Top 10 most common British surnames, their history and what they mean
21st October 2020

Surnames, or last names, were introduced to England by the Normans in 1066.

These second names sometimes changed from generation to generation, or even as a person changed jobs.

But by 1400, surnames in England and Scotland had settled and became inherited.

Some surnames are more common than others, and are rooted deep in our history and culture.

But just because they are more common, doesn’t make them less interesting.

All these surnames have a deep-rooted history that goes back thousands of years.

Here, with the help of UK family history website FindMyPast, we look at the most common surnames in Britain.

1. Smith

Smith is the most common surname in both England and Scotland.

The name comes from the metal-working occupation of blacksmith, and has been used for thousands of years.

The earliest documented occurrence of the surname Smith is 1418.

FindMyPast currently have 24,662,412 records where Smith appears.

2. Jones

Jones is the most common surname in Wales, but it actually originates in England.

The name simply means “John’s son”, and the earliest occurrence in history is 1410.

FindMyPast currently have 16,198,704 records where Jones appears.

3. Williams

The surname Williams means “son of William”, is especially common in South Wales.

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Williams comes from the German name Wilhelm, which came to the Normans around 1066, and means “helmet of resolve”.

The earliest occurrence of the Williams surname in FindMyPast’s documents is from 1433.

They currently have 12,818,129 records where Williams appears.

4. Brown

The surname brown historically related to the colour as part of a person’s appearance.

It is thought to derive from the old English name for brown – Brun.

This could be because of their hair colour, complexion or tendency to wear brown clothing.

The earliest occurrence of the Brown surname in the website’s records is from 1391, and they currently have 12,206,549 records where Brown appears.

5. Johnson

Similarly to Jones, Johnson simply means "son of John".

It originates from a saint’s name and was particularly associated with the Crusades in the 12th century.

Johnson has always proved a popular surname, and the earliest occurrence of it is from 1439.

FindMyPast currently have 11,523,739 records where Johnson appears.

6. Taylor

The surname Taylor comes from the occupation name, meaning “cutter of cloth”, and originates from France.

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In England Taylor dates back to medieval times, when the name started appearing in Somerset and Lincolnshire.

The earliest documentation of it in the website’s documents is 1418.

They currently have 9,201,637 records where Taylor appears.

7. Wilson

Most commonly Wilson means “son of William”, but an alternative meaning is a place name such as Wilson in Leicestershire.

It is a popular name throughout Britain, but particularly common in the north of England.

The earliest occurrence of the Wilson surname in FindMyPast’s family history documents is from 1470, and they currently have 7,767,564 records where Wilson appears.

8. Miller

Miller is an occupational surname referring to a person who worked in a grain mill.

The earliest documentation of the name in the website’s history is 1410.

They currently have 6,997,130 records where Miller appears.

9. Davis

Davis is a popular surname in Wales, and means “son of David”.

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The name of David derives from the hebrew name, meaning “beloved”.

The earliest finding of the surname Davis in FindMyPast’s documents is 1519.

They currently have 6,852,947 records where Davis appears.

10. Thomas

The surname Thomas comes from the medieval first name, which is based on the Aramaic word meaning “twin”.

Thomas as a surname is particularly prevalent throughout South Wales.

The earliest occurrence of the Thomas surname in the website’s family history documents is from 1450, and they currently have 6,693,788 records where Thomas appears.

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