when, although most people had them and many were hereditary, others changed with each generation. By about 1300, however, it seems that most of the land-owning class had fixed names, while the working classes were tending to lag behind.

It is easy to see that it would go against the grain to call oneself Brewer if one lived by making tallow candles. But by 1400 the system was in general use; and it may be said that the great majority of English surnames date from before that year.

The first really scholarly study of the subject was made by the Reverend C. W. Bardsley, a North-Country parson, whose Dictionary of English Surnames was published in 1901; and following in his footsteps, Professor E. Weekley of Nottingham University wrote several interesting books on the subject. Since then, a great many more medieval documents have become accessible, and a group of distinguished Swedish scholars, including Professor E. Ekwall, have been doing much valuable and highly specialized work on English medieval surnames.

In 1958, Dr. P. H. Reaney gave us a new Dictionary of British Surnames, using this fresh material, but admitting in his preface that the work is far from complete, and that several aspects of the subject are still obscure. We must yet await a great comprehensive work on the subject to match Professor Ekwall’s Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names.

In the meantime, it remains a fascinating subject and one that can teach us something about our ancestors. A means of approach that is both simple and rewarding is to take statistics of our surnames as they survive today and see what picture they present. The London Telephone Directory, containing over 800,000 names, provides a good quantity of material, and, for a general view of the subject, has some decided advantages over the medieval rolls. To begin with, the latter often give surnames in Latin or Norman French forms, whereas modern names are survivals of those that were actually used.

For another, the rolls refer more often to the prosperous than to the humble; and, again, they are local at a time when names differed much from one place to another. On the other hand, the population of modern London is descended from all classes, and consists of a natural mixture come together from all parts of the country. Excluding the foreign element, which can fairly easily be recognized and omitted from our calculations, the London Directory of today gives as good a cross-section of the English people of the Middle Ages as we are likely to get.

In this article it is proposed to consider some of the names derived from trades and occupations. They are simple in themselves; but their comparative numbers are interesting. If we take an activity that is well dated from other sources, we can see at what period the surnames related to it became fixed. Consider, for instance, the building trade. The directory of 1961-2 has 1,450 Wrights, 700 Masons, 280 Carpenters, 240 Slaters, 230 Tylers, 110 workers in lead (Plummers and Leadbeaters), 80 Thatchers and small numbers of other allied trades, but not a single Brickmaker or Bricklayer.

Since Roman times, no bricks were used in England until the early fifteenth century, by the end of which they had become exceedingly popular. But they came too late to give rise to surnames. There is, indeed, a small group of the names, Brick and Brickman (about 20 each), but these almost certainly come from another source. Both Bardsley and Weekley identify them as a sharpened form of Brigg and Brigman, which are, in turn, North-Country versions of the more common Bridge and Bridgeman. In any case, these names are too few to alter the conclusion that, in this country, most artisans had hereditary surnames before bricks came into fashion.

We should also note that “wright,” the native English word for a builder, especially one who worked with wood, was still easily holding its own against “carpenter,” the new word of French origin that was eventually to replace it. As for stone-building, the Normans were so distinguished here that it is not surprising that their Masons should far outnumber the English Stonehewers, of whom there are just four, supported by a very few Stoniers, Staniers and other contractions.1

Or, again, let us see how the fighting forces stand in the directory. We have 820 Knights with 190 Squires. Archer and Bowman together amount to over 400; and there is an adequate supply of Bowyers, Fletchers and Stringers to make their weapons. The armourer is represented by Armour, although not in large numbers, as metal-work of all kinds was dealt with by the Smith. There are Pikes also, though like Fletcher the name has other possible origins; but for anything more modern we look in vain. The 28 Gunners must be mostly attributed to the Norman Christian name, Gunnor, which appears in Domesday Book.

The 150 Sargeants were officers of the law. The 14 Musketts get their names (according to Dr. Reaney) from a small hawk used in falconry. There are no Soldiers, though the word was in general use in England by the fifteenth century; but there are 360 examples of Kemp, which comes from the Anglo Saxon “cempa” meaning a warrior, and must have had an old-fashioned sound even in Chaucer’s day.

The arts, as a whole, fare very badly in our list. Creative literature is represented by a few Rhymers', with Rimes, both in a variety of spellings, they total 35. There are no Poets, no Playwrights, certainly no Printers', but small numbers of Scriveners, Penmans, and Inkpens testify to the labours of those who copied manuscripts. Pictorial art was chiefly in the hands of monks, who could not found families. (The surname Monk, like Bishop, Abbott and Pope must generally have been a nickname.) But there are 54 Painters, who probably were employed on secular work, decorating the interiors of castles and the like.

