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Updated January 25, 2024

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England has a long and varied history intertwined with many different nations and lands. English is a Germanic language but was also influenced by Welsh, Gaelic, Italian, French, Scandinavian, and other European languages. Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland also influenced many English last names. 

Many Americans owe their last name to their English ancestors who settled in the New World. As a result, many English last names are influenced by occupation, region, and the individual’s father’s name (otherwise known as a patronymic last name). 

A portion of English last names are influenced by region; for example, the last name Burton, like the famous film director Tim Burton, refers to a town in Leicestershire.

The Vikings and the Romans also frequently invaded and occupied England in its early days, and both cultures left traces of their language on the land and English surnames. Last names in England and the UK didn’t become the norm until the Norman invasion of 1066.

Different Types of British Last Names

British surnames, also known as family names or last names, are often derived from a variety of sources and can be categorized into several types. Each type of surname has its own unique history and origin, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of Britain, including the following.

  • Patronymic Surnames: These are derived from the father's name. For example, the surname "Johnson" means "son of John".
  • Occupational Surnames: These surnames are based on the job or occupation of an individual. For instance, "Baker", "Smith" (from blacksmith), and "Carpenter" are all occupational surnames.
  • Topographic Surnames: These are derived from geographic features or places. For example, "Hill", "Ford", "Brooks", and "Fields" are surnames that are associated with specific geographical features.
  • Descriptive or Nickname Surnames: These are based on the physical characteristics or personal attributes of an individual. For example, "Short", "Little", or "Armstrong" are descriptive surnames.
  • Locational Surnames: These are derived from the location or place where an individual lived or was born. For instance, "London", "Sutton", and "Kent" are locational surnames.
  • Estate Surnames: These are derived from estates or large landed properties. For example, "Windsor" is an estate surname.
  • Hereditary or Inherited Surnames: These are passed down from generation to generation without change. Most British surnames fall into this category.

Patronymic Surnames

Like many other cultures around the world, England has surnames based on the father’s given name. For example, the last name Adams means “Son of Adam.” Therefore, it was common for a son to have a different last name than his father. 

  1. Anderson - Son of Andrew.
  2. Davidson - Son of David.
  3. Dawson - An old English variation of Son of David.
  4. Edwardson - Son of Edward.
  5. Evans - Son of Evan.
  6. Harrison - Son of Harry or Henry.
  7. Hughes - A name from Middle English which means son of Hugh.
  8. Johnson - Son of John.
  9. Robinson - Son of Robin or Robert.
  10. Williamson - Son of William.

Occupational Surnames

Many common English last names come from their ancestors' occupations. Therefore, it was common for a person to take on their job’s name to differentiate themselves from others with the same first name. 

  1. Archer - One who works with bows and arrows.
  2. Armstrong - This name can be traced to the Norman invasion and the “Forten Bras” warrior clan. Forten Bras translates to strong in the arm. 
  3. Bailey - This name refers to a bailiff or steward.
  4. Baker - One who makes and sells bread.
  5. Clarke - An English and Irish name meaning one who works as a clerk.
  6. Fisher - A fisherman, one who works on the sea.
  7. Gilbert - This name derives from an old English word that means pledge or hostage.
  8. Mason - A stoneworker or bricklayer.
  9. Tailor - One who makes or mends clothing.
  10. Weaver - One who weaves cloth.

Scottish Surnames

England and Scotland have a turbulent history. Scotland spent much of its time under British rule, and as a result, many baby names and surnames were traded back and forth over the years.

  1. Mitchell - Hebrew origin. The name means one who is like God. 
  2. Murray - A Celtic surname that means sea settlement.
  3. Paterson - A name of Latin origin, it is the Scottish version of Patrick’s son.
  4. Sinclair - An old French name that refers to people who came from the Norman region of Santa Clair.
  5. Wright - An occupational last name for a craftsman.

Top 5 Surnames in England

The top 5 most common last names in England stem from a variety of sources. Smith is by far the most common surname in England, with roughly one out of every eighty-eight people with the name.

  1. Smith - Occupational surname for one who works with metal.
  2. Jones - A family name that means son of John.
  3. Taylor - Occupational name of English origins for one who makes clothing.
  4. Brown - Related to the complexion of the person, someone with darker skin.
  5. Williams - A patronymic last name that means son of William.

Use the list below to find your last name and learn about its meaning and origins.

Most Popular British Surnames

Are you still curious about English last names? According to polls, the following names are some of the most popular surnames for families living in jolly ol' England!

  • Bell - In English and Scottish, this name is often geographical, given to someone who lived near a bell. It could also be occupational for a bell ringer or bell maker. However, in some cases, it may be a nickname for someone with a cheerful or bold disposition, derived from the Old English "belle", meaning "to bellow or roar."
  • Davis - Of Welsh origin, it's derived from the given name David, which means "beloved." It's common in Wales.
  • Hall - A topographical name for someone who lived by a large house or public hall, derived from the Old English word "heall", meaning "hall."
  • Harris - Derived from the given name Harry, which is a medieval form of Henry. It means "ruler of the home" and has Germanic origins.
  • Lee - A topographical name for someone who lived near a meadow or forest, derived from the Old English word "leah" meaning "clearing." It could also be an occupational name for someone who worked in or owned a meadow.
  • Roberts - From the given name Robert, which means "bright fame." This surname is of Old French origin and was introduced to Britain by the Normans.
  • Walker - An occupational surname for someone who walked on damp wool to thicken it in the process of making cloth. It's of Northern English origin.

L. Elizabeth Forry

About L. Elizabeth Forry

L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with 15 years of classroom… Read more

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