Cumbrian names and their origins

In my previous post on Cumbrian names, I looked briefly at at the riding names (the border reivers), and at the big landowners and politicians who dominated Cumberland and Westmorland for centuries.

Part 2 looks at commonly found Cumbrian names, and at the origin of surnames.

Types of surname

Surnames came into use in England from the 11th century, simply to distinguish individuals. As the population grew, it wasn’t very useful to have, say, 14 Johns and 12 Thomases in one village without a way to distinguish which one you meant.

Thus people became: John, Tom’s son; John the butcher; black-haired John; John from the hill… etc. Over the years, these became standardised to families and generations. Although in Wales, the practice continued (for several centuries) of the name only applying to the individual. Thus Hywel ap Evan was Evan’s son. But Hywel’s son would be Rhys ap Hywel. (The ‘ap’ – son of – led to names like Powell, Price, Pritchard, ie ap Hywel, ap Rhys, ap Richard).

The main types of surname are: 

  • patronymic/metronymic
  • appearance/nicknames
  • occupation
  • location


Names ending in ‘son’ were especially popular in Cumbria. Further south, it was more usual to just add ’s’. So, Williamson in the north, Williams in Wales. With variations of the first name, such as Wilson. 

Pattinson comes from Patrick, and is especially common in Cumberland, as well as in Scotland. There are a lot of Pattinson graves in St Michael’s churchyard, Bowness-on-Solway, for instance. This is despite the Christian name Patrick being a rarity by the time of the earliest surviving church registers – it would have been far more popular in the Middle Ages, when surnames were first established.  

Hodgson may be from Roger. Hodgson is frequent in Cumberland and Lancashire (with Rogerson found more often in the latter county).

It wasn’t just dads! The Cumbrian Nansons suggest an original ‘Ann’s son’. While ‘Widdowson’ speaks for itself.

Less obvious than the ‘-son’ names are Peat and Pears, which come from Peter (otherwise Piers). These are not exclusively Cumbrian names, but Pears is only found in a few other locations. How you pronounce ‘Pears’ varies. It was sometimes written as Peers, and if you think of ‘appears’ and ‘Pearson’ and ‘Piers’… However, some Pears pronounce it as in the fruit.

Even less obvious is Cowan/Cowen/Cowin.  Scottish in origin, it has lost the characteristic ‘M’ – think ‘McOwan’.

As I’ve said, there are a lot of patronymic surnames in Cumbria. However, some are not only ubiquitous across the UK, but very evenly spread. So there is, say, little point in listing Harrison, Jackson, Nelson, or Robinson as Cumbrian. They are common Cumbrian names, but by no means everyone called Jackson will have Cumbrian ancestors.

In fact, surnames ending in -son are common in other parts of northern England. Harrison and Jackson, to go back to those examples, have a high incidence in Lancashire.

The same goes for Atkinson, Dixon, Dobinson, Ferguson (originally Scottish), Nicholson, Richardson, Simpson and Wilson.

Hewitson is a distinctly Cumbrian name, though its orgins are in Normandy, and the family (from Huet) were initially granted lands in Yorkshire – Cumberland not being part of England at the time of the Norman Conquest.

Mumberson is another very Cumbrian surname: in 1891, there were 34 Mumberson families in Cumberland, out of 42 in total. However, again, they came over after the Conquest, and the earliest references are found (depending on the source!) in the South West or East Anglia.

Gunson is predominantly a Cumbrian surname, reportedly originating from the Viking ‘gunnr’ (‘battle’) or the medieval English ‘gunne’ (a forceful person). That makes it both patronymic AND a nickname.

John the Elder

Americans distinguish between fathers/sons with the same forename by using ‘the second’, or ‘the third’. 

It sounds odd to British ears, but it’s a great help for genealogists.

Here, in times past, we opted for a very confusing system: John the elder, John the younger. Or, John senior, John Junior.

The problem with this, of course, was ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. For as soon as John the elder died, it was very likely that John the younger would become the new John the elder, and his son or nephew would now be an an adult and become the new John the younger.

If you don’t have death dates to help work out the succession, you can’t always be sure which John is being written about.

