What surnames can add to the knowledge of our beginnings

We begin our family history journey at the end. There are many logical reasons for this, for after all, what would be the beginning? The generationally oldest ancestors? I believe I know something about eighteen 12x great grandparents who lived in the 1500s but far from enough to make their life interesting and what about the other 8,174 of them (endogamy aside)? DNA? Mine simply supports what I already know – my ancestors are mostly from Yorkshire. However, there is one other angle, that of surnames which can provide an insight into ancestors much further back than we will ever be able to prove.

In this article, the numbers born refer to the period from the start of civil registration, currently transcribed on freebmd (1837 – 1992 approx). The counts for the first seven surnames were taken on 3 August 2022, for more distant ancestors on 29 November 2022.


Jesse Houseman (Grandma’s Dad)’s signature at the end of a letter to his landlord. 1920. Own collection.

Born a Houseman, like my Grandma, I plan to die as one. Although I’m resorting to changing my name back by deed poll whilst my Grandma just married a Houseman. As the subtitle to my website notes “it’s who I am.” It is, though, only my second favourite surname. Largely, I think, because it’s already been well-researched and I am forever grateful to Gary Houseman who proved the link between my two paternal grandparents.

Whilst this surname is believed to originate from an occupation, from someone working at or associated with the local “great” house, it is relatively uncommon and highly geographically concentrated. 43% of the 2,651 Housemans born in England & Wales between 1837 and 1992 (as counted on 3 August 2022) were born in Yorkshire counties and of these there is only one branch who are not directly related. I was delighted to find that the one family in Yorkshire who are not related by blood can still be connected into my tree as William Shaw Houseman (b. 1848) who’s father, Robert, was born in London, married Hannah Smith, who’s mother was a Houseman!


Grandpy’s entry in my autograph book. 1985. Own collection.

By contrast, I’ve never felt the same connection to my mother’s maiden name. It crops up too often for me to be sure I’ve found the right family. There’s even a shoe store which carries the name. Our Barretts had the audacity to originate from Gloucestershire and it’s Norman in origin. Sorry Grandpy, I love you, but it’s not a surname that holds my attention.


Nana’s Booth signature at the front of her own autograph book. c. 1939. Own collection.

Nana’s birth name.

Many years ago I spotted a beautiful seventeenth century wooden tray painted with the names of a Booth family. £400 was an awful lot of money but I was severely tempted, convinced the family would be related somehow. Whilst I still hold a slight sense of regret the chances that the tray family were in anyway related is slim to non-existent for there were nearly 50x as many Booths born as Housemans.

Booth is considered to be a northern name (over a quarter of those registered births were in Yorkshire) originating from the old Danish word “bōth” meaning a temporary shelter such as a cattle-herdsman’s hut. We were cattle keepers, probably the most appropriate of our surnames throughout my paper history. It also accounts for the 2% of Swedish & Danish ancestry in my Mum’s DNA profile.

Booth is also one of the two surnames I planned to use if I was ever to write under a pen name, which leads me onto….


Ernest Moody (Nana’s grandfather)’s autograph from Nana’s book. 1939. Own collection.

Nana’s mother’s birth name and the other pen name I would choose.

From the Middle English mody meaning ‘proud, haughty, angry, fierce, bold, brave, or rash’ not grumpy as it is now.

I broke freebmd trying to work out what percentage of people had been born in Yorkshire, but in the 2021 census, Yorkshire was home to about 9% of the population of England & Wales so essentially anything over 10% represents a northern bias and Moody, at 14% is no exception.

But as for Moodys being proud & haughty? This was the most unassuming branch of our family tree. We’d obviously not inherited those genes.


Mary (Pollie) Wellock, Grandpy’s mother. From her date book. 1907. Own collection.

Grandpy’s mother’s birth name.

I love the Wellock surname. Most recently it’s enabled a wonderful Canadian adventure. Every Wellock alive today can be traced back to just two men. They are either descendants of Henry (born in the late 1500s in Kirby Malham) or of Robert (b. c. 1546 in Linton in Craven). The two are undoubtably related but I am always disappointed when a Wellock is descended from Henry.

Common thinking is that Wellock is a derivation of de Wheelock suggesting Norman ancestry, but given that the Wellock (or Walock) name is only held by those from Craven, Yorkshire, my interest stops there.


John Scott (Grandma’s grandfather) from his will dated 1920. Own collection.

Grandma’s mother’s birth name.

Ultimately it’s a man from Scotland. Which could mean anything. Weirdly, my Mum’s DNA contains a lot of unexplained Scottish DNA whilst my paternal Uncle’s contains none. It’s also the most common surname amongst my great grandparents. Combine it with John and you’ve got a genealogical nightmare. So I just feel grateful that I’ve been able to trace this line as far back as my 6x great grandfather, John Scott, born in the early to mid 1700s in Branton Green, North Yorkshire.


Martha (Handley) Clapham (Grandad’s grandmother)’s signature from the 1911 census. Own collection.

Grandad’s mother’s birth name.

