The old Welsh patronymic surname system

 Welsh surnames

Male first names

Female first names

The Welsh used an ancient PATRONYMIC naming system whereby the children of a marriage took their Father's forename as their surname. As a result surnames were not fixed and changed from generation to generation. It works like this:

Evan son of Thomas William would be known as Evan Thomas
Evan's son, John would be John Evan
John's son Rees would be Rees John
Rees's son, David, would be David Rees
David's son, James, would be James David

If James then decided to abandon patronymics, he might retain the name David as his fixed surname or he might change it to Davies/Davis both of which imply 'son of' David. Some families used to string their patronymics together - thus James would be James ap David ap Rees ap John ap Evan ap Thomas ap William. Note that I have used English spellings here - you may find traditional Welsh or Latin spellings in early documents

Sometimes the word 'ap' (originally 'mab') meaning 'son of' was incorporated into the new surname. Thus Owen could be Bowen; Richard could be Prichard: Evan could be Bevan; Huw could be Pugh. John usually became Jones.

Names such as Edward and William had an 's' added thus becoming Edwards and Williams. Names ending in 's' like Thomas remained unchanged. Girls were sometimes 'verch' or 'ferch' meaning 'daughter of' and abbreviated to 'vch' or 'vz'. Traditionally women kept their maiden names when they married as there no surname for them to adopt. You very rarely see parish register entries using the word 'ap' or 'verch'.

This practice continued up until the early 1800s in some areas, with rural areas clinging to the patronymic system longer than urban areas. Areas where English influence was strong abandoned patronymics earlier as did town families and the wealthy.

The IGI takes 1 January 1813 as the cut-off date - before this date all IGI entries are listed using patronymic naming system, regardless of what the actual entry contained. In practice most people had already adopted surnames by 1812 and by the 1851 census examples are very few and far between.

The years of transition from patronymics were ones of confusion and it is essential to look for both patronymic and fixed surnames when researching families in the 18th century. In the IGI, searches should be done in the given name index as well as the surname index.

A man may have decided to use a fixed surname - but the village priest may have insisted on using patronymics in the parish register when he married him or baptised his children. Some people changed from patronymics to surnames half way through their families so that some children may use patronymics whilst their younger brothers and sisters use a surname. Sometimes a man would change from a patronymic to a surname at the time of his marriage - but his brothers may chose to continue with patronymics.

Every family is different and you need to be aware that surnames use was not standardised for a while. Even when a family did chose to use a surname, they were often reluctant to relinquish patronymics completely and the children of a marriage would use the patronymic name as an unofficial middle name. Sometimes this would be incorporated as a double surname and sometimes as a forename. This practice could be continued for generations and may give you clues as to the ancestry of your family.

The use of patronymics leads to a problem for modern day researchers - the Welsh surname stock is very limited because the modern surname is simply the forename of the man who last used the patronymic system in any particular family. A limited stock of forenames led to a limited stock of surnames; the main patronymic surnames are listed below.

Welsh communities are full of families bearing the same few surnames but who are completely unrelated and it cannot be claimed that everyone named Jones or Evans must be related to everyone else named Jones or Evans! All they have in common is an ancestor whose forename was John or Evan! The biggest mistake you can make in Welsh Family History research is to fail to realise how limited the Welsh naming stock is and how Welsh surnames originated!

Among the most common Patronymic surnames found in Wales today are:
Daniel - Welsh form of Daniel is Deiniol, a 6th century Sain
David/Davies/Davis
- from David or Daffydd
Edwards - an Old English name, popular after the Norman invasion
Evan/Bevan/Jeavons - from Ieuan, the Welsh word for John
Griffiths - from Gruffydd, an old Welsh name borne by Princes
Harries/Harry/Parry - from Harri, Welsh version of Germanic Harry/Harold. Popular since 1066
Hopkins/Popkins - from English pet name, Hob a diminutive form of Robert
Howell/Powell - from Hywel, an old Welsh name
Hughes/Pugh - a Germanic name adopted by the Welsh as Huw and interchangeable with Hywel
James - an English name which became popular in Wales from the 15th century
Jenkins - from Jankin, a pet form of John
John/ Jones - from the English name, John which was adopted in Wales after the Norman invasion
Lewis - from an English version of Llewellyn
Llewellyn
- the name of an ancient Prince of Wales
Maddocks - from Madog, an ancient Welsh name borne by Princes
Meredith - from Maredudd, an ancient Welsh name
Meyrick/Morris/Maurice - from Meurig a Welsh version of the Latin name Mauricius
Morgan - from Morcant, an old Welsh name
Owen/Bowen - from Owain/Owen
Rees/Reece/Preece/Price - from Rhys, an ancient Welsh name. Rice is an anglicised form of the name
Richards/Pritchard - from Richard, a Germanic name popular in Wales before 15th century
Roberts/Probert - from Robert, a Germanic name popular in Wales from 13th century
Roderick/Broderick/Prothero - from Rhodri or Rhydderch, an ancient Welsh name
Thomas - Greek biblical name, popular in England from 1066. Popular in Wales from 15th century
Williams - from William or Gwilym

The derivation and meaning of more Welsh names

Because the naming stock was so limited, some people distinguished themselves through nicknames based on physical characteristics. Some of these became used as actual surnames e.g. Gethin/Gething = ugly/swarthy; Gough/Gooch - red haired or ruddy complexioned; Vaughan = smaller/younger; Lloyd/Flood = grey or brown hair; Gwyn/Wynne - fair-haired.

Nicknames or occupations were more often used to identify people with a common forename or surname rather than by an actual surname and are still in use today e.g.. Jones the butcher; Tom Fawr etc. Occasionally these became adopted as surnames. Rowlands & Rowlands give the example 'Saer/ Sayer' meaning carpenter which became a surname in some parts of Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire.

A few Welsh surnames are taken from places names e.g. Loughor, Sutton, Mostyn, Conway. A family usually adopted locational names AFTER they had left an area and is an English habit rather than a Welsh one.

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