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  • English Origins

    Dr. George Redmonds

    Many genealogists reach a point in their work where an ancestor is unaccountably missing — he should be there, but he is not. Have you considered, though, that your elusive forebear might be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, but using a different surname? Dr. Redmonds’s research into the development of English surnames shows that often your ancestor is there, using an alias. In a new series of NEXUS articles Dr. Redmonds explores the significance of this sometimes confusing practice.

    “Alias” Surnames (Part I)

    In the past, when many people were illiterate and spoke only local dialects; when communities were isolated, and ministers were not always from the area, it was not unusual for surnames to be spelled in a variety of ways. Most genealogists have come to terms with such problems. On the other hand it is natural to assume that a surname was stable once it had become hereditary and that one person bore only one surname, however odd its variants. We must recognize that in some parts of England (whatever the period) not all surnames were stable; thus a significant number of people actually had two surnames, either or both of which could be hereditary. These two names might occasionally be given connected with an alias (e.g. “Riddlesdale alias Loker” of Bures St. Mary, Suffolk and Sudbury, Massachusetts) or in otherwise explicit form; more often than not, however, only one of the alternatives would be recorded. This disconcerting practice, which affected a significant number of families, cannot be explained simply, and there is no single reason for it. To understand the problem and to learn how to detect families with more than one surname it is important for the genealogist to learn more about the habits and customs of a community under study. One must not only acquire the local historian’s intimate knowledge of the terrain, but also become something of a linguist.

    The numerous aliases we encounter in records are of many different types. Some, as might be expected, demonstrate that a second name was often used simply to conceal a man’s real identity. One vagrant appearing before the Justices of Peace in 1657 was said to “usually and frequently change his sirname, calling himselfe in one place Robinson and in another Fairfax.” “Robinson/Fairfax”’s motive was clear, he was known “to wander upp and downe the country,” a cheat and a rogue, practicing “the scyence and cunning of physicke, the cure of eyes,” despite the fact that he was “never educated nor instructed.” In other words he was a quack doctor or mountebank, using his alias to escape detection. Other similar cases refer to Robert Whiteley (1676), “a suspicious person” known to have used at least three aliases; to Thomas Wilson (1712) “who called himself George Davison”; to Thomas Towler (1651) admitting that “the name he did use yesterday [John Robinson] was to gett the advantage of a pass,” perhaps a more spontaneous alias than the quack’s.

    Such criminally expedient aliases (if not detected) make identification difficult, but they are part of everyone’s present-day experience, and not therefore threatening to the methods employed by genealogists; and the use of aliases for such purposes is not usually central to most genealogical inquiry. More difficult, however, is the case of Nicholas Postgate (1678) “being demanded why he named himself at the first Watson, saith that he hath sometimes been soe called, his grandmother on his father’s side being soe called and he being like that kindred.” The inference here seems to be that Nicholas had some physical resemblance to that side of his family sufficient to warrant use of an alias (“...he being like that kindred”), but clearly there may have been more to the story, particularly if illegitimacy were involved. In a case which at first seems similar John Mannering (1651) said that he was “some tyme called by the name of John Grosvenor, his mother being of that name,” but John had been “bred a Roman Catholic” and at a time when such people were still being persecuted, the alias may also have served to confuse the authorities.

    The aliases above discussed emerged in depositions at the Assizes and Quarter Sessions. Understandably, such court proceedings are among the best sources for such information. Sometimes, though, an alias is at the heart of a court case. One Yorkshire example demonstrates that an alternative name could be imposed on a person — even a gentleman — against his will. In 1651, in a Chancery case involving the Stanhopes and the Calverleys. Walter and Richard Stanhope complained that they had been “most unjustly and untruly called in the bill by the name of Stanworth,” even though their name had always been Stanhope. The same alias had been given to their deceased relative John, and the two men disowned the name supposing “the same happened through the mistake of some ignorant clerke,” raising the question of what the clerk thought he had heard. On the face of it, “Stanworth” seems an unlikely variation of “Stanhope.” However, if one remembers that in both names the suffix was unaccented, and that neither the “h” in “Stanhope” nor the “w” in “Stanworth” would be pronounced in colloquial speech, the two names sound much closer. Clerks were, of course, constantly in the position of deciding what the “correct” form of the name might be, and it is hardly surprising that their guesses might be sometimes wrong. In the above case the clerk may have chosen “Stanworth” simply because he was more familiar with “-worth” as a suffix than with “-hope.” More probably, however, he was expressing as an alias a more widespread confusion as to the correct form of the surname; and local documentary sources show quite clearly that such confusions were not unusual.

    Dr. George Redmonds, founding editor of Old West Riding and authority on English personal and place names, spoke at the NEHGS 1992 annual meeting (NEXUS 9.90). He has led the Society’s English sightseeing tours and the “Family History for Americans” courses in England for several years. Interested readers may write him at 5 Knotty Lane, Lepton, Huddersfield, HD8 OND, West Yorks., England.

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