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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  News & Events  /  News  /  News Archive  /  2016  /  February 2016  /  Ever wondered where your ancestors met their Valentine?

Ever wondered where your ancestors met their Valentine?

Paul Longley on the regional identity of UK surnames

Ever wondered where your ancestors met their Valentine?

A new website created by researchers from UCL Geography predicts where lovers met (or could potentially meet) using surnames.

The website, which is part of a wider research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, invites users to enter two surnames. It then generates a ‘heat map’ of the geographical concentrations of the two names overlain on top of one another, thus identifying areas where the couple most probably met.

Consumer Data Research Centre Director, Professor Paul Longley, is leading the project, and the data used for the website comes from the Consumer Data Research Centre.

Paul says: "The website is a quirky part of our research project which is looking into whether our surnames are linked to our geographical locations – something which has been long perceived. It is known that many names remain surprisingly concentrated in specific parts of the UK, and this project helps us extend our understanding of name geography to combinations of names too when we enter relationships."

He adds that the study so far shows that, on average, surnames have not moved far in distance over the last 700 years

“Most Anglo Saxon family names came into common usage between the 12th and 14th centuries, and were first coined in particular parts of the country. What is interesting is that most individuals do not move far from their ancestral family homes and so, 700 or more years later, most names can still be associated with particular localities. So if your Valentine is named ‘Rossall’, for example, it is still about 40 times more likely that you met him or her in the environs of Blackpool than in Central London.”

“This doesn’t work for all names, however: the geography of many popular family names (like Smith or Brown) is much more evenly spread, although even popular names like Jones, Williams or Davies still have strong regional connotations”.

“Different patterns hold for names imported from abroad over the last 60 years or so. Many of these names remain concentrated in major cities and towns, although the overall pattern of such names is becoming more dispersed as migrants assimilate into UK society.”

Finally, he adds: “With all the current focus on population migration, it is remarkable to see that most individuals and families stay put throughout the generations. As a consequence it is interesting to reflect that names are still often strong indicators of kinship and regional identity.”

Data scientist Oliver O’Brien, who is part of the project team, added: “The maps on our website make predictions based upon geographic patterning, and we are really interested to learn whether we get things right.”

*Users of the website are invited to feedback to the researchers whether they really are able to predict the locations at which romance blossomed.  E-mail your feedback to’.


Paul Longley