The last of my great grandparents surnames is slowly gaining my attention. Growing up there were a lot of Claphams and I thought it must be a common name. But there were under 10,000 of them born between 1837 and 1992 and of those, over 40% were born in Yorkshire. Which explains why there were a lot of them about when I was growing up.

More interestingly (for me), I have Claphams on my maternal side too – my 5x great grandmother, Elizabeth Clapham was born in Lawkland about three miles from the village of Clapham.

Given that Clapham is believed to originate from the name of a village that could suggest a connection for whilst there are Clapham villages and (different) family branches originating as far away as Bedfordshire, Surrey, Sussex and even Devon, my Grandad’s mother’s family had been slowly tracking south and east away from the original Clapham village. 

Could this be the elusive connection between my Mum & my Dad’s family trees?

Earlier generations

Going back to my 3xG grandparents adds a further twenty-four surnames. It seems I’m unlikely to ever find a familial connection to my friends Sarah Walker & Helen Cooper (being the two most popular surnames in my tree with over 300,000 of each of them born). There were fullers and coopers in almost every village from which these surnames derive.

There are some though which will be worthy of further exploration.

  • Stansfield, Furniss and Hinchcliffe are all relatively rare. They are locational surnames recognising people from Stansfield (near Todmorden), Furness (Cumberland) and Hinchliff (near Holmfirth) so it is not surprising that around 50% of these births were in Yorkshire. Each one might give me a hint as to where the families originated from. Each also has a number of different variants and the exact spelling could be useful in tracing my line.
  • I grew up surrounded by Beecrofts and they pop up on both sides of my tree so was surprised to learn how uncommon the name was both generally and in Yorkshire. It’s a locational name based on an apparently “lost” village named “beo-croft” meaning bee farm. Tracing potential locations in the region could help me bring together the two sides of my family.
  • Down to those names with fewer than 5,000 children born. Teal has my favourite origin story, as it is thought to be a nickname, meaning like a water-bird. One of my distant ancestors must have been graceful in their deportment. The Teal variant of the name is also strongly associated with Yorkshire with over half those born being from Yorkshire.
  • There were fewer Reynards born than Housemans. Reynard does not in fact mean fox-like, but rather a popular medieval story book fox character was given this name and it stuck. It’s a surname with a number of variants, but 64% of the people born carrying the surname in this form were from Yorkshire meaning I stand a good chance of bringing them together in one tree.  
  • And finally, my favourite 3xG Grandmother, Hannah Demaine, keeps on giving. Surprisingly, given it means someone from the ancient French province of Maine, it’s a surname even more rare than Wellock and just as heavily concentrated in Yorkshire. The variant Demain, which I have also seen, only adds a few hundred births. This family of agricultural labourers are about as far from a Norman knight as it is possible to be and has whetted my appetite to research further.

There are a few more ancient names I should mention as being gateway surnames that have enabled me to reach back much further than I would otherwise have done: Wigglesworth, Hebden and Swale are all locational from Yorkshire. Pettyt leads me to a cousin, William, appointed Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London in 1689, who invented a wonderful family history claiming descent from King Arthur and might provide a connection to my oldest friend, Andrea (nee Petty). Finally, there’s Inglesant is a rare example of a surname derived from a woman demonstrating the strength of my female ancestry right back into the medieval ages.   

And so it is that my beginnings reflect the end. It’s an (almost) Yorkshire story.

With much gratitude to Natalie Pithers for her two prompts, beginnings & surnames, which led to this blog and to all my ancient ancestors for picking such wonderful surnames.

An almost Yorkshire story – the podcast version

Writing this blog is principally about bringing our ancestors to life in an engaging and accessible way with the hope that their stories get shared and remembered now and in the future. That’s my primary goal, but it’s not my only one. It’s also about me learning to be a better writer, storyteller & communicator. So when Tina offered me the chance to record a podcast interview for waffle-free family stories, I took it.

We talk about her grandmother’s role in getting her hooked on family trees, how she’s giving life to the women in her story, the horrible accident that led to one child shooting another, and right at the end, she gives you THE BEST conversation ice-breaker you’ll ever know.

In between all that chat, she talks about the tools and techniques she uses to get as close to the real story as possible, and how she plugs the gaps”

I’d say that our family history really is all about wonderful women and that I haven’t quite lost my Yorkshire accent! Avid readers of this blog may notice the odd mix-up I had with names but don’t let that distract from the storytelling.

Here are the links to where you can find out more about the women (and men) I talk about.

How I started

Mary Ann Gill

Elizabeth Furniss & George Downs

Elsie Moody including the photo I used to resemble

Elizabeth Dean and the Butterworth connection

Hannah Demaine, the woman who married twice

Widow paupers including “Wid Swinden”

The Wellocks

Walter Scott, the boy who was shot by his friend

With much gratitude to Tina Konstant, for giving me space on her podcast, and also to Natalie Pithers, who runs the Curious Descendents Club which is how I met Tina & is also where I am learning to write better stories.

Elizabeth Furniss (1817 – 1911) & George Downs (1809 – 1868)

This is part of a series of brief biographies of earlier ancestors.

