Is your Surname registered?

Our 2,745 members have registered
2,397 study surnames with us
and a further 6,089 variant names.

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About the study

Having discovered that my late father was orphaned at the age of 8 and knew very little about his ancestors (in fact nothing at all!), I was inspired at the age of 17 to start searching for our family name – it was not common, so I recorded every instance I found. Some fifty years later, I am still doing so, but have since extended it to the ‘other’ branch – the Horwell name.

Variant names

Horwill and Horwell were interchangeable names in the late 18th and early 19th century. Records for families show both names in general use until individual family members chose one or the other variant. Obviously, pronunciation played a large part in how the name was perceived to the recorder, and other ‘variants’ such as Herwill, Hurwell etc crop up occasionally. Early records also reveal a Horwyll variant. However, Horrill, Horrell, Harwell, Horvell etc are definitely separate names even though our name can sometimes appear with these spellings – agh!

Name origin

This is the bit you are not going to like. The derivation is basically a combination of two early English words – ‘Hor’, meaning muddy (as in Horton, Horwood) and ‘wella’, a spring. So our early ancestors lived by or at a muddy spring. Great – just think how many muddy springs there are in this country. But it is fairly specifically locative, as there are clear pointers to a southwest ‘origin’ with early finds of the name concentrated around the edges of Dartmoor – Buckfastleigh being my own ‘ancestral’ home town (at least as far back as 1677).

Historical occurrences of the name

In the 1200s Pershore Abbey owned Horwell wood on the borders of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire – the wood (and the Abbey) no longer exist. Other references to Horwell crop up in other counties and there was even a hundred in Hampshire mistakenly referred to Horwell (actually Whorwell). Named persons have been recorded from the early 13th century. Alas, two non-south west branches of the Horwell line have been traced back to have an Orwell origin (yet another different surname).

Name frequency

There are fifteen confirmed recordings of the name in the Devon Subsidy Rolls of 1524-27, in seven parishes. And the name appears in all other tax and other returns for Devon and Cornwall thereafter. A breakdown from the 1881 census shows that of 127 Horwill names recorded, 103 were living in Devon, but of the Horwell number (299), only 57 were in Devon and 17 in Cornwall. Many of the remainder formed part of the two ex-Orwell branches.


All births, deaths and marriages have been extracted from the Civil Registration records from the September quarter 1837 to 2005. Will extracts from 1858 to the 1980s have been recorded, and returns from the 1841 to 1901 census have been compiled. A great many certificates have been obtained over the years to clarify family connections. Work has been ongoing to locate family members in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and USA. There was even a small branch in South America, but with no male descendants.


No current work in progress though a family member in Australia has indicated some interest.