Decoding surname variations

A question often asked by less experienced genealogists relates to the spelling of surnames. ‘We spell our surname ‘Beecroft’ but in the 1841 census I can see a family looking like my ancestors, but it’s spelled ‘Beacroft.’ Or something along those lines.

More experienced genealogists know that such spelling variations are generally easily explained by the fact that our ancestors may not have been literate. Or perhaps they were not fully literate, and although they were able to spell their name they didn’t have the confidence to correct an official. Or even – and this definitely happened – the official just assumed they would be illiterate and left a space for our ancestor to make their mark. In any of these circumstances it was the official who decided how the surname should be written, and they wrote what they heard. Sometimes the resulting name is even further removed from what’s expected because of the informant’s accent. My 2x great grandfather’s first daughter was named ‘Anice’ after her maternal grandmother, but his first wife, although registering the birth in Leeds, had grown up in London. What the clerk at the Registrar’s Office heard was ‘Hinnis’, so that was how she was recorded. Since, obviously, I was working backwards in time, I hadn’t yet found the wife’s birth family, so it took a little while for me to work this out.

Then again, some surnames have changed over the years to become separate ‘branches’ of the root name. My surname, Heppenstall, originates in the small village of Heptonstall near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. The transition to ‘Heppenstall’ is easily explained by the Yorkshire accent, but although the spelling of my branch has been settled since the early 19th century, there is still an entry for my great grandparents on one of the censuses for ‘Heptonstall’. My great grandfather knew how it should be written, but his ingrained mistrust of the authorities won over, so he left them to write it as they wished, threw in a false forename, and presumably had a chuckle at their expense. One hundred years later, at Beginner-Genealogist-Me’s expense too. Bless him…

So… to any less experienced genealogists reading this – look at the entire record. If all the forenames match, all the ages and places of birth look right, and the occupations are in keeping; and all that differs is the slight misspelling of the surname, then there’s a strong likelihood that this is the correct family.

But now we’re going to travel further back in time… to the years when spelling was very much down to who was doing the writing, the rules were not particularly fixed, even fewer people were literate, names could be written several ways even within one document, and the writing was quite different to what we’re used to. (Take a look at this Wikipedia entry about the spelling of William Shakespeare’s surname, and you’ll see that he is known to have signed his name at least four different ways.) Yes, we’re now well and truly in Advanced Genealogy territory…

I’ve recently been doing a lot of research about the Lucas family of Woodhouse in Leeds. Since around the second quarter of the eighteenth century the spelling of this surname has been fixed as ‘Lucas’.  Prior to this time, other spellings are also found.  In Leeds these include ‘Lukas’, ‘Lucus’, ‘Lukes’, etc. However, in nearby parishes there are other families with essentially the same name but recorded as ‘Lookes’, ‘Loukes’, ‘Lowkes’ and ‘Looks’. 

These are contemporary documents and differences are purely down to the spelling chosen by the clerk. As genealogists we have to accept this and go with the flow. However, when working with search engines and indexes it can be complicated further by mis-transcriptions. During this current research I came across ‘Luras’, ‘Lutas’ ‘Sucas’ ‘Levas’ and the mis-transcription of ‘Sykes’ as ‘Lucas’. These are all perfectly understandable, although they do indicate that the transcriber wasn’t fully familiar with seventeenth century handwriting styles.

More unexpected was the recording of the name as ‘Lukehouse’, ‘Lukhouse’ and ‘Luckhouse’. In fact, when I first came across this I thought it was unlikely to be my family and only pencilled it in. Gradually, more records with these spellings appeared, and although I didn’t really understand why, I was sure this was my family. It was a chance sighting of a Wikipedia entry that helped me make sense of it all. I was trying to identify the precise location of an area of Woodhouse known as Woodhouse Carr, and a Google search led me to the Woodhouse, Leeds Wikipedia page. The entry starts with information about the origin of the name ‘Woodhouse’, and then this: ‘Locals refer to it as Wudhus’.

Immediately it all made sense. My ancestors did not pronounce their name ‘Luke-house’, to rhyme with ‘Wood-house’.  Rather, the reverse was true.  In fact I do vaguely remember hearing that pronunciation when I was growing up; and it would have been all the more so in the seventeenth century.  Hence, a clerk, upon hearing a local pronunciation of ‘Lucas from Woodhouse’ as ‘Lucus from Wudhus’, might conclude that, like Woodhouse, the individual’s name should properly be recorded with the ending ‘-house’. Drawing further on all this, and the spelling of the first syllable as ‘Luck’, I now strongly suspect my ancestors pronounced their name ‘Luckus’. How wonderful to be able to ‘hear’ their accents through an entry in the baptism register!

So what does all this mean for us, searching for our ancestors? Here are my tips.

  1. Keep a list of all the spellings of this surname in records you’ve already identified.
  2. Take a look online at one of the surname alternative finders, where you enter a surname and see lots of variants. Variant Names on We Relate and Free BMD Search Names are useful. Admittedly some of the names returned will seem pretty unlikely, but at least you can then choose from a wide range of possibles.
  3. Since a name index is only as good as the transcriptions of surnames entered into it, use more than one website to search. If necessary I use Ancestry, FindMyPast, FreeBMD, FreeReg, FreeCen and FamilySearch. The last four in that list are free to use, and sometimes have given better transcriptions than the commercial sites. You may also find transcriptions made by local family history societies, and these are likely to be of good quality.
  4. Make sure you understand how to use each individual website’s search engine to achieve what you want. For example, Ancestry’s search engine treats most searches as ‘approximate’ unless you tell it to be more specific. So a search for ‘McKay’ will return records for ‘McCoy’, ‘McCay’, Mackay’, etc. However, at FindMyPast the search engine is far more focused. If you want surname variants, you have to tick a box to tell it that’s what you want.
  5. You may also be able to use wildcards, so ‘Sm?th’ will look for ‘Smith’ but also ‘Smyth’.
  6. Even with surname variants, you may feel the number of variations you’ve found for your surname of interest far exceed what could be expected of one pass of a search engine. With my Lucas research I might tick surname variations but then input ‘Lucas’, then ‘Lukas’, then ‘Luckhouse’ and then ‘Lukehouse’.
  7. And finally, if all that fails – there may be nothing for it but a line-by-line search of the register, being as broad in your approach as you think fit. Again, with my Lucas research, when doing line-by-line searches in the early 18th century and earlier I now consider pretty much any surname beginning with an ‘L’, having a ‘K’ sound in the middle and ending with an ‘S’ sound.