Saturday, 9 January 2010

By Any Other Name?

This week I worked on an heir tracing case concerning a man who was known by two different surnames – neither of which, it turned out, was exactly what was recorded on his birth certificate.

I've also had a few enquiries lately about people who changed their surnames and that has got me thinking about some of the reasons why a person might change their name, or be known by a variety of different names.

One of the most common reasons was probably illegitimacy. In Scotland in particular, illegitimate children usually took their father's surname. However, on statutory birth records the name of the father of an illegitimate child is normally only recorded if he was present at the time the birth was registered (alternatively if the mother brought an action of paternity against the father his name might be given in an R.C.E.). Therefore the surname on the birth certificate may be one the child never used. Some individuals born to unmarried parents seem to alternate between two surnames, sometimes being recorded with their father's name, sometimes with their mother's.

Also quite common (in my family at least) were women who took the surname of a man they lived with, but were not actually married to. I discovered quite recently that one of my relatives who did this actually changed their name by deed poll.

Then there were children who were adopted and subsequently took the surname of their new family. Adoption only became legally recognised in England & Wales in 1927 and in Scotland in 1930. However many informal adoptions took place before these dates. I came across an example of this recently by accident. When researching a family of Scottish origin I was surprised to come across the death, aged 7 months, of a boy who had apparently emigrated to New Zealand twelve years later. My first thought was that a younger child had been given the same name but I could find no evidence of this in birth records. It turned out that following the death of their child the couple 'adopted' a baby born to an unmarried mother and gave him the name of their dead son. As this was prior to adoption being legally recognised there is no official record of this. Luckily, the information had been passed down through the family or this might have remained a mystery.

Similarly, children of a widow might acquire the surname of their mother's husband should she marry again. Even if this did not happen step-children may be recorded in census returns under the surname of the head of household regardless of whether they actually used the name.

Other reasons for a change of surname might include to benefit from an inheritance, an immigrant changing their name to one found in their adopted country and, of course, someone who deliberately wished to conceal their identity.

In fact, for our ancestors, a change of name seems to have been incredibly easy and, in most cases, left little documentary evidence. This presents rather a challenge to the family historian, who often has little more than a name to go on when searching for their forebears.

I wonder how often a change of name could be the reason for a research brickwall. Then again, there are some ancestors who by any other name would still present a challenge!


  1. Hi, I just gave you a Happy 101 Award. Go to My Ancestors and Me at to learn more about it.

  2. A relative used his mothers maiden name even though his parents were married before his birth.His father went into the WW1 his mother moved home and her mother acted as mum and he was known on the street as XXX. After the war his parents were back together but his fathers ill health left him with his gran.When he married in 1939 the registrar allowed him to be married under his Known name. not sure if he ever legally changed it

  3. This is a great post! I struggle with first name changes in one of my families, but now I'm wondering if my brickwalls (I'm still new enough to genealogy that some of my brickwalls are probably just lack of knowledge on my part) are possibly changes in last names. Because of your post, I'll consider other possibilities about names now. Thanks.
    Nancy from My Ancestors and Me