Welsh surnames: Why are there so few Welsh surnames, and what are the most common?
One of the trickiest areas of Welsh family history research is telling the small number of Welsh surnames apart. We look at the history of Welsh surnames, and the most common ones today.
Why are there so few Welsh surnames?
For family historians with Welsh ancestry, one of the most frustrating brick walls to hit in your research is the fact that the same surnames recur again and again. If you’re trying to trace an ancestor with a typically Welsh surname such as Davies, Jones or Williams, you may well find multiple people of the same name and age in parish or census records – making it hard to tell which one is the right ancestor.
The reason why there are so few Welsh surnames is that the Welsh people traditionally used patronymic surnames, derived from the father’s name. When a boy was baptised in Wales, his first name would be linked to his father’s first name by the prefix ap or ab, meaning ‘son of’. Girls used the prefix ‘ferch’, meaning daughter of. For example, Evan son of Rhys would be Evan ap Rhys, and his daughter Gwyneth would be Gwyneth ferch Evan. This makes tracing older generations in your Welsh family tree tricky because there is no consistent surname from generation to generation.
Following Henry VIII’s break away from the Catholic Church in 1533, the Welsh legal system and aristocracy became absorbed into the English system. Fixed hereditary surnames slowly became popular among the Welsh gentry, which eventually spread to the rest of the Welsh people, although patronymic surnames were used in some parts of rural Wales until the early 19th century. As a consequence of the patronymic system, many of the most common Welsh surnames today are adopted from male first names – for example, Jones is taken from John and Davies from David. Some Welsh surnames also have traces of patronymic prefaces – for example, Bowen is derived from ‘ab Owen’, and Price comes from ‘ap Rhys’. It is also common to see double-barrelled Welsh surnames from the 19th century onwards, with people combining their family surname and their mother’s maiden name in a bid to distinguish themselves from others.
What are the most common Welsh surnames?
Below is a list of some of the most common Welsh surnames followed by the number of people who had that surname in England and Wales in the 1881 census.
Particularly common in Glamorgan, this is a relationship name from ap Owen (son of Owen). (12,351)
About 25 per cent of the 160,000 Davies who were recorded in the 1891 census were living in Glamorgan. (152,045)
This patronymic surname is found across Wales, but is most common in the north. (83,101)
The 1881 census records a spike in the popularity of the surname Ellis in and around Denbighshire. (43,223)
This surname is common in Glamorgan and the Welsh Marches, but is also associated with the mountainous North Welsh coastal region of Meirionnydd. John Evans, born in 1770 in Waunfawr near Caernarfon, was an explorer who travelled to America and produced an early map of the Missouri River. (130,294)
This relationship name stems from the Middle Welsh personal name Gruffudd (Griffith). (48,883)
This surname is more common in South and mid-Wales and is thought to be a locative name from Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. (774)
This patronymic is particularly concentrated in Anglesey and Caernarfonshire. (83,571)
Particularly common in South Wales and the Welsh Marches, this is a relationship name from the Welsh personal name Hywel (meaning eminent). (12,563). Also HOWELLS (7,623)
Although this surname is common in Wales, especially in the South, it actually derives from the English personal name James. (58,533)
Glamorgan had Wales’s highest population of Jenkins families in 1891. (35,086)
This is the most commonly found Welsh surname. One famous Jones is Monty Python comedian Terry Jones (see image above). He was born in Colwyn Bay, Denbighshire in 1942. (337,940)
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Family Names Lewis is a relationship name from the Welsh personal name Llywelyn. (78,457)
Also derived from the Welsh personal name Llywelyn. (4,363)
You'll find plenty of Lloyds in Wales. The name derives from the Welsh nickname llwyd (meaning grey). Famously, the Liberal statesman David Lloyd George is Britain's only Welsh prime minister to date, leading the country to victory in the First World War. (34,862)
This particular surname is derived from the Welsh personal name Meredydd.
This surname derives from the Old Welsh name Morcan.
Although also found in England, in Wales this surname is thought to be derived from the Welsh personal name Morus. (66,306)
Patronymic name from the Welsh personal name Owain. (35,405). Also OWENS (14,816)
Most common in Anglesey, this surname derives from shortening ap Harry (son of Harry). (22,736)
Relationship name from the Welsh ap Hywel (son of Howell). (37,127)
Particularly prevalent in South Wales, this is a relationship name from ap Rhys (son of Rhys) (52,144). Also PRYCE (1,432), REES (26,014) and RICE (9,209) .
Widespread in Wales, especially Caernarfonshire, this is a relationship name from ap Richard (son of Richard). (16,079). Also RICHARDS (45,019).
In 1881 this surname was relatively common in Brecknockshire and Monmouth from ap Rosser (son of Roger). (4,646)
This derives from ap Huw (son of Hugh). (11,385)
This patronymic name is one of the four commonest North Welsh surnames. (111,710)
This is the Welsh patronymic relating to Roland/Rowland, meaning son of Rowland. (7,447)
No fewer than 27,949 Thomases were recorded in Glamorgan in 1881 – as well as 6,052 in Cardiganshire, 10,400 in Carmarthenshire, 1,694 in Brecknockshire and 5,686 in Monmouthshire. (123,177)
This surname is the patronymic form of the name William. Widespread across Wales, it is especially common in Glamorgan and Caernavonshire. (213,957)
This surname is often found in North Wales and is derived from the Welsh nickname gwyn (meaning fair or white). (2,589)
Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History