UPDATE 15 May: The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names website was initially not working due to the high levels of demand, but was accessible from 6pm.


Family historians can discover the stories behind thousands of surnames as the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland lifts its paywall today.

Oxford University Press and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) are offering free access to the dictionary from the United Nations International Day of Families on 15 May until 21 May.

The print version of the dictionary is 3,136 pages long and costs £400, and the online edition is only available via subscribing institutions, so this is a unique opportunity to access information about over 45,000 surnames.

Sarah Williams, editor of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, said: “The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland is the most authoritative resource for anyone wanting to understand the origin of their family name.

"Having free access to this huge body of research will delight family historians across the globe.”

The dictionary is based on a research project – Family Names of the United Kingdom - funded by the AHRC and led by Professor Richard Coates and a team of researchers based at UWE Bristol between 2010 and 2016.

They researched every surname in the UK that has more than 100 bearers and more than 20 in the 1881 census.

The information includes where they originated, names of early bearers, geographical distribution, and variant spellings.

Family historians know that tracing your ancestors gets more difficult if they had a common surname, creating more potential matches in historic records and making it harder to tell which one is correct.

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names reveals that the most common – and therefore most frustrating to research – surname in Britain is Smith, followed by Jones, Williams, Brown, Taylor, Johnson and Lee.

It also shows the many different origins of British surnames.

Some come from a nickname (for instance, Longbones or Goodfellow); others from a place (Green, Sutton or Leicester) and others from occupations (Tanner, Webster or Franklin).

The dictionary’s publishers want to hear from members of the public about what their family name means to them.

To get involved, simply share an image or photograph summing up your family name’s meaning to you on social media with #familynames2020.

Here are some of the facts the dictionary reveals about surnames in the news at the moment:

Currently there are in the region of 151,518 Johnsons in Great Britain and 2307 in Ireland. There were 99,902 in the 1881 census, largely living in North and Central England. The name stems from the personal name John, plus the patronymic marker – son with one of the earliest recordings of the name dating back to a John Jonessone who lived in Surrey in 1287.
There are currently in the region of 1648 Sturgeons in Great Britain, and 133 in Ireland. In 1881, there were in the region of 1208, many of them living in Suffolk. The name originates as a nickname from the fish, with the earliest bearer being a Mr William Sturjon whose name was recorded in a document in 1281.


Currently there are in the region of 500 Starmers in Great Britain and 15 in Ireland. The number hasn’t changed much from the 483 living in Britain in 1881, largely in the Northants, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire regions. The name is a locative one, from Starmore in Westrill (Leicestershire), recorded as Stormeorde in 1086. An early bearer is of Starmer is an Amy Starmer in 1619.