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Surname distribution in England and Wales. Pictures tell it all!

Here are four pictures, each one showing the distribution for one of our four surnames, made using the Ancestry.com facility.





















As can be seen, each of the surname distributions is quite distinct. When I saw the third and fourth pictures, in particular, it was like a light bulb going off in my mind. HOWSE as a surname has two nodes, in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. HOUSE is clearly an upper Thames valley and "West Country" name, but one with two rather obvious 'holes' in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. It's just so obvious that they fit together like hand in glove.

Overall, then the four surnames added together also form a distinct pattern, flowing down the English chalk and limestone hills (the Chilterns and Cotswolds) from Norfolk down to Bristol and the West and then back through Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire.

The overall distribution of our surnames appears to support the theory that our name emerges from the Saxon word "hoo," meaning "hill".

As further evidence that these are one and the same surname, separated simply by different accents across Southern England, we would expect to see some blurring around the edges in terms of how people's names were spelled. We'd expect to find the same people with their names spelled differently over time and spelled differently as they moved between different areas. Indeed, this is exactly what we find. Several people in the database have had their surnames spelled three different ways at different points in their lives.

Remember too that this is 1891 after the big thrust of the industrial revolution and quite a lot of movement within the UK and hence blurring of the original population picture. Both London and Yorkshire have more people than one might expect but most will be immigrants from elsewhere in the UK. If we are ever able to do this mapping for 1841 or 1851, I'm sure we will see a very clear picture.


One classic situation emerged in early 2010. A man named HOWES from the US made a note on his registration form for this site saying that he had been unable to trace his forebears in the UK, even though he knew roughly when they had moved to the US. I made a big effort one weekend and was able to crack the puzzle. I traced his ancestors to a family named House living in Hampshire, originally from Dorset. It's a classic case of the sound of the surname being more consistent than our ability to transliterate it!

Americans know well that the federal immigration service frequently wrote down what they heard, which spelling then survived for posterity. I suspect this is exactly what has happened here. After all, if the immigration official had heard "house" (ie, sounding like the dwelling) he or she would have written House - it's such a common word that there is no mistaking it or its spelling. No, what the official heard was something else, something that had a sound more like a "z" at the end of it. So he wrote the name he knew that sounded like the word he heard: Howes. Postscript: since the above was originally drafted, we have come across numerous examples, particularly in the South of England in the nineteenth century, of people whose names are written House, Howse and/or Howes in successive censuses and in different birth, marriage and death registration records. It is now totally clear that the names were originally pronounced the same.


The origin of our name - update

While at the Society of Genealogists in London recently, I paused from the urge to add yet more data and instead consulted all of the surname dictionaries to see what they said about the origin of our name. There were over a dozen such, and it's very clear that some are well-researched and others intended for the mass market.

I looked mostly for our four main name variants: House, Howes, Hows and Howse. Occasionally, one book would refer to Howe, Hughes, Hawes and other similar-sounding names as being part of the same story, for reasons that will be obvious from the following narrative. Very few authors distinguished between the four forms of our name, which is supported by our initial researches.

Here are the different sources cited.

  • (locative) a small, round hill, and thus the people who lived upon it (South of England), or a hollow (North of England and Scotland). I'm not a student of old English but sources quote the words “hou” and “hoh” as both being Anglo-Saxon, meaning a hill. One source quotes "how" as a Scandinavian word
  • (patronymic) a derivation of the name Hugh, like Hughes
  • (estate) from the name Housse in Belgium, or Picardy in Northern France
  • (occupation) a dweller at a (large) house, from the Anglo-Saxon word “husa”, meaning servant

    Surprisingly, perhaps, there was no mention of Hau (pron: =how) in Germany which is both a place name and a surname, or of the Dutch/Flemish word Huizen (sounds like how-ze) meaning houses and is also a surname. There's no doubt in my mind that many Americans with our name came by it from these sources as well as the four listed above.

    In my opinion, the most thoughtful analysis comes from an authority named Matthews, who says there are two origins of the group of names, the first two listed above. Originally they were different; the medieval rolls clearly made the difference between them, he says. Derivations of Hugh contained the Middle English letter called yogh, pronounced as in loch. Derivations of the Anglo-Saxon hoh did not and were usually qualified with:

  • “atte”, meaning nearby, as in atte How, leading to the modern name Attoe. Modern names Attwell or Attwood have a similar derivation, or
  • “de” as in de Huse

    Matthews then goes on to say that these are now “hopelessly mixed,” which I think is probably true. However, my analysis above, written two years ago and now slightly altered) on the back of having seen the maps above is still relevant, I believe. If and when we are able to map the surname distributions in 1841 or 1851 we will see whether there was a clearer geographical origin (my main theory) or not.

    Finally, also interesting is a note in the book by Ewen, who says that in written Old English, the characters “es”, “is”, “ys” or “s” looked like a modern “e” and has thus resulted in mistranscriptions of Howe for Howes. I continue to be bemused by many Americans who believe that Howe and Howes are interchangeably the same name. Indeed, if you look at the poster for Howes circus in the 19th century shown here, you will see that it says Howe's Circus, when the owner's surname was clearly Howes.

    However, as I said to someone recently, "If your surname today contains an s, the chances are that your name has always contained an s."

    Click here to see a discussion of the size of this study and here to see a list of early references to our name.

    Paul Howes, September 2011