Old Ways

Occupational Surnames, Where Does Yours Come From?

Surnames have a fascinating history behind them. Before record-keeping began, most people only had one name, such as Richard.

But there were only so many names to go round. As the population grew after the Norman Conquest in 1066, there began to be a lot of Richards, along with an abundance of Johns and plenty of Toms.

So many, in fact, that it became necessary to distinguish between them and surnames were gradually introduced.


Early Surnames

Initially people were identified as individuals by the simple addition of a description to their name. So instead of four men all called Richard, there might be Richard son of Robert, Richard the hunter, Long Richard and Richard from Bath.

These weren’t surnames as such and would only identify one person. But gradually they became hereditary family names, passed down from generation to generation.

Horn beakers
Are you named after horn beakers?

The need to record inheritances and land transfers, meant that surnames were first used generally by the wealthier members of society. But as the size of settlements and towns grew in the Middle Ages, the practice spread to the rest of the population.

Changing Names

To begin with, surnames weren’t set in stone. They would often change over a person’s lifetime, or as they changed how they earned their living. So Richard Blacksmith might become Richard Farrier.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

Parish registers were introduced in 1538 and these helped to establish hereditary surnames. Even so, it was not uncommon in some parts of the country to find a person entered under one name when baptised, another on getting married and having a third different surname at the time of their burial.

Where Names Came From

As can be seen above, the names came from several sources, such as physical appearance and place of origin, but occupations were a major contributing factor.

There are still many people called ‘Smith’ and ‘Miller’ today, even though the jobs themselves have long since lost their importance. Other surnames were geographically inspired, such as ‘Lancaster’ or ‘Hill’.

Some were patronymic or based on a father’s names such ‘Johnson’. The last group were those which derived from descriptive or nicknames.

village blacksmith
Men of the Hampshire village of Shedfield, the village blacksmith is on the left, but his name is Oakley and not Smith.

These include names such as ‘Little’, ‘Armstrong’, or ‘Cruickshank’ which signified someone with crooked legs, although the description would have probably only applied to first bearer of the name. Occupational names are the second most common category, with geographic locations topping the list.

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Pretty much half of all the surnames in use today were originally based on where a person lived. Think of those with suffixes such as ‘Lee’ originally meaning a meadow, ‘thorp’ or ‘ham’ meaning a village, as well as ‘field’, ‘house’ and ‘ton’ (town).

Occupational Names

Occupational names are derived, probably not surprisingly, from the occupations, trades and jobs of Medieval Europe. The most common surname today is still ‘Smith’, which is an indication of the significance of the trade and the number of men who worked it and bore the name as a result.

blacksmiths forge
The beautiful East Meon village (Hampshire) blacksmith and his forge in 1902. Historically, Blacksmiths were central figures of the community ‘a man not only a blacksmith and farrier, but, at times, wheelwright, carpenter, tinker, veterinary surgeon, doctor, dentist, sportsman and many other things.’

While a ‘monger’ sold goods, a ‘smith’ made something. There were blacksmiths, shoe-smiths who made only shoes for horses, arrow-smiths, sword-smiths, gold-smiths, silver-smiths, green-smiths who worked with copper and white-smiths who’s material of choice was tin. The ‘smith’ list goes on, and all played an important role in Medieval life.

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The UK’s second most common surname is ‘Jones’, which is patronymic and originates from ‘son of John’. The second most common occupational surname is Taylor. This stems from an old French word ‘tailleur’, meaning a cutter of cloth.


In the twenty first century, the origins of many occupational names aren’t so obvious. To boost the meagre family finances, many women made beer and those that did were known as ‘brewsters’. A lady baker was a ‘baxter’ and a ‘chapman’ sold goods at a market.

A carter is a person who is involved in the occupation of carting or transporting goods using a cart or wagon, typically pulled by horses or other draft animals. The term “carter” originates from the Middle English word “cart(e)er,” which means a person who drives a cart.

Coward started as cowherd, while a ‘walker’ wasn’t a man who hiked over long distances, but someone who pounded wool with their feet, which was part of the wool making process in the West and North of the country.

In the South and East, a person who did this same job was called a ‘fuller’. In the South West, they were a ‘tucker’. Even today, the three names are characteristic of different parts of England.

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Early delivery men drove carts pulled by oxen from town to town and were known as carters. This eventually became the surname of many of them. The man who made the cart was a Wainwright or Cartwright. The occupational surnames of today are most likely to have originated from one of four categories. These are Trade, Manufacturing, Agricultural or Retail.

Trade and Manufacturing Surnames

As already mentioned, the most common trade and manufacturing originated surname is Smith. Where Smiths worked with metals, Wrights as exemplified in Wheelwright and Cartwright were craftsmen or makers of machinery, who worked with wood of all types. The name Wright on it’s own would have signified a builder of water or windmills.

the wainwright making carts
The term “wainwright” is derived from the Old English word “wægn,” meaning wagon, and “wyrhta,” meaning worker or builder.

