Who  was Jones?

The Evolution of Welsh surnames

Alister Williams

March 2019


Why is 'Jones' so common - especially when there is no 'J' in the Welsh alphabet? it is not a Cymric name - neither are most of the other common names - Evans, Davies, Williams etc.

The Goedelic Celts (Ireland, SW Scotland) named their children after their clan leader, Mac/Mc usually preceding the clan name. Thus continuity in surnames though a family was established.

However the Brythonic Celts  (Wales, England, Brittany) gave a child the father's name, preceded  usually by Mab/Map, later ab/ap. (Ab before a vowel, ap before a consonant).

After 1282 Wales was increasingly controlled by the English, for whom Welsh names (Cadwaladr, Gethin, Rhys, Gruffudd, Wmffra) were alien. Ancient names began to be replaced by Gallicised names of Norman French origin - Sion(Jean), Gwilym (Guillaume), Sioned (Jeanette) etc. Therefore contrary to appearance and popular belief, these are not ancient Cymric names. 

These names along with the ab/ap gradually evolved into single words: Pritchard (ap Richard), Parry (ap Hari), Bowen (ap Owen). The reader will think of many other examples. Those offering the greatest difficulty to the English became much altered - eg Griffiths to Gittins, Ap Rhydderch to Priddick, Wmffra to Humphrey.

By 1650 the landed gentry were adopting fully anglicised names, for legal and other advantages. Sion ap Sieffri of Acton became John Jeffries (and father of the infamous judge).

As ab/ap fell out of use (but not quite entirely) the possessive 's' was added to the father's name.

The legal requirements of church registers ensured the recording of all names. However when the language of the Church was Latin, names were frequently latinised in the registers, especially where the names proved difficult. Sion, which did not easily transmute into a single word from ap Sion, would be recorded as Johannes or similar - hence the adoption of the 'J'. Similarly female names such as Catrin might be recorded as Katerina, using the non-Cymric 'K'. As Latin declined, Sion would become John, but so would Ifan, Iwan, Ioan, Ieuan, leading to John becoming the most common recorded name. Johannes shrunk into Jones (though in South Wales John or Johns became a common form.

Other interesting corruptions include Iorwerth to Edward, Caradoc to Craddock, Rhydderch to Ruddock, Llywelyn shortened to Llew, then Lewis.

A good example is provided in the records of Llandwrog from 1714 with a reference to: Rowlandus filius Johannis Wm. Bedmond meaning Roland ap Sion ap Gwilym ab Edmwnd.

The practice of using the father's name persisted well in to the nineteenth century - something of a nightmare for ancestry investigators. Sometimes the home of the person was included - eg a 1797 record in Llandwrog of John Rowland Llwyn y Piod. however by the 1841 census the use of a fixed surname was established, as was anglicisation - the marriage of Owain ap Hari to Elin ap Huw would be recorded as being between Owen Parry and Ellen Pugh (or Hughes).

However a tradition persisted in many families of naming the children - at least the first four - after their grandparents, so repetitions - William Williams, Hugh Pugh, Edward Edwards were not uncommon, and the practice still exists in some families today.

Due to the commonality of surnames, these were frequently simply ignored for other than official purposes. They were increasingly replaced in daily use

 by a place name (Sian Pant Glas, Gareth Machno) or by a nickname - John Goch (maybe had red hair) would become John Gough or Gooch. Llwyd (grey hair) to Lloyd. The nickname might be a profession or be of humorous intent and this very much continues. Tudor inside leg is a tailor, Edward Central 'eating was not a plumber but had only one upper tooth - in the centre!

Another trend especially among the gentry would be to preserve both surnames upon marriage or bestowed on their children - partly for effect.
 - Sir William Williams married Jane Thelwall, granddaughter of Sir John Wynne of Gwydir, named their son Watkin Williams Wynne, thus founding the dynasty.

Finally, there is something of a fightback against the names prevalent in modern culture - our local poet, Robin Llwyd ab Owain, AM for Ynys Mon Rhyn ap Iorwerth, Rhys Ifans and more.