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About the study
The first known attempt to carry out any systematic general research into the Relf surname was made during the 1980s by people like Brian Relf, Eddie Clarke, Steve Chapman and Chris Relf.
In 1990 Brian Relf floated the idea of forming a One-Name Society among the many enthusiastic genealogical researchers of the Relf surname. The Relf Society was form later that year and was rename the following year to the "International Relf Society" in recognition of it burgeoning international membership. A Newsletter was started in the winter of 1990 and four issues of the "The Wolf Pack" have been published ever since.
The Society broadened its research to include the more common variants of the Relf surname such as Relfe, Realf, Riulf, and Relph - although surnames such as Ralph and Rolph/Rolf(e) are also monitored by the society.
One of the aims of the International Relf Society is to foster the study of the Relf surname and its variants with the intention of sponsoring the publication of definitive research where appropriate.
The Penguin Dictionary of Surnames simply defines 'Relf' as a Sussex name, but in fact the name is now spread pretty widely. Certainly the first trace of the name so far discovered is of a John Relf listed in the 1197 Subsidy Rolls for Sussex (Lewes Record Office). The next trace is in the 1397 Sussex Subsidy Rolls. Subsequently, the name crops up fairly regularly, and a large number of Relfs still live in Sussex. But the name can also be found in most parts of the world where European influence has achieved significance. There is even rumour of a branch in Africa though thee are no details found yet. There is evidence that it extends to the North American Indians and Relfs have married into Burmese, Sikh and other diverse cultures.
The name Relf is indubitably also of Scandinavian origin. It is found in Old Norse as Hrolfe, in Old Swedish and Old Danish as Rolf, and means 'wolf'. It was imported into France during the various Nordic invasions, where it became an hereditary surname encouraged by the legalization of hereditary descent of fiefdoms. In AD 877 it became permissible in law for a son to inherit the fief of his father and with it he usually took also the family surname. In AD 911, Rolf (spelled Relf in some sources) became the first Duke of Normandy and it became a fashionable name. No doubt a number of Rolfs followed close behind William the Conqueror on the march against England in AD 1066, and later settled in the plundered lands; others would follow later to join their relatives, and for this reason to this day most Relfs and similar names are found in the south east of England.
If you want more details about the origins of the Relf surname, please visit Origins of the Relf surname.
Historical occurrences of the name
- In 1634, the Heralds Visitation to Sussex recorded a grant of arms to William Relfe of Mayfield . William Relf purchased the Lordship of the Manor of Ashburnham but was forced to sell it only a few years later.
- Keith Relf of the Yardbirds 1943 - 1976. Keith Relf was actually William Keith Relf - born, probably in Richmond, Surrey on 22 March 1943, the eldest child and only son of William Arthur P Relf and his wife, Mary E Vickers.
- Harry Relph, known on the stage as 'Little Tich', (July 21, 1867 - February 10, 1928) was an English music hall comedian.
- Pocahontas (c. 1595 - March 21, 1617) was a Native American woman who married an Englishman, John Rolfe, and became a celebrity in London in the last year of her life. She was a daughter of Wahunsunacawh (also known as Chief or Emperor Powhatan).
There are currently over 5,000 Relf(e)s alive in the UK. The frequency of the Relf name (and its variants) from the 1841 to 1911 UK censuses are as follows:
Other names being monitored:
The frequency of these names in the UK can be established from a 2002 database from the Office of National Statistics. This shows the current UK population and UK ranking to be as follows:
Other names being monitored:
Distribution of the name
The present distribution of RELF(E) is very markedly south-eastern, with the great majority of persons of that name living in Kent, Sussex, London, and part of Essex. The highest frequency of RELPHS is in the Lake District with a slight concentration in the south-east of England. The more abundant name RALPH(E) again shows a concentration in the Tunbridge Wells, Canterbury, Medway, and North-East Surrey telephone areas. However, there are also concentrations of this form of the name in Hull, and in the Shrewsbury, Hereford & Mid-Wales areas. The ROLF(PH) name is now much less widespread, but shows hot spots in London and the Isle of Wight.
Whilst interesting, these distributions must be treated with caution from an historical point of view. Anyone who has looked for RELFs in parish registers from south-east England will know that the name was often spelt in several different ways, and it was common to find families generally referred to as RELF, appearing as RELPH, ROLPH or even ROFF in the same register. To a certain extent the present patterns of distribution of names have evolved since the Victorian pre-occupation with 'correct' spelling. It would be interesting to examine the occurrence of the various forms of RELF in both space and time.
Between the various members of the International Relf Society over 120,000 records of the Relf name and its variants exist. This includes all the births, marriages and deaths from 1837 to 2002 a large number of entries from the IGI and various Vital Record Index entries. At present only civil marriage records England and Wales for the period 1837 to 1919 are held in the Relf Archive - see Civil Marriages England and Wales 1837 to 1949.
Only the above records can be accessed from the Guild's Archives but I hope to be able to archive a significant number of other records in due course.
As a minimum I will aim to add the following records to the Guild's Archive:
- Civil births in England and Wales, 1837 to 2010
- Civil marriages in England and Wales, 1920 to 2010
- Civil deaths in England and Wales, 1837 to 2010
- Civil probate in England and Wales, 1858 to 1963
- Census data in England and Wales 1851 to 1911