Trade names

You may know that I’m fascinated by names and I came across this very interesting article in History Today by C.M. Matthews:

I realised that some surnames denote occupations, Smith, Baker, Taylor etc but there were a lot of other names mentioned which I had never realised were to do with occupations or trades. I hadn’t realised but even by the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) people had family names which were passed to their children, but it was only by about 1300 that surnames were attached, although that was mostly to the land-owning classes. By 1400, most people had second or family names.

I knew that trades and occupations gave rise to names but had never properly considered the fact that some occupations came into being after most people had surnames, so Gunner for example comes from a Norman name, not someone who was in a profession related to making weapons. Some trades were very much of their age and have died out to such an extent that we probably don’t recognize names as originating with an occupation, such as Chaucer (hose-makers) and Barker (using bark in the preparation of skins) Some names which seem obviously linked to an occupation, actually aren’t: Hoods and Boots are likely to have been funny nicknames rather than people who made hoods and boots, Muskett doesn’t come from the gun but from a small hawk.

Most people know that Smith is the most common surname in Britain but the article in History Today, explores other popular names, and why some names you might have thought common because a lot of people would have been engaged in an occupation, just aren’t. There must have been so many men who were soldiers through the ages, and yet it isn’t a surname; Kemp is which is from the Anglo-Saxon Cempa, meaning warrior.

The (London Telephone)  directory of 1961-2 has 1,450 Wrights, 700 Masons, 280 Carpenters, 240 Slaters, 230 Tylers, 110 workers in lead (Plummers and Leadbeaters), 80 Thatchers and small numbers of other allied trades, but not a single Brickmaker or Bricklayer.

The Romans had used bricks, but they weren’t commonly used again until after the time that surnames had been established, hence the lack of brick-y names.

It really is a fascinating article, with much of interest, so do have a look and see if you can find one of your family’s names and its origin! (Elsden, by the way, is Scandinavian!)


  1. Chica Andaluza

    How interesting – my surname is Italian and my partner’s is Spanish and both of ours come from origins of complexion or hair colour I think! On the “English” side I have a Welsh Roberts and a Scottish Erskine (so not English at all!) which I could research…


    1. Lois

      I’m fascinated by names… and these days it is so much easier to research your background and family, especially in the UK, not so sure about Italy and Spain but I guess there are many Italian and Spanish people interested in their background!


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