Turners were also early manufacturers, but of smaller objects, with the use of a lathe. Their materials would have included both wood and metal, but also bone. If you have the surname ‘Turner’, don’t automatically assume you are descended from skilled craftsmen.

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Some Turners were translators, while others got the name because their job was to stand in front of a fire turning the spit, so that the roasting meat cooked evenly, while making sure that they themselves didn’t get roasted in the process.

Surname history of the turner
Not all turners where wood turners…..


While Turners worked with bone, Horners predictably sold and made small articles from horn. In the middle ages, whole horns were commonly used to drink from.

They were also used as storage containers, or as simple wind instruments to sound a warning or a signal to others, such as when out hunting. Pieces of horn were also used to make small items such as spoons, buttons and combs.

As with ‘Turner’, there are also other possible origins of the name. A Horner was sometimes a person who played a musical instrument made from a horn. Or it was a geographical reference to someone who lived at a ‘horn’ of land.

Old horn lantern
A horn lantern from the 1700s, glass was expensive, but rolled animal horn solved that problem.

Cooper was the occupational name for a maker and repairer of wooden containers, such as barrels, buckets, casks and vats. This was one of the main specialist trades throughout Medieval Europe. As consequence, it remains a common surname today.

coopers at work making wooden barrels
A cooper is a skilled craftsman who makes and repairs wooden barrels, casks, and other similar wooden containers

A surname that probably needs little explanation is Baker. It could have originally been used to refer to someone who’s sole job in the kitchens of a grand house or castle was the baking of bread, or the owner of a communal oven which was used by a whole village.

The right to be in charge of this and how much to take as payment, either in money or loaves, was a hereditary feudal privilege.

Agricultural Surnames

Probably the most obvious agriculturally related surname is ‘Farmer’, but it’s origin might not be what you’d think. The first men to be given the name were in fact collectors of taxes, tithes and revenues on land for the landlord, being a derivative of the Middle English ‘fermer’.

Farming as we know it today, that is growing crops or raising livestock to sell for profit, didn’t really become established until the eighteenth century. By this time most families had already taken surnames.

Standard Fordson tractor
A way of life that was over 2000 years old, practically ended overnight with the coming of the tractor. A ploughman with a team of horses could plough an acre of land in a day. One man, or in this case, one woman and a tractor, would plough an acre an hour. The day of the ploughman was over. In the back ground you will see the ploughman and horse team

Other surnames with agricultural links are pretty much what they say on the tin, such as ‘Shepherd’, ‘Cowman’ and ‘Ploughman’. These would have been men who did one particular job on a large farm, or who worked a smallholding that had only one purpose.


A man who owned  a small plot of land and was adaptable enough to grow a range of products, was often given the name ‘Croft’, while someone renting his land became known as ‘Tenant’.

Read More: What Were the Stocks & Why Were They Used?

Names given to those doing practical jobs on farms included ‘Ackerman’ which was another name for ploughman. ‘Berger’ was an alternative to Shepherd, ‘Marshal’ a horseman, ‘Stoddard’ a horse keeper and ‘Shearer’ a shearer of sheep. Steward, Graves and Bailey all originate from clerical jobs on farms. The owners of the land on which a farm was situated would be known as Laird, Lord or Yeoman, an independent freeholder of more modest means.

Retail Surnames

Monger is an Old English word meaning merchant or trader. It has been in common use since the twelfth century, usually with a prefix indicating the goods being sold, such as fishmonger, cheesemonger or costermonger.

The latter is a street seller or fruit and vegetables, a costard being a medieval variety of apple. A seller of iron goods was and still is an ‘Ironmonger’, which although not common, is an occasionally  encountered surname.

You’d go to a man named Tapper for wine, although ‘Tappers’ were often innkeepers rather than merchants.

medieval ironmonger
The term “ironmonger” is derived from the Old English word “ironmongere,” which means an iron trader or merchant.

Spicers as the name suggests sold spices, which were bought for their medicinal properties as well as to be used in cooking. The name ‘Chandler’ would today mean someone who sells a wide range of supplies for boats or ships. However it was originally an occupational name for a maker and seller of candles.

Medieval chandlers would have almost certainly made and sold other items, but the more modern usage only originated in the sixteenth century.

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Your surname is a clue to your ancestry and how your family made their living. But a clue is all it is. As we’ve seen, the origins of a name might not be as obvious as they seem. Some of today’s names are derived from multiple sources.

Both individuals and families are commonly know to have changed their names or adopted an alias for legal reasons, for anonymity or merely on a whim.

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