It has been a long-standing problem in Wales – too many Joneses, Davieses, Wiliamses and Evanses, causing confusion and encouraging a resort to not-very-Welsh double-barrelled names. Today it may no longer be as big an issue, as populations mix, but 120 years ago it exercised Dr T. E. Morris, a contributor to the Transactions, the Society’s historic journal already in its 25th year of publication in 1901-1902.
“The total number of surnames in use in Wales,” he asserted, “even including English surnames is small and ridiculously out of proportion to the population as compared with other countries.” And he went on to add that it was causing “inconvenience, annoyance and even suffering.” It had become necessary to add further descriptors to names, such as “Robert Jones, the butcher” or “Capt. Roberts” or add the name of the mother (in practice her father’s name) to the surname.
In case he appears to be exaggerating he instances the Anglican Church where he says a Congress at that date in Wales would consist of 22 Thomas Jones, 21 John Williams, 20 John Jones, 17 David Jones, 17 William Jones, 15 David Davies and 13 William Williams. Not to be beaten the Calvinistic Methodists could offer 11 ministers named John Jones and 11 named William Jones. (Researchers using the Dictionary of Welsh Biography will be familiar with the problems this can cause.) Parliament in that era had three David Davies and indeed still has two even if one of them has an omitted “e”. When the Land Commission visited Carmarthenshire in the late 19th century, according to Morris, 65 of the 134 witnesses were called Jones, Evans, or Davies.
Though Acts of Parliament and Deed Poll are mechanisms for changing surnames, Morris, a lawyer, argues that law requires neither, citing as precedent a ruling by the Master of the Rolls, Joseph Jekyll, dating as far back as 1735. An individual can be known by the name he wishes as long as the change is not made for reasons of fraud and indeed entertainers were adopting more stage-friendly monikers in Morris’s time and still do. (Who after all would think of Reginald Dwight singing Candle in the Wind or Archibald Leach starring in North by Northwest?
Morris suggested the passing of an Act of Parliament whereby anyone who desired to change their name could do so at a Registry of Births Marriages and Deaths on payment of a fee – half a crown or five shillings the appropriate sum in his view. Welsh people, he hoped would get away from the narrow range of Norman and Biblical Christian names then in vogue and go back in Welsh history and literature to mine the huge variety of names found there. For surnames they could make use of place and geographical names in Wales. Where patronymics survived the designation “ap” might be brought back into use.
No Welsh MP took up his plea to promote such a Bill, perhaps wisely given the disruption that would have resulted. Names have become more varied naturally over time. Even so, Wales was still able in the early 2000s to field a Welsh rugby XV with no fewer than six Joneses, a single name feat surely no other sports side anywhere has been able to match.
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The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion reach a venerable 150 years in 2023 and throughout the year we will be publishing articles on the website that have appeared during the decades. Many deal with issues that have since ceased to be important, but others still have a strong contemporary resonance.
Look out on the website for regular new uploads of this fascinating material. Or you can read all the articles by visiting the National Library website where you will find the material at https://journals.library.wales/browse/1386666