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Howes, Howse, Hows, Houghs, Howe?

The Howes family around Norwich is a small, though significant, portion of the total number of Howes around the world. Go to the "Useful Links" page, down at the bottom you'll find three sources for how surnames are distributed around the world. It's especially significant since the East of England was a hot-bed of religious non-conformism, and hence the source of much emigration from the UK to its early colonies. Place names in New England in the US in particular, indicate that much early immigration came from Norfolk and Suffolk. So learnings from data emanating from the Norwich area may have much wider implications.

We have lived for the last 100-120 years with a population that has been increasingly well-educated in comparison to its forebears. The result is that English spelling, particularly of family names, has been standardized. So each of us alive today has the impression that we have emerged from a family with a name spelled in a particular way, and that we cannot be related to people with a "different surname". It's so deeply engrained in our culture that we don't think about it (which is what we mean by culture!). Let me be clear: my research tells me that this assumption is wrong! I will explain why.


My search started with searching for and recording census records for HOWES. I already knew from researching my own Howes family line that I might find variations, like HOWS and HOWSE. These occur quite frequently in old parish registers. Often a new vicar or curate may have a different way of spelling surnames for people obviously from the same family. My favorite is Blickling, a village in Norfolk, where all three variations can be seen with even one occurrence of a fourth: HOUGHS! Cuz Al Howes has shown me a court document from Massachusetts in 1638 where Thomas Howes's name is spelled three different ways - so it's not a new problem.

Anyway, I was using commercial transcripts of the census to find Howes entries rather than working through page by page. The result was that fairly often I could see family groups in say 1891 and 1871 but not in the intevening year. In using the search facilities offered by those commercial services to find that missing data, what I also found were apparent mis-transcriptions. I have found all kinds of strange transcriptions for HOWES, including: AMES, AOWSER, DAWES, FLAWES, FLOROS, FLOWER, HAMA, HAMER, HAMES, HANKES, HARNES, HARRIS, HARVER, HARVES, HATTER, HAUSE, HAVERS, HAVES, HAWE, HAWEAN, HAWES, HAWSE, HERNES, HEUGHS, HEWES, HEWS, HOES, HOESE, HOLLES, HOMAS, HOME, HOMER, HOMES, HONER, HONES, HONEY, HONNER, HOOVER, HORACE, HORDER, HORES, HORIES, HORNER, HORNES, HORNS, HORRIS, HORRY, HORSES, HORVES, HOUES, HOURES, HOUS, HOUSE, HOUTS, HOUZE, HOVERS, HOVES, HOW, HOWD, HOWE, HOWEF, HOWELL, HOWEN, HOWER, HOWESE, HOWET, HOWEY, HOWK, HOWRS, HOWS, HOWSE, HOWZE, HOWY, HOYOSE, HOZA, HUGHES, LOWES, NEWES, NOWER, NOWES, OUSE, POWER, RONES, ROWER, ROWS, SHIVES, SHOWER, STAMOS, STOWER, STOWES, THOMAS and WONES! Flower? Hatter? Horses? Shower? Good grief!

It is obvious that most of these are indeed mis-transcriptions that were referred to by their proper names in other censuses. No doubt many of these were caused by poor handwriting and/or transcribers not being familiar with local names. Others were genuine mis-hearings at the time resulting from strong regional accents among the local people, probably combined with census enumerators (a) themselves not having a clear idea of spelling and (b) perhaps coming from elsewhere and having a different accent.

But, almost hidden in this detail were a few very interesting cases. For example:
1 - A John Howes was born in Swannington, a few miles to the North of Norwich, in about 1821. Many of his family "changed their name" to Howe from 1861 census on. The whole family seem to have used Howe and Howes interchangeably in subsequent censuses and birth registrations.
2 - a Charles Howes was born in Banham about 20 miles South of Norwich in about 1776. All of his children took the names How and/or Howe.
3 - I have a marriage certificate from 1849 for Sarah Howse to a John Able Colman. Sarah and her father, James, spelled their name Howse, but she signed Howes! And the family used Howes on most other legal documents
4 - (Written much later) We have found one person, William Howes, born 1810 from Prior's Hardwick in Warwickshire, who was referred to variously as Howes, House, Howse, Hows and How during his lifetime!

Thoughts and implications

These exceptions appear to test our assumptions about surnames quite deeply. These are just the ones we can observe directly through census records in a relatively short period of time from 1841 to 1901. There must be little doubt that there were others before 1841.

