Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s amazing how little has changed over the centuries.
Looking for someone in the U.K. with the same last name? If so, a new map tool can show you where to find them. Created by geographers at University College London together with the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council, the ”named” website will take any surname you type in and tell you where in the country people with that name form the largest share of the population.
Some of the results are much as you’d expect. The biggest concentration of Macdonalds is in Scotland’s far north, for instance, while the name Smith crops up pretty much everywhere. What’s perhaps most striking is just how concentrated in a particular place many names have remained, despite migration over centuries. Here’s project leader Paul Longley, via a press release:
“Most Anglo Saxon family names came into common usage between the 12th and 14th centuries, and were first coined in particular parts of the country. What is interesting is that most individuals do not move far from their ancestral family homes and so, 700 or more years later, most names can still be associated with particular localities.”
Surnames of Scandinavian origin, for example, are still most common east of the Danelaw, the limit of Danish settlement in Britain drawn after 9th century wars with the Anglo-Saxons. Take the surname Carr, from the Old Norse word for marshy country, which still clusters in the northeast:
Elsewhere, the quintessentially Welsh last name Jones, introduced along with other surnames in the 15th century as a replacement for Welsh patronymics, still clusters overwhelmingly in the north of Wales:
There are some exceptions to this pattern. I’m not sure how the typically Southwestern Irish name O’Sullivan (my own) ended up becoming so common in North Wales. Could this be due to retirees moving there from nearby Liverpool, long a destination for Irish migrants?
At the more recent end of history, ethnic-minority surnames originally from outside the British Isles still tend to show a heavily metropolitan focus. The typically Gujarati name Patel, for example, remains concentrated in London:
Among obvious minority surnames, there’s some movement detectable nonetheless. Britain’s Jewish community has long been mostly concentrated in North London. But the distribution of the name Cohen suggests that many U.K. Jews are moving a little further afield, as the map shows them clustered in both London and Brighton—the latter having developed in recent years as a key destination for people moving out of the capital.
As its creators have tried to make clear, the map results come with a caveat. Using data from old electoral roles, they show where a particular name appears with greater frequency as a proportion of the local population, which isn’t the same as showing where most people with a particular surname live. That means five Smiths in a remote hamlet of 10 people might show up as red hot, while 1,000 Smiths in a big city might not even register.
But the continuity the maps suggest is still striking. People from the British Isles may have moved and intermarried all over the world, but it when it comes to those who didn’t migrate off the islands, it seems they’ve often preferred to stay put exactly where they are.
Visit named to explore the U.K. distribution of your own—or any—last name.