In England, ‘Smith’ is the most commonly occurring surname, with hundreds of thousands popping up across the country. But why is it so popular and where do the name stem from? Could our surnames be a clue to the lives of our ancestors?

It turns out that yes, they are. Although surnames might not hold the keys to everything you want to know about your family tree, they can certainly provide you with a hint towards what your relatives from days gone by might have been like.

Before the Norman Conquest, surnames in England were non-existed, referring to people by a first name or nickname instead. But by the 13th Century and with a growing population, identification by just one name became increasingly difficult, forcing the need for a second name too.

Surnames started to develop via a number of routes. Trades, nicknames, places of origin, and father’s names became surnames. Physical traits would sometimes influence the choice, such as ‘Armstrong’ to signify strength, or ‘Brown’ for hair colour. The practice spread, and by the 1400s, hereditary names were commonly used in England.


A ‘smith’ is a metalworker such as a blacksmith, whitesmith or tinsmith. The word derives from the Old English smitan, which means “to smite, to hit”. Other common surnames that were born out of an occupation include Baker, Butcher, Brewer, Fletcher, Archer and Cooper.

However, it was surnames that were taken from a place that were among the most commonly used. It isn’t just major place names such as Lancaster that were used, either. Names could come from the country, estates, or even features of the landscape.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that your surname has stayed the same throughout the years. Many change over time through a corruption of spelling, or even a use of an alias. Standardised spelling is still a relatively modern invention, so spellings were much more likely to be varied before the 19th Century.

Although surnames aren’t the most accurate form of family research, there are other ways to unlock your family’s past. If you’re interested in genealogy research there are a wide number of free online resources that can be a good place to start. Fraser and Fraser are the market leader in probate research so we know all sorts of strategies that can work for your personal family trees too. Why not check out our other posts and learn more!