Common English surname types explored

In our previous blog post, the My Story Told team found out some interesting facts behind Welsh surnames and their origins. This research got us thinking about the variety of different surnames across the whole UK, and the origins and stories behind each of them.

This time we’re taking a look into some of the most common recorded English surnames, and where these names originally came from. Can you find some meaning behind your name by looking through our list?

Brown – Characteristic Surname

Quite predictably, the origin of this surname was simply associated with the colour brown, often given to those with dark hair, skin, eye colour or clothing. In contrast, White would refer to a fair haired/blonde person. Characteristic or appearance-based surnames can be seen in many instances throughout England such as Short, Little, Wise and many more.

Wood – Referring to an area

This surname originated in England, but also has Scottish origin, and would have been given to someone who lived or worked in a forest or wooded area. For example, famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood is likely a descendent of somebody who used to live “at the wood”. First records of this name appear in England in the late 1200s.
Wood is known as a topographic surname, as it is derived from a place name. There are many examples of this seen in modern day surnames such as Hill, Brooks, Waters and more.


Blackburn, Harrington, York – Specific Town or City Names

Although the examples listed above do not actually make it onto the top 10 most common surnames, there are a huge range of different surnames that refer specifically to an area such as a town or city. People with the surname Blackburn would have likely descended from ancestors who originally lived in that area, although they may now be all over the world!


Smith – Occupational Surname


There are many English surnames that are very clearly linked to job roles and occupations such as Baker, Potter, Weaver, and aforementioned Smith. The surname Smith would refer to a blacksmith, which was a very common occupation in previous generations and was required in every single town – which is why Smith is number one on the ranking of popular English surnames. Taylor, which is 3rd most common, would also refer to a clothes tailor.


Thompson and Williams – Patronymic or matronymic

In the top 10 most common English names, 6 are classed as patronymic surnames, which are Jones, Williams, Wilson, Johnson, Davies, and Robinson. These surnames are all derived from the fathers or grandfathers who came before them, and literally translate as “Son of William/John/Robin etc” – in recent centuries these names were simplified to the versions we see today.


Learning about family history and our origins can help to create a deeper sense of identity for many, and is also a great way of developing historical knowledge too. If you’d like to know more about your family history there’s a wide variety of resources available online to get you started such as



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Preserving your family legacy isn’t simply about heirlooms and property – there’s so much more to our family history than can be found listed in a will, such as our thoughts, feelings and memories. These are what really make a person unique, and the types of things our ancestors will really love to know about us in future years.

There’s many ways to begin collecting and organising your memories so that your family can easily access and view them – so we’ve started off with five important steps to continue your family legacy long after you have gone.

  1. Note down your thoughts
    Start keeping a diary regularly to note down your thoughts, daily life and anything that comes to mind as you go about your day. You can also use this space to recollect any special memories, life advice and other information you’d like to share with future generations. It’s best to record these on a device such as a computer so they can be easily accessed, but paper would also be fine if you prefer.
  2. Create a family tree
    Looking into and recording your family tree can be a great pastime or hobby, and would be a useful resource for any of your descendants who may want to explore their family tree in a few generations’ time. You would have already done some of the work for them, and you might personally be able to fill in some useful gaps that could stump your grandchildren. There are a variety of resources online to get you started on researching this.

  3. Outline your prized possessions
    You may have kept your first ever cinema ticket, hockey stick, vinyl record, or your prom dress – but will your family know the significance of these items after you’re gone? To avoid these special possessions being thrown away in the future, it’s a good idea to label them or index them, so that your loved ones know how important they were to you and will cherish them too.  You could make a list of them in your diary to keep everything in one place.
  4. Gather your photos
    Over the years, you may have collected a large amount of photographs from holidays, birthdays, weddings and more.  These have hopefully all been kept somewhere safe ready to be sorted through, and there’s no time like the present to get started.
    With old printed photos, you can write on the back of them any significant information such as the date, occasion and the people in the photo. That way your family will be able to identify family members they may have never met and will feel much more connected to the photos with the help of some context. To keep them safe, you could also digitise them by scanning them into a computer or taking mobile phone photos of them as a backup.
  5. Write letters to loved ones
    All of these previous steps are a great way of making sure your family has lots to remember you by, but do you have special pieces of wisdom you’d like to impart to certain loved ones? Consider writing them personal letters to read once you’ve gone. It may seem a little sad at the time of writing, but these letters will actually become prized and comforting possessions for those closest to you and will support them in times of trouble. You can include some words of encouragement,  special memories you shared and a message of love to them.


At My Story Told, we can help you put your story into words and compile a professional book to keep all of your special photos and writings in one place. This is the perfect gift to pass down to loved ones who will want to remember you, and can include all of your favourite memories, photos and anything else you’d like to preserve for future generations.

Our expert writing team will support you throughout your story-telling journey and ensure you can tell your own unique story in a special way. Contact our team to learn more about our storytelling packages today.