TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 January 2014
The three authors of this book - George Redmonds, Turi King, and David Hey - all did their doctorates at Leicester University, but in widely differing subjects, thus allowing for the cross-disciplinary approach of this volume. Sir Alec Jeffreys is Professor of Genetics at the same university and has written the foreword. "This book," he says, "shows how DNA can identify clans of men sharing the same recent male ancestor, and can give tantalising clues about the age of a surname and levels of historical marital fidelity ... [but] the key message ... is the important of marrying history with genetics. So for those who would spend good money on sending a mouth swab off for Y chromosome testing ... I would strongly recommend that you read this book first."
The book has nine chapters. The twenty-page introduction, which from reading many other works by David Hey I assume to have been largely written by him, reviews previous research on surname formation and brings matters up to date. We read that one "clear conclusion is that, despite the increased mobility of modern times, most British families have still not moved far from the neighbourhoods that were familiar to their distant ancestors." The multi-disciplinary approach is again recommended: "it must be stressed that mapping surname distributions must be combined with other methods of enquiry," including linguistics, genealogy, local history and genetics.
Over the first few chapters we are taken on a journey that explores surname formation, their origins and development, their distribution and migration. Since both Hey and Redmonds have based much of their own research on their native Yorkshire and its adjacent counties, it is not surprising to find most examples - but by no means all - coming from that part of the country. Overall, the focus of the book is on England, but there are sometimes extensive forays into Wales, Scotland and Ireland too.
For those new to surname studies, much of what is written here will be new, but even I learned some surprising facts. For example, "The evidence shows quite clearly that whereas numerous hereditary surnames have become extinct ... others have proliferated to an extraordinary degree. Even more surprisingly, most of that proliferation appears to have taken place in a relatively circumscribed area of the Pennines. At its heart are the extensive parishes of Halifax and Rochdale." The authors demonstrate this by making comparisons with Cornwall and Sussex but they cannot come up with any definitive answer for its cause: as they say, "this phenomenon needs much more investigation."
I note that the presence of the surname `Singleton' in Sussex is thought to owe something to the Lancashire place-name, but the authors seem to have overlooked that Sussex too has a parish called Singleton. And when they write that, "Some other `Mc-` names were registered in and around southern ports - Plymouth, Portsmouth, Gravesend, and the Medway estuary - but few of these migrants had ventured far inland," I was struck by the fact that the reason for this may be because all are or were naval ports.
The first six chapters are, nevertheless, rigorous in their attempt to explain the latest research into surnames, using plenty of examples and delving deep into a number of other issues. Indeed, one case study about the Hepworths and the Black Death shows how such surname studies can also aid social and economic analysis.
Presumably written by Turi King, it is only the final three chapters that address the genetic element in any depth, and that is focussed on the Y chromosome in males. Whilst mention is made of the female equivalent of mitochondrial DNA, the subject is not further discussed. Whilst this is understandable in terms of surnames, the title of this book also includes the words `family history', and this reviewer wanted to learn more about this aspect.
Nevertheless we do learn that just as "a surname acts as a cultural marker of common ancestry, the Y chromosome should act as a biological marker." The text tried in some detail to tell this non-scientist how the tests all work (a glossary of terms would have been of assistance), but I appreciate it has to reduce what would be a whole textbook in itself down to a mere chapter. It lost me a little, but at least my intuitive understanding of family genetics received a welcome augmentation, and I can now understand what is meant of `haplogroups', `mutational events' and `genetic markers.'
Eight colour plates help illustrate the genetic results that are discussed, but a number of questions arose in the text that were not answered. (For example we are never given a list of all the surnames with their frequencies included in the study, so as to be able to draw our own conclusions.) The authors come up with some fascinating results, especially with regard to surname drift and surname ramifications, but "The bottom line is that while general trends exist, each surname has its own complex history."
Applying my own family tree's circumstances, I asked myself if genetics could provide an indication of the surname of my paternal grandfather's father. This grandfather was born illegitimate and took his mother's surname. The answer is that such analysis could provide such an indication. Another personal query was also answered, namely that deep-ancestry testing is problematical and not as clear-cut as some commercial companies may say.
This book, then, written by experts in their fields and as up-to-date as research presently has taken the links between surnames and genetics was of some personal use. But more than that, it offers a fascinating insight into what can be done and what may be able to be done in the future. On the cover of this book appears a blurb from historian and broadcaster Michael Wood: "Indispensable reading for anyone interested in their roots, this book offers noting less than a new perspective on British history." A little over-the-top perhaps, but not that far from the truth.