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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 January 2006, 13:40 GMT
What's in a surname?
Everyone's got a surname, but now a website which maps names against areas of the country where they are most common helps shed light on where our families come from.

See how Tuckers, Walkers and Fullers have dispersed

Until now it's been hard to know what a surname says about someone. But a website has been launched that maps more than 25,000 surnames across Britain, highlighting areas of concentration. (See internet links, right, for a link to the site.)

Anyone can tap in their name and with the click of a mouse glimpse a profile of how others who share their name are distributed around the country.

So, for example, while it's no secret that there's a small cluster of Blairs residing at a prestigious address in central London, the surname is most concentrated on the west coast of Scotland, particularly Argyllshire and Ayrshire.

The site is the result of a year-long study aimed at understanding patterns of regional economic development, population movement and cultural identity, says Professor Paul Longley, who led the project.

It maps the distribution of surnames from the 1998 electoral register and does the same against the 1881 census, making it possible to see how surnames moved around the country during the last century.

To a large extent social mobility is a myth - for most people, migration is traumatic
Prof Paul Longley
And despite the talk about Britain's increasingly mobile population, the map reveals many surnames still have strong regional ties.

Roberts, for example, remains very definitely clustered in north-west Wales, as it was in 1881, although the 1998 map shows it has spread further into England.

"It shows, to a large extent, that social mobility is a myth. For most people, migration is traumatic," says Prof Longley, who worked on the project with Richard Webber, the former head of data analysts Experian.

Between the 13th Century, when surnames originated in Britain, and the end of the 19th Century "not a lot happened" says Prof Longley. People tended to stay rooted in the part of the country where they were born.

One apparent anomaly thrown up by the 1881 census, says Prof Longley, is the spike in Cornish names centred around Middlesbrough, in north-east England.

Scattering classes

"It seems utterly inexplicable at first, but when the Cornish tin industry collapsed in the 1850s a large number of workers' families migrated en masse to mining communities in the North East."

You are 53 times more likely to find someone called Rossall in Blackpool, Lancs, than elsewhere in the UK
And 40 times more likely to find a Ronson in the coastal resort than elsewhere in Britain
The dawning of the railway, and subsequent rise of the car and growth in higher education have all contributed to so-called national labour markets, in which skilled people will move and settle far from home for their work.

"A very good indicator of the economic health and dynamism of an area is a good mix of family names. It's an indicator of a can-do attitude because these days it's migrants who are making the running."

Prof Longley hopes the surname site, which has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will tap into the current trend for examining family histories.

"The BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme has touched a nerve with many people, and set them thinking about their family histories. Those are just one-offs - one of the purposes of this website is for amateur genealogists."

In Greece the ending of the surname immediately identifies the area of origin, e.g. ¿idis originally from Pontus in Turkey but now mostly in northern Greece, -akis from Crete. The preponderance of names with that ending in the area of origin demonstrates the low mobility in Greece compared to countries like the UK. Several generations of one family living in the same or adjacent building is still common.
Warwick Gibbons, Kilkis, Greece

I have heard that this surname means a hard worker or a weaver
Gwyther William George, Cheltenham, England

Fascinating. My wife (who is Welsh) turns out to be English, and I (an Englishman) am actually Welsh !...
Terry, walton on thames. surrey. UK

I do realise that Davis is a Welsh name. Gordon is a Scottish name and Peter is an English name but I had no idea that many names came from distinct areas of the country.
Peter Malcolm Edwin Hale, Gloucester, England

It would be interesting to map those names against the United States census for 1880 and 1890. How many emigrated, and to where? USA? Canada? South Africa? New Zealand? Australia?...
Rich, Connecticut, USA

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