Does it really matter? Well, yes it does. If we are trying to track our own roots, it means that we need to be very open-minded about the spelling of our ancestors' names to be sure we are tracking our own line correctly. The only totally rigorous way to track our paternal line is proper research combined with DNA testing. But even that brings in complications, such as illegitimacy, adoption, spousal infidelity and so on. This hobby is fun!

Trans-Atlantic Spelling Issues

One other learning that I think is worth sharing and as someone who is a permanent resident of the US who grew up in the UK, I feel well able to make it: what Brits think of these days as correct spelling may not necessarily be "correct". Through my research, I have found several examples from the nineteenth century which at least challenge current British notions:
- Almost all British parish registers from the nineteenth century have dates written in the format MM/DD followed by year. I'm not sure when British usage changed but it has. My personal preference is the Chinese approach of YYYY/MM/DD, starting from the big and working to the small. It's much easier to program using this format too.
- I can quote several examples of words like "color" and "labor" being used in British documents, in both printed and handwritten formats in the 1880s and before.
- There are Brits who get hot under the collar when I use words ending in "-ize" in my writing instead of using "-ise". I'm accused of using "the American spelling" instead of the correct spelling! However, this is the way I learned to spell when I went to school in Norwich back in the 1960's! Again, I don't think there is a particular date when usage changed in the UK but I believe it is within my own lifetime.
In each of these cases, it seems that it is the British who have changed and the Americans who have held on to the original way. There are wider issues here too about how emigrants retain elements of their original culture, but that's beyond the scope of this particular website! I merely make the point that British people need to have a little more humility on these matters!

Your comments?

Disagree? Got other examples? Want to add to the discussion? Do let me know! Click here to send me an e-mail

Paul Howes. edited March 2015


I have learned more over the months and found many more examples of indecision between Howes and Howse as written surnames. There is no doubt in my mind that the names are really one. This is yet to be shown by DNA testing but I am sure it will be.

Last weekend a friend showed me a copy of "The History of an East Anglian Soke," a remarkable book written in 1918 detailing the history of several villages in the area of Norfolk around Trunch and Gimingham from the original documents. One entry in there from 1493 was most intriguing. It contained a reference to a "Margaret Atte Hoo, otherwise Howes" of Southrepps who kept a dog that worried sheep. Upon my return home, I googled "Atte Howes" and found a few other references, all of them from East Anglia. Two or three interesting things come out of this:

  • "Atte" is an old English word meaning 'by' or near. That strengthens the case for Howes being some kind of geographical feature, like a hill. The same root appears in surnames like Attwell or Attwood.
  • If Atte Hoo can become Howes, it can also become Howe and it can also become Attoe, Attow or Atthowe as it is frequently found in Norfolk. In fact there are very few occurrences of Atthowe outside Norfolk. Consequently I will widen the scope of the Howes DNA study to include Atthowes and variants.
  • The modern Norfolk accent easily substitutes the sound "oo" as in "too' for "oe" as in "toe" and vice versa. Listen carefully and you can still hear Norfolk people go sailing in "boots" and putting their "boats" on to go out into the yard, or eating "soap" and washing with "soup". That characteristic of the accent is so strong that it has probably been present for hundreds of years. So there are probably even more variations of Howes etc than I had originally thought.
  • Since Atthowe and Howes both seem to come primarily from East Anglia and particularly from Norfolk it is just possible that the name comes from some Danish or Dutch or Saxon word brought over by invaders who populated these areas more than other areas. It doesn't mean that the Howes and Atthowes were themselves invaders but it does seem more likely.

    The good news is that we will get to the truth eventually using DNA testing. The bad news is that because the surname is likely to be relative to a geographical feature like a hill, there are going to be many strands of DNA. We aren't going to be a distinct lot who all emerged from the same village.

    Paul Howes, April 2009, amended October 2011

    Postscript 2!

    Gravestone from Gloucester Cathedral

    Here is a photo of a gravestone inside Gloucester Cathedral sent to us by a correspondent in Kansas City who was on vacation in the UK. Look at it carefully and you will see that the surname spelling changes toward the bottom. Engravers who work on such stones are very careful in their work because mistakes are expensive. So it would appear that the change in spelling was very conscious. A very intriguing example, for which many thanks.

    Paul Howes, December 2015