Other Cumbrian names

As well as all the -son surnames, here are some more that show up frequently in Cumbrian parish registers and on census returns:

Bird, Birkbeck, Blamire, Boustead, Bowness, Brock(le)bank, Brough, Caile, Carr, Carruthers, Clapperton, Crosthwaite, Dalton, Dent, Dockray, Dufton, Fallowfield, Farlam, Fawell, Fenton, Gas(k)garth, Grave(s), Grisenthwaite, Hesket(t), Holliday, Hutton, Irving, Kendall, Kirkbride, Lamley, Lamplugh, Longrigg, Lonsdale, Lowthian, Mounsey, Oliphant/Ollivant, Ousby, Pagan, Reay, Ridsdale, Routledge, Salkeld, Sewell, Sowerby, Spedding, Storey, Storrow, Teasdale, Thornthwaite, Threlkeld, Tweddle, Twentyman, Vipond, Wasdale, Westmorland, Wetherall, Woof, Wreay.

So, how did they come about?


The classic example is the Armstrongs. But the Fawells of Westmorland also got their, rare, surname from the French fauvel – ‘tawny’. It was also apparently used as an insult, meaning ‘insincere or duplicitous person’. Which could explain why the name is rare, if not why anyone bothered to hand it down to their children! The name Woof comes not from dogs but ‘wolf’. It’s not exclusively a Cumbrian name, but is quite concentrated in Westmorland.


Given that occupations tend to be ubiquitous, these don’t jump out at you as being especially Cumbrian. There were a lot of Parkers in the parish of Hesket in the Forest, for instance, but the name itself is too widespread to count as local.

One that does is Twentyman, which is said to come from ‘twinters’ or ‘two winters’, and to do with keeping cattle.


If somone is called Bowness, it doesn’t take much to work out why! Though it could be where they came from, rather than where they were living at the time.

In the case of Wasdale, however, there is a ‘chicken/egg’ question. It could be that it started as a placename: ‘Water Valley’. However, it could also be that a family with that name gave it to the settlement. It is widely thought that Wasdale in Westmorland was the latter, while Wasdale in Cumberland may be the other way round!

A lack of male heirs, by the way, ‘did’ for the Wasdale families. Variations in spelling include Wastall, Wastell, Westall, Wessel, and a whole bunch more.

Longrigg is ‘long ridge’. Dent comes from an old word for ‘hill’. Meanwhile, the Viponds of Alston/Garragil were, way back, from Vieuxpont, in Normandy. 

The rare surname Caile is said to originate from the River Caile in Somerset/Dorset, but there were Cailes in Westmorland by the 1700s, so it ranks as fairly among Cumbrian names as those families with Norman forebears. 

People moved around, of course. While some families are still farming the same land their ancestors were centruries ago, not everyone stayed put. Farlam is clearly a Cumbrian name, from the place of that name. But by 1891, just 11 of 37 Farlam families were living in Cumberland. Those elsewhere might have to go back a few generations, but sooner or later, they’d ‘hit’ a Cumbrian forebear.

More family history advice

If you are tracing your family history, you can find posts on other topics, such as wills and family tree mistakes, by checking out the topics index page.

You can find people who feature in articles on the names index page.

Both will of course grow as I add more articles, so do please re-visit.

The main photo

The photo used to illustrate this post is Carlisle’s most-visible landmark: Dixon’s Chimney. I intend to do a post about the Dixons sometime, in the meantime, you can read a little about the chimney and Shaddon Mill on the Visit Cumbria site.


Cumbrian names – 1847

The following list is compiled from names mentioned in this and the previous article. I counted the instances of each in the 1847 Principal Inhabitants of Cumberland. (I’ve not included names with fewer than ten instances).

It’s obviously very limited (one county, one year, only one class of people), but it’s still an interesting snapshot.


Cumbrian general
Cumbrian reiver
Atkinson  112 Bird 34 Armstrong 183
Cowan/Cowen  30 Blamire 10 Bell 265
Dixon 141 Boustead 10 Elliot/


Dobson/Dobinson 26 Brock(le)bank 24 Graham 238
Ferguson 34 Brough 18 Hetherington 75
Gunson 23 Carr 33 Liddell/Liddle 16
Harrison 114 Carruthers 59 Nixon 49


49 Crosthwaite 27 Noble 38
Hodgson 189 Dalton 36 Salkeld 22
Jackson 153 Grave(s) 38
Lawson 53 Holliday 46
Nanson 17 Hutton 14
Nelson 26 Irving 89
Nicholson 134 Kirkbride 12
Pattinson 75 Lonsdale 10
Pears 10 Lowthian 21
Peat 11 Mounsey 26
Richardson 106 Reay 12
Robinson 225 Routledge 63
Simpson 53 Sowerby 16
Stephenson 23 Spedding 20
Williamson 46 Story/Storey 34
Teasdale 10
Tweddle 22
Twentyman 29
Westmor(e)land 10