Is your Surname registered?

Our 2,744 members have registered
2,397 study surnames with us
and a further 6,089 variant names.

Getting started with a One-Name Study


How did you get here?

We know from our members that most of us initially consider a One-Name Study because of a family interest.  You may have a brick wall you want to work around.  You might have multiple instances of the name in your background.  You may have gathered a lot of information about a surname already.  In the sections that follow, we are going to run through some of the key considerations you might have in taking on and starting a One-Name Study.  You don’t have to read it – many members just jump in with both feet and get started – but for others we hope it helps 

Taking on a One-Name Study requires you to make two main commitments:

  1. you must respond to all enquiries if you have registered your study with the Guild of One-Name Studies
  2. you agree to collect all instances of that name wherever it is found, though you can work at your own speed with your own priorities. 

Those commitments are serious.  How concerned should you be at them?

Responding to enquiries 

Well the good news is that with our 2,500 or so studies, we rarely receive complaints of non-responsiveness about our members.  Most of us are only too happy to reply to anyone expressing an interest in our study name! 

Collecting all instances 

This is a trickier question.  Every study is different from every other in terms of size, origin, geographical distribution and so on.  Size can matter!

Everyone is aware how much more data is available online these days.  Does it make One-Name Studies more difficult?  Actually a lot easier and in some cases a lot harder!  For example, you can now derive a master list of English/Welsh births, marriages and deaths from 1837 to 1970 in seconds, instead of the months it used to take AND you no longer need to travel to London to do it! 

To address this and other questions, we work through the steps involved in starting a One-Name Study by picking an example surname, Ruby. 

Estimate Study Size

In this section we will look at two key aspects to study size:

  • time 
  • geography

You’ll want to have some idea of where the name is distributed and to ensure that the whole thing is not so large that it is difficult to do.  There are a few lessons to learn which we will highlight in red. 

What data do the major providers have which I can obtain from my armchair? 

First, as an exercise, go to each of the three main global data providers, enter the surname you are considering, make sure you are considering just the exact spelling and hit the enter key.  Check the number of “records” shown at the top of the results page.  Big, isn’t it?!   

Here are some examples we prepared earlier.  Ruby, Gold and Diamond are not names currently under study.  Howes (including the two named variant spellings), Featherstone and Orlando are.

  Ruby Howes Howse House ALL Howes Featherstone Orlando Gold Diamond
FindMyPast 170,317 301,350 63,585 4,774,551 5,139,486 144,197 68,881 347,326 211,069
FamilySearch 137,830 340,114 65,531 686,083 1,091,728 132,361 121,429 307,591 297,804
Ancestry 393,724 937,028 177,399 16,774,605 17,889,032 278,374 965,076 4,532,797 2,210,706

There are a few key points worth noting too.

  • At least in FamilySearch and Ancestry, one single data point can lead to multiple “records”.  Within both, if there is a baptism of a child with both parents’ names noted, it will be treated as three “records”.  Within Ancestry, if you find a single census household entry with 12 people, ten of whom are named Howes, Ancestry treats all 12 as Howes “records”. 
  • If you have a name like House, numbers may be inflated.  House occurs in “records” as House of Plantagenet, House of Commons, Unoccupied House and so on! 
  • Ancestry’s numbers, we believe, also contain occurrences of people in Member Trees, and certainly include images used for such people.
  • Clearly, the overall numbers well overstate the number of people covered by the One-Name Study.

Guild Tip: Don’t be put off by the apparent volume of data.  Frequently, it is overstated by providers for marketing reasons.

Is there much variation country by country?

The answer is Yes!  Here are numbers from Ancestry for exact surnames.