In the field of entertainment, there are 28 Players, not necessarily dramatic, 36 Fiddlers, 100 Pipers and—by far the largest contingent—over 300 Harpers. Romantic writers are fond of minstrels; no novel of the period is complete without one; but there is no Minstrel in the directory. The word in common use was clearly “harper”; and there were plenty of them. Chaucer writes “of mynstrales and gestiours”; but he comes almost at the end of the surname period. There is just onc. Jester in the list.

It would not, of course, be true to say that every family in England had a permanent surname by 1400, or even a hundred years later. There were still people who, in moving from one locality to another, contrived to shed an uncomplimentary nickname; others who were known by several different surnames and could vacillate between them; and, right down to the nineteenth century, there were vagrants, outcasts, and half-wits who did not answer to more than one name; but, by and large, the great creative period of coining surnames ended with the fourteenth century, and thereafter—as the nature of the names themselves demonstrate—those who needed them took names that were already established.

Let us now look at the directory from a new angle, and see which of the occupational names are the most numerous. The proportions in which they survive today must give a fair indication of the way in which they were used in the formative years between the battles of Hastings and Agincourt.

Naturally, we must begin with Smith, the commonest English surname of any type. Among occupational names, it is in a class by itself with 5,750 examples, more than twice as many as any other. The reason for this multiplicity is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name.

Everyone knows that Smith comes first; but probably not many could name the second among names of occupation. Two names run very close together, Clark and Taylor, the former being slightly ahead with 2,740 as against 2,570. It is not at all surprising that the clerk should be so high on the list. Like the smith, he had a skill that was needed everywhere and rare enough to be valued—literacy.

In an unlettered age, he represented learning; and a very little of it was enough to earn him the name; for it included all sorts of persons, from the parish clerk, who chanted the responses in church, to the secretaries of great men who managed their affairs, or poor students at the University. It does not include the higher orders of the Church, who were supposed to be celibate.

If the clergy had been able to marry, Parson might have been nearly as common a name as Smith. As it is, there are 440 Parsons, composed, no doubt, partly of servants and other dependents who lived “at the Parson’s,” but also of a good number of irregular children. The lower orders of clerics were allowed to marry, as the large number of Clarks in our directory attests.

The enormous number of Taylors is more surprising. One would have thought the tailor’s was a luxury trade that would have been confined to the establishments of the rich, while ordinary folk had their clothes made at home; but the numbers show that this useful craftsman was in wide demand from Norman times onwards. That the word is of French origin is not to be wondered at, since our fashions have come from France since the eleventh century.

Of the equivalent English word, Cutter, there are only 14 examples, while the other native word with a similar meaning, Shearer, has been confined to dealings with sheep. Medieval people loved fine clothes. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, fashions were becoming more and more elaborate and the long hose worn by the men much better fitting.

As these were made, not of stretching material specially designed for the purpose as theatrical tights are today, but of strong cloth cut on the cross, they needed highly skilled cutting to fit the leg well, while admitting the passage of the foot. The womenfolk may have done most of the sewing; but the number of Taylors in our modern list shows how professional cutters were required, not only in towns and great castles but in villages all over the country.

No other occupational name has over two thousand entries; but eleven have over one thousand. They are Miller, Baker, Webb(er), Wright, Turner, Cooper, Walker, Cook, Hunt(er), Bailey, and Ward, and in that order. It is natural that there should have been a miller in every village, and that, like the smith, he should take his name from his trade. Its numbers are harder to assess than some, because it has survived in various forms: Milner, the Early Middle English form which generally developed into Miller, and—with exactly the same meaning—Millward or Millard. These names taken together amount to 1,710.

But, besides these, there are 780 more closely connected with the building from which the trade was inseparable. Anglo-Saxon “mylen” gives us Milne, Mill and, even more commonly, Mills (the final “s” attached to many common names remains a puzzle to the experts). Many of these names must have referred to the miller himself, but some to his servants or merely to people who lived at or near the mill. If we add all these, the milling business would nearly equal the tailoring, but still remain in fourth place on our list.

Baker stands very close to Miller; in fact, it would exceed it, were it not for all those examples of Mills which could not be altogether ignored. There is one variant of “baker” that must be included with it, the old feminine form, “bakester” or Baxter, which had lost any sense of separate gender by the Middle English period, and was used indiscriminately with “baker” for either sex.

