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About the study
Like many one name studies it began when I was tracing my own family tree and in the process accumulated a large amount of Swale/Swales information which was not directly related to my own family.
I now have a database of over 8000 bearers of the surname (covering over 20 spellings of it) and this database is growing steadily. Modern population statistics suggest that it will eventually grow to include about 22000 individuals of which 16000 will be in the United Kingdom and the rest scattered all over the world.
Prior to registering the study with the Guild I only collected pre 1900 information and I still hold very little post 1900 data.
In one form or other it is one of the oldest English surnames still in use but most of the early evidence is anecdotal (e.g. pedigrees or histories written many years after the event). The earliest use of the name so far discovered in an official document is Robert Swale in 1170 (pipe roll 17 Henry II.68) but there is some evidence that the name was probably being used earlier. Evidence such as the pedigrees compiled by the medaeval heralds in their visitations must be treated with suspicion but although inaccurate is likely to have some basis in truth; all the heraldic visitations point to one origin of the name being someone called de Swale who was somehow connected to the de Gant family. The manor of Grinton in Swaledale seems to have been held by the de Gants in 1156 but forty years later appears to have been at least partly held by one de Swale who may have obtained it by marrying a de Gant or who may be a cadet branch of the de Gant family named for their place of residence.
There is no certainty that the name has only a single origin; there were several townships along the Yorkshire river Swale which included the word Swale in their name and likewise several families may have taken the name. It is noted that some of the earliest occurences of the name in the York City Freeman records are to de Swaledale, these may or may not have subsequently shortened that to Swale.
There is another possible origin in de Swallowhill (Swallowhill was a manor in Darton parish near Barnsley). There is another river Swale in Kent but no Kentish bearer of the name before 1500 has been found yet. The evidence collected so far suggests that the name may have been local to Grinton and Richmond until the beginning of the 14th century. At present there is no evidence of any family bearing the surname living anywhere except in Yorkshire or London before the mid sixteenth century.
The Swale family of Staveley/South Stainley, in the evidence which they gave to the medaeval heralds, claimed to be the original family descended from the de Gants but no contemporary documentary evidence for their existance before the mid 14th century has been found yet and a land owning and possibly armigerous family appears to have continued to exist in Grinton until the early 17th Cent. It is possible that one of these families was a cadet branch from the other and they certainly intermarried at least once in Tudor times and the South Stainley family acquired the Grinton estate in the seventeenth century..
The 1379 poll tax returns for the West Riding survive virtually intact and reveal only four definate bearers of the surname and five possibles. The definates William de Swale and his wife at South Stainley and Thomas de Swale and his wife at Ripon, Thomas is listed as a brewer but was wealthy enough to pay 12d in tax. The possibles: Alicia in Ripon had no surname and is listed as the servant of Thomas, Magota Swalewoman and Willelmus Swaleman at South Stainley were probably tenants, retainers or cousins of William De Swale, they and their like may have subsequently used Swale as a surname or are a possible origin for the Swales form of the name as genitive surname forms were still developing at that time. Likewise Isabella de Swahill who paid tax in Darton and Robertus de Swaloughill & Juliana his wife, who paid 12d in tax in Doncaster could have had their surnames shortened to Swale or Swales in subsequent generations.
One question which requires careful research is whether the various spellings of the name are just spelling variations or have different origins. This is an area where Y-DNA might be a useful tool although it is already known that many individuals and families changed the spelling of their surname at various times, and that before 1900 the spelling was often a matter of clerical whim.
The UK population in 2000 contained:- 16 persons surnamed SWAIL, 57 surnamed SWAILE, 339 surnamed SWALE, 526 surmamed SWAILES and 4044 surnamed SWALES making a total of 4982. No other Spellings of the surname were in use in the UK at that time. It is significant that while 91.7% of those living in 2000 spelt their name with a terminal 's' that only 20% of pre 1600 baptisms or christenings so far recorded on the database have a terminal 's'.
The 1881 census for England and Wales shows 333 surnamed SWAILES, 404 surnamed SWALE, 2091 surnamed SWALES.
Distribution of the name
The name in all its spellings is commonest in North Eastern England, principally in Yorkshire and Durham, but it has spread worldwide.
Based on the frequency with which the various spellings occur in telephone directories (while this gives a broad picture it is unlikely to be statistically precise):-
SWAIL has so far been found only in the United Kingdom, Eire and North America. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was most common in Ulster but SWAIL is now over six times as common in Canada as it is in the UK.
SWAILE is almost a canadian version of the name, now found only in the UK, Canada and the USA it is four times as common in Canada as it is in the UK.
SWALE The most widely distributed spelling although by no means the commonest it is over six times more frequent in New Zealand than in the UK although it is rare in Australia. It also occurs in significant numbers in Canada, USA, France, Germany, Spain and India.
SWAILES Occurs most frequently in the UK but is well represented in New Zealand, Canada and the USA and occurs in a significant number in Spain.
SWALES By far the commonest modern spelling it is most frequent in the UK, is almost the only spelling found in Australia and the most often used spelling in the USA. In New Zealand it is less than half as common as SWALE and is as frequent in Canada as in NZ. It is probably the only form of the name found in Belgium, but I have not found it in any modern French or German telephone directory although it occurs in significant numbers in Sweden and Austria.