The history behind the most common Welsh surnames

2-3 minute read

By Ellie Ayton | March 1, 2021

Common Welsh surnames

If you’ve come across a Jones, Evans or Davies in your family tree, chances are you have Welsh ancestry. But what’s the history and meaning behind these traditional Welsh surnames? Read on to find out.

Unfortunately, chances are you’re not related to actress Catherine Zeta-Jones or singer Tom Jones. But there is a rich history behind your Welsh surname, a history that will be important to know about when you’re tracing your ancestors.

What’s in a name?

There’s a reason why many people with Welsh heritage share the same surname without even being related: patronymics. Back in times of old, Welsh people didn’t have surnames as we consider them today.

In the past, instead of John Brown, you would be John son of Evan, or in Welsh, John ab Evan. Your surname was, in effect, your father’s name. This is known as a Welsh patronym.

Over time, these patronymics evolved into the surnames we know today. ‘Ab Evan’ became Bevan, ‘ap Hywel’ became Powell. The reign of Henry VIII is memorable for many reasons, but particularly because of the effects English rule had on Wales around the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Under the Laws in Wales Acts, the Welsh were encouraged to adopt fixed surnames, so John son of Hugh became John Hughes, simply adding an ‘s’ to their father’s name. This happened gradually, so you might still find your ancestor using their patronymic into the 19th century in some family history records.

Some well-known Welsh historical figures have several generations of a family tree within their name, such as Owain ap Gruffydd ap Maredudd, king of Powys Wenwynwyn. From that, you can identify Owain’s father and grandfather. Some went even further, such as Llewelyn ap Dafydd ab Ieuan ap Gruffudd ap Meredudd.

And we thought double-barrelled surnames were a mouthful.

Patronymic surnames were more than a Welsh phenomenon. They were also used in Ireland, Scandinavia, Malaysia, Ethiopia and in the Hebrew language.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Now one of the most common surnames in the UK, Jones possibly derives from ‘ap John’ in Welsh, but also ‘John’s son’ in English. There’s some debate as to the true origin of the name.

By the 1841 census, well over 200,000 people were recorded living in England, Wales and Scotland with the surname Jones. Over 85,000 had the surname Davies, and over 136,000 had the surname Williams. A further 79,000 were Evanses, and 83,000 had the surname Thomas.

By the time of the 1939 Register of England & Wales, there were over 460,000 Joneses. And this number doesn’t take into account records closed for privacy (under 100 years old or still alive).

Discover 50 Welsh notable names across the the UK in the 1921 Census

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Are you a Jones living thousands of miles away from Wales? The Welsh migrated all over the world, as far as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.

The most common Welsh surnames

Another often-occurring Welsh surname is Davies or Davis. Wales’ patron saint is David, so undoubtedly it was a common first name in times gone by. The Welsh for David, a Hebrew name itself, can be either Dewi and Dafydd. It may have derived from Dyfed, an area in Wales.

Evans is another popular surname in the United Kingdom, the United States and beyond. Evan, or Ifan, has a similar origin to John. As a surname, ‘son of Evan’ became Evans, but additionally, ‘ab Evan’ became Bevan.

The last name Pritchard literally means ‘son of Richard’ or ‘ap Rhisiart’. Thomas is also prevalent, but its roots go back even further as a given name, with possibly Aramaic origins.

Some Welsh speakers today have even returned to the patronymimcal naming system.

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About the author

Ellie Ayton, author at FindmypastEllie Ayton