These two together score 1,715, a large number that must indicate a system of communal ovens in widespread use. Medieval housewives did not buy bread; they made it at home and took it to the baker; and the bakehouse where he officiated is itself represented by 40 examples of Backhouse and 14 of the more fanciful version, Bacchus.

Next comes Webb, a very old word for one skilled in the ancient craft of weaving. It also had a feminine form Webster; but, as with Baker and Baxter, the distinction was lost soon after the Conquest. Another early version is Webber, while the familiar Weaver is a little later and less common. These four total just over 1,600; but they mark only the starting point of the great wool industry for which England became famous in the fourteenth century. The directory contains 1,250 Walkers, and these were not people who travelled on their feet; there would have been little distinction in that.

A “walker” performed a special function in the finishing of cloth. It had to be “walked” or “fulled” or “tucked”—the words are synonymous; and the three surnames that spring from this task together total nearly 2,000. Many more can be traced to specialist jobs in this trade, none of them individually very numerous. If all the surnames connected with the production of cloth were added together, they would easily pass the Clarks and Taylors, but would still come nowhere near the Smiths.

Wright, which comes next, has already been mentioned. It is followed by Turner with 1,370 names. We tend to think of a turner now as one who works in wood; but these early turners used their wheels or lathes to round objects in many materials, wood, metal, bone, and perhaps even clay. Palsgrave, writing in 1500, describes “tourners” as “makers of bolles and dishes.” Of actual Potters there are only 360, supported by 80 Crockers (and Crokers) who also made earthenware, which seems an insufficient number for such a basic craft; but this deficiency is explained if the turners were supplying the same need.

Next come the Coopers (including Cowper), who made barrels and tubs. Most people will agree that the brewing of ale, mead or other strong drink is a fundamental craft; but the point to observe here is that the most skilled part of the business was making the large utensils to contain it. There are only 240 Brewers (with Brewsters) to 1,350 Coopers, and to them might be added 260 Hoopers who were performing much the same service. It seems that brewing was generally done at home; but the containers for the liquid had to be professionally made.

The next name is Cook with 1,230 examples. Here we have a different type of name, that of a servant rather than a craftsman. This leads us on to a whole class of functionaries in a great household: Butler (610), Page (600), Chamberlain—commonly Chambers—(560), Spencer— who dispensed the stores—(440), Porter (400), and so on. (Steward, which gives us Stewart, would come into the neighbourhood of 1,000; but it is a special case, since its use by a Highland clan has multiplied its numbers in a way that is quite different from the English hereditary system.)

We need not wonder that Cook is by far the most numerous. Only a large establishment could run to most of these officials; but every manor house or inn would have a cook. And then, a cook, presiding at a great open fire with scullions running at his command, was bound to be a notable personality.

Hunt and Hunter go together because, like Webb and Webber, they are the same word. The single syllable is the Early Middle English form, the suffix “er” being added later on analogy with other words of that type. They total 1,080, the older form, Hunt, being the commoner of the two, and both meaning “huntsman.” When one considers how strictly all hunting was controlled by the Normans, it is remarkable that here the Saxon word should have survived to the almost complete exclusion of the French, “chasseur” and “veneur,” which might have been expected to give us many Chasers and Venners.

There are none of the former and less than 20 of the latter (including Vener, Venour, etc.). Two names of French origin connected with hunting that exist in considerable numbers are Forrester—generally in the shortened form, Forster, or Foster—and Parker. The first is hard to compute, as some of the Fosters may have been genuine foster children; but there must be over 700. There are 870 Parkers—officials appointed by the Norman barons to guard their great forests and parks for their own private sport. But it seems that the men with the dogs were English.

Bailey or Baylis has a great variety of spellings, which add up to 1,070. It signifies the bailiff, an early representative of law and order who presided at local courts of justice, a Norman name that gradually superseded the English Reeve(s) of which there are 410. The last name to pass the thousand mark is Ward, with 1,040, a simple Old English monosyllable for a basic necessity, a guard or watchman.

Space forbids us to follow further down the scale. It is of more interest to note briefly some of those names that are less numerous than we should expect, or are altogether lacking. For instance, there are positively no Shoemakers or Cobblers', and a search for alternatives produces little. There was an Anglo Saxon word “sutere,” a shoemaker, that survived in Scotland as “souter,” and gives us 45 names.