  Ruby Howes Howse House ALL Howes Featherstone Orlando Gold Diamond
Australia 4,470 28,418 5,908 101,076 135,402 15,254 3,853 25,276 23,241
Canada 8,352 25,665 10,108 303,760 339,533 10,076 13,984 69,472 53,257
Ireland 5,293 81,978 22,955 951,275 1,056,208 39,290 27,650 105,646 56,727
Italy 63 268 234 27,841 28,343 103 11,374 4,264 909
NZ 518 3,445 1,629 1,687 6,761 1,755 2 1,566 4,159
UK 24,026 388,615 91,943 1,216,232 1,696,790 152,932 29,716 227,940 134,259
USA 327,333 448,645 61,087 15,480,807 15,990,539 87,029 914,184 4,143,774 1,969,647

Similar results will come from other providers, though there will be differences in coverage reflecting their different datasets available. We included Italy because of the Orlando surname and it is clear that it is the largest of the names considered.  If you are considering a surname with eastern European roots, you might use My Heritage or FamilySearch because at least with the latter you can subdivide the results by region of birth.  Note that Ancestry, FindMyPast and FamilySearch all have very good data for the US and thus the results in the table above over-represent the proportion of surname holders in that market. 

Ireland is over-represented for all surnames because the numbers include British telephone book records! 

Guild Tip: You simply cannot use volume of data as a predictor of the size of your study.

Guild Tip: With great respect for our members in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, their results are largely incidental to the above.  For many, BUT NOT ALL, surnames British and US census data will give you 80% of the result you need for 20% of the effort.  Remember that it’s not necessary to have exact counts to decide whether to pursue a study, merely to have an idea of overall size.

Using census data to estimate study size

Here are the British and USA census results for 1881/1880 with the USA 1940 census below.  The British numbers are taken from Surname Atlas software (available from the Guild) and the census information from FamilySearch.  There will be minor differences between all the numbers below and those of other providers given differences in transcriptions.

  Ruby Howes Howse House ALL Howes Featherstone Orlando Gold Diamond
UK 1881 258 5,222 1,162 3,891 10,275 2,694 1 1,700 1,387
USA 1880 2,344 2,523 297 11,515 14,335 574 33 1,526 2,092
USA1940 5,930 4,098 764 23,605 28,467 1,978 5,988 12,985 12,984

Given the Guild’s British background, it has become accepted wisdom that a study based upon a surname with between 500 and 1,000 lives in the British 1881 census is easily doable.  In today’s global world, what these numbers show is that that statement must be viewed with a degree of caution.  Look at the rates of increase for name-holders in the US from 1880 to 1940.  The name Howes has been present in the US from 1636 and the low rate of increase from 1880 on can be regarded as almost entirely organic.  However, that is not the case for most of the other names.  With the exception of Featherstone, it is clear that for the other names there has been quite dramatic immigration into the US from continental Europe.  For anyone intending to study names like Ruby, Gold and Diamond it makes sense to look at other sources to see if there are significant populations of people with the same surname in the source countries, or whether people perhaps anglicized their name when they moved.  For example, the name House does not occur there, but has been anglicized from names like Haus and Hojz. It is likely that similar effects can be seen into other countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, though the figures are smaller and more difficult to come by.

Guild Tip: We need to use census data to estimate study size and then use other data to supplement it where necessary.

What the tables above do not show are the numbers of name holders for  pre-existing studies where members feel like they are making material progress.  This is merely a guess but we suspect that the majority of members’ studies have fewer than 2,500 name holders between the UK and USA in 1880/1881.  If that is the size of the potential study you are considering you should have no qualms at all in taking it on, once you’ve checked for increases in the USA before 1940.

Guild Tip: However, don’t let overall size put you off! The Howes study is doing well after nine years and it is by no means the largest extant study with the Guild. If you pick on a larger than average study you may choose to do it more slowly or perhaps consider ways to find a small team of volunteers to work on it with you.

Final comment: this section is merely about how to estimate the size of your One-Name  Study to decide whether to take it on.  In the Guild members wiki there is a section with much greater detail should you need it.

4,374 total views, 1 views today