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disappearing british surnames

The rise and fall of these disappearing British surnames

Ellie overthrow jones. Author at Find my past
Ellie Overthrow-Jones
23 September 2021

Could your surname be on the brink of disappearing? From the most common surnames to those on the verge of extinction, we explored what these trends mean for you and for family historians.

Would your view of your name change if you knew it was becoming more unique?

Way back in 1836, the law in England and Wales changed. Every birth, marriage and death had to be recorded with the General Register Office. Fast forward to today, birth, marriage and death records are the bread and butter of family historians, a great starting point for beginners, and can be the key to unlocking elusive family secrets in your family tree. Family history wouldn’t be the same without them.

Discover the history behind your surname with 2 weeks on us

We took a peek at the last names from the England and Wales Births 1837-2006 Index. We spotted some incredible trends, and we found that distinct names have been on the rise over the last century. In fact, the number of different surnames recorded has increased sharply since the 1980s.

But while some new surnames make an appearance, it’s only natural for others to fall out of the records.

What are the most common surnames in England and Wales?

Is your last name top of the list? The top 10 surnames have been relatively stable over the last 170 years, with Smith, Jones and Williams consistently making the top three. Taylor, Brown, Davies, Evans, Thomas and Johnson also make an appearance in the rankings, with Ali entering the list in 2006. 

top 10 common british surnames

The number of births with a surname in the top 100 per year was relatively constant until the early 1940s, and that’s declined slowly over the last few decades. 

Which surnames are becoming extinct?

The rare names dropping out of the records, and often at an alarming rate, are not as unusual as you might think. 

William peaked around 1890 with around 1,200 births, and then almost disappeared. As of 2006, only around 25 people were born with the name.

Morgans saw a steadier decline. There were around 400 people born with the name Morgans in the 1890s, and that number slowly dropped with each year. By 2006, there were only about 50 Morganses registered in England and Wales. 

decline of rare british surnames

Haworth had its heyday in the late 1870s, before seeing a steady decline to under 100 births in 2006. Another on the brink of extinction is Pickles. The height of its popularity was between 1860 and 1920, but by 2006, barely 75 people were born a Pickles. 

disappearing british surnames

Other surnames which are becoming more uncommon each year are Osborn, Thorp, Mathews and Lawrance. It’s possible that over the next few decades, these surnames could become extinct in England and Wales altogether. 

Which surnames are becoming more popular?

Historical trends go both ways. Could your surname be on the up?

Our records reveal surnames such as Kelly, Murphy, Campbell and Stewart are all seeing a resurgence, which a drastic incline in births recorded with these names. 

And as of the 1920s, surnames such as Khan, Singh, Rahman, and Ahmed reveal the increasingly rich diversity in the population of England and Wales. 

Is your surname making a comeback?

While there aren’t any clear signs of surnames disappearing and reappearing, two did stand out. Both David and Kelley had lulls in recorded births between 1900 and 1960, before seeing peaks in 1970. While Kelley declined once more, David is on the up. 

Do you have a Scottish, Welsh or Irish name? You can learn more about names of Scottish origin or your Irish surname too, as well as the history behind the most common Welsh surnames. Or perhaps you're curious about vintage baby names, or how to find the maiden names of women in your family tree.

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