There were also “cordwainers,” who made fine shoes of Cordova leather for the wealthy. The London Subsidy Roll of 1292 has twelve “Cordwaners,” used already as surnames—out of a list of eight hundred and fourteen taxpayers; but their only descendants in the 1962 directory are 4 Cordners and 2 Cordiners. We also have the name Boot(s) with 30 examples; but, although it might have referred to the maker of the goods, it is just as likely to have been a jocular nickname for the wearer.

These small groups will not suffice to cover the feet of a nation; and headgear is in almost equally short supply. We have only 10 Hatters and 28 Cappers, a negligible number compared with 2,570 Taylors. But it is in this very comparison that the explanation of the problem lies. Although there was specialization in the few cities, as those cordwainers of London show, in the country as a whole all clothing was made, or at least cut out, by the tailors.

Shoes were made of soft leather, stitched and not nailed, sometimes consisting of no more than leather soles sewn on to the shapely footed hose, a most unpractical habit to the modern mind. The most popular headwear was the hood, which, whether made of velvet, fur or common wool, and worn in whatever style, was still tailors’ work. There are 120 Hoods, but, like Boots, they probably refer mostly to their wearers.

The London Rolls of Edward I and II show a great variety of surnames of specialists in the clothing trade. Besides those mentioned above there were “Bokelers,” “Botoners,” “Girdeters,” “Chaucers” (who made buckles, buttons, girdles, and hose), and so on. But these names, although they all still exist in some form, do so in very small numbers. Throughout the greater part of England, in village or castle, the tailor did what was needful, supplemented by the travelling Chapman (790), who brought the buttons and buckles and other small wares to the country.

It should, however, be noted that Glovers amount to 230. Gloves, often elaborately embroidered, were worn for the popular sport of falconry and were a favourite article of fashion among the nobility. Making them demanded considerable skill; and our statistics show that this provision for the hands of the few became a specialized and widespread craft before that of covering the feet of the masses.

Shoes and gloves remind us of leather, an important commodity that has not yet been mentioned. There are only 160 Tanners, but the name. Barker, which had exactly the same meaning—bark being used in the preparation of skins—numbers 500. If we add the 330 Skinners and 25 Leathers, we bring the business as a whole to well past the thousand mark.

An aspect of English life that is very poorly represented is that of the sea. The word “Seaman” was used by the Saxons as a Christian name; and its 40 examples in the directory should therefore not all be counted as surnames of occupation. There are just two Sailers', that word came in too late. The name we would expect in fair numbers is Shipman', but there are only 30, with an additional mixed dozen of Shippers, Shippards, and the like; and we must add 16 Mar(r)iners.

In fact, we still have under a hundred names, a meagre quantity for a seafaring nation. It is probably true to say that the English tendency towards seafaring was in abeyance during this period. Chaucer’s Shipman had made great journeys; but he must have been somewhat exceptional. In any case, such people would be found chiefly near the coast and not distributed all over the land.

Some of the 850 Fishers, of course, must have worked on the sea; but fish was such an important part of the national diet, and each district so self-supporting, that fishers were needed inland as well, to draw food from the weirs and fish-traps in the rivers, ponds and fens.

There are only 5 Shipwrights', but they, too, would be congregated together where the name was no distinction, as opposed to the Cartwrights or Wainwrights who together total 200, and who each, in his own district, was probably the only man for miles around who could construct a vehicle. Such a valuable object as a cart was bound to confer distinction on the man in charge of it. Our short list of the commonest occupational names stopped at a thousand. Carter, with just 900, would have been next and fifteenth in order.

There are no Grocers or Haberdashers, although these are the names of two of the great City companies. The words were used by the magnates of commerce in the fast-growing city of London; and their dates are rather late. Their absence from our list shows that they were not much used by the man in the street, still less by the man in the country; for it is not from buying and selling in towns, but from simple country needs, that the commonest surnames of occupation spring.

It may seem that, of those first fifteen names given above, none is purely agricultural; but although the undistinguished Plowman scores only 48, the man who forged the ploughshare easily tops the list. In between these two, a mass of names, of which only a selection has been mentioned here, displays the whole panorama of medieval life. Their numbers give us a picture that, if properly interpreted, must be true.

1 The numbers of surnames given have been carefully calculated rather than counted and are a close approximation only. Varieties of spelling have been included wherever there is no doubt that the words are identical in origin, as with Smith, Smyth, and Smythe. The forms, Smithson, Wrightson, etc., are also included, but no other variations of the given name unless they are specially mentioned.



About Us | Contact Us | Advertising | Subscriptions | Newsletter | RSS Feeds | Ebooks | Podcast
Copyright 2012 History Today Ltd. All rights reserved.