I turned to Elizabeth & George as part of a plan to ensure I’d fully captured all relevant documents for each of my great, great, great grandparents. A Darley farming couple, I didn’t expect this to be more than a short biography but when I looked into those documents I found a wonderful story of a woman who really came into her own upon the death of her husband. 

Darley-cum-Menwith is a typical Yorkshire farming village. Today it is a sought after country location close to Harrogate, commutable to Leeds and right on the borders of the Yorkshire Dales. In the mid-nineteenth century it was a thriving village. The 1841 census lists 725 people living in around 150 households who worked in agriculture or as shoemakers, linen weavers and wheelwrights. There was a church, two methodist chapels and a friends meeting house, a school, grocers and public houses. It was a self-contained village – even the arrival of a railway station in the 1860s meant you took a day trip to Harrogate, it didn’t mean you married out of the area.

The Great British Agricultural Depression was yet to hit and Darley was thriving. 

So let’s meet Elizabeth & George at the time of the railways and specifically in the year 1866. Elizabeth was 49, George eight years older. Elizabeth was born in Darley in 1817, the daughter of a local farming couple, Mary Pullan & Joseph Furniss, and she married George Downs, on 2 November 1836 at the age of nineteen. George, aged twenty-seven when they married, was the third son of another local farming family, Mary Beecroft & John Downes. The couple spent their early married life living with George’s parents no doubt whilst they were searching for a suitable tenancy. Such was the life of a third son and those they married. 

Thornthwaite church (c) Calverleyinfo www.calverley.info

By 1866 they’d made it – 30 acres of land on Craike Lane and six surviving children, Mary (b. 1836), Salina (b. 1839), George (b. 1841), Elizabeth (b. 1847), John (b. 1852) and Ann (b. 1858). There’s a reason for choosing 1866 and it’s not just about the railway. On 22 September of that year, Elizabeth & George’s eldest daughter, Mary, married Thomas Houseman, another local farmer, and that union ultimately led to me. I can imagine that wedding at the beautiful Thornthwaite church with the trees turning their autumn colour. There would have been the traditional seating complications as Elizabeth’s brother, John, had married the groom’s sister, Mary, but at least that likely ensured family presence. The date was no doubt chosen to be post harvest and it wouldn’t surprise me if the ceremony was scheduled to allow for milking time. Elizabeth & George could be proud of the family they had brought up. 

Then, just over a year later, on 7 December 1867, George wrote a will. Maybe he was already ill or maybe he was approaching 60 and conscious of his young family. Whatever the reason, it was timely, he died a few months later, on 21 May 1868.

It was a precarious time. Elizabeth, aged 51, was left to raise a family the majority of whom were female and under age. The eldest son, George, had married, the younger son, John was just sixteen. Farm tenancies didn’t pass automatically to women or underaged boys. The Great Agricultural Depression was just starting and farming was becoming less viable. It would have been very easy for the family to progress to the workhouse.

It is the will that suggests that Elizabeth had this under control. Written months before he died it suggests a confidence in her ability and the likelihood of a couple who had discussed and prepared for George’s death.

Extract from will of George Downs

George asks that Elizabeth “remain tenant and manager of the farm occupied by me if permitted to do so by the proprietor.” He orders that the “remain of my personal estate shall be equally divided among my son George and my other surviving children share and share alike” and directs that “before this division there be an auction sale of my personal effects such as farming stock implements household furniture etc”

The normal practice is for fathers to leave the bulk of their estate to their eldest son to ensure a viable farm is passed on. The only exception being where an eldest son is already fully set up in business or they have fallen out, and as the son George is named as an executor that doesn’t appear to have been the case. George didn’t do this – he intended for his wife to remain in charge, split his estate equally and specified that everything should be sold before the estate was split. My personal experience is it’s incredibly difficult to properly value everything in a farm business and incredibly expensive to set up from scratch. If you want to ensure equal inheritance this is the way to do it, but it runs the very real risk that none of the sons inherit sufficient to set up on their own.

What all of this (together with other evidence) suggests is that Elizabeth was very much a partner in this farm and that George cared deeply about his wife and all his young family.

Elizabeth took on the tenancy of the farm and by 1881, at the age of 64, had doubled the acreage. Her remaining children went on to marry well and all lived long fulfilling lives. Ten years later, in 1891, aged 74 she was living with her daughter, Ann, but was described as living by independent means. Ditto 1901 and 1911. Finally, at the age of 94, Elizabeth died on 31 July 1911. She lived almost half her life as a widow and had thrived. 


There are missing pieces to this story. I am sure there are documents concerning the passing of the tenancy and I know there’s a lot more I could write about the life of farmers at this time. However, the big gap for me is that I have no photo of Elizabeth. Despite this competent and, quite possibly, formidable woman reaching the grand old age of 94, I’ve found no trace of an obituary, her story or any photos. This blog is the start of a journey to rectify that.

With much gratitude to Nathalie Pithers for running the excellent Curious Descendants Club at which Tina Konstant ran such an inspiring story telling session that I spent the rest of the evening writing this blog and, of course, to Elizabeth Furniss & George Downs, my great, great, great grandparents through my paternal Grandad, for leaving me such a wonderful story to write.