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Wales-New Zealand Family History Society

a.k.a.    WANZ

Guidelines to researching Welsh Ancestry

by - Val C Gregory, Past Convenor of The Welsh Interest Group of the NZSG. 
Editor of:    The Welsh Connection  /   Y Cysylltiad Cymreig

Having found that you have a wonderful Welsh ancestor - take a moment to learn about his or her homeland.

Our country of Wales
Even though the population of Wales in 1933 was approximately 2,600,000 including Monmouthshire, some knowledge of the general location will be helpful.

The table below shows the approximate population in 1933 by county.


Did you notice the mention 'including Monmouthshire' - we unreservedly claim Monmouthshire as belonging to Wales.  A Court of Great Sessions was established in each of the Welsh counties, except for Monmouthshire.  Monmouthshire was attached to an English Assize circuit (Oxford) since its inclusion in one of the Welsh circuits would have made one of them unbalanced in size with four instead of three counties.  It was also the county nearest to the central courts in London. The Great Sessions were abolished in 1830.  However, when records are used which are available through the Family History Centre's of the LDS church, be aware that Monmouthshire is often indexed under England.

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A Surname or two

The lack of variety in the surnames to be found in Wales should not be a deterrent to seeking further information.  In 1856 the Registrar General, George Graham, made particular reference to the situation which prevailed in Wales.
"The contribution of Wales to the number of surnames is very small in proportion to its population.  Perhaps nine tenths of our countrymen in the principality could be mustered under less than 100 different surnames.  The frequency of such names as JONES, WILLIAMS, DAVIES, EVANS and others, almost defeats the primary object of a name, which is to distinguish an individual from the mass.  The name John JONES,  is a perpetual incognito in Wales, and being proclaimed at the cross of a market town would indicate no one in particular"

The Welsh have an answer to the frequency in which the same surname appears in the village.

John JONES, the shop.   John JONES, the Deacon.   John JONES, peg-leg.
Hugh ROBERTS, religious.  Hugh ROBERTS, ungodly.  Hugh ROBERTS, in-between.

Very useful maps indicating the distribution and incidence of particular surnames, are published in The Surname of Wales, by John & Sheila ROWLANDS.

We take one example from this book - EVANS - ranks at 8th on the list of the most frequent English & Welsh surnames with .51% in the mid nineteenth century.  A comparison of the 10 most common names in Wales and England, EVANS comes in at 5th place with a percentage of 5.46.

EVANS is one of the major Welsh patronymic surnames.  BEVAN is from ab EVAN.  The main concentration is centred on south Cardiganshire (Llar Lower 17.8%: Moyddin 15.1%)  Migration in the period 1813-37 from west Wales to Glamorgan, shows a minor concentration of the name.

By investigating the distribution and incidence of the surname you are interested in can be helpful in establishing where you could begin to research the family.

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Patronymics - just to add a little diversion

Patronymic Names in Wales - surnames based on the father's given name.  Generally, ap or ab was added between the child's name and the father's name.  For example, David ab Owen is David son of Owen.  There were many exceptions to this:
Keep this in mind when viewing records, in particular the IGI.  If you have access to the IGI on microfiche, use the Given name set of microfiche as well as the more frequently used Surname set.

There does not appear to have been a particular period when the formal use of surnames took over from the patronymics.

An example from the 1841 census for Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire.
John MORRIS, is found with family.  This is the name he is known as at the time of his marriage in 1838, and on the marriage certificate his father's name is given as Pendry MORRIS.
The 1851 census for Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire - the same John, is now recorded as John PENDRY.  Confirmation of these being the same person is the listing of the same members of the family, including the mother-in-law Elizabeth JONES on both census returns.

To have success with your Welsh research, you must at all times keep an open mind and 'think beyond the square'.

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Locating Birth, Marriage & Death records
What is the information which indicates the person of your research came from Wales?

Perhaps, a place of birth given on a death certificate as Wales, and hopefully also a parish or county.  Presume for a moment that the event happened and was recorded outside of Wales - spare a thought for the clerk taking the details down.  If a Welsh place name is said to you, by a Welsh speaking person in maybe a somewhat distressed state, or a non Welsh speaking person who has only 'heard' the name said - how would you write it down!!
We were given a copy of a New Zealand certificate on which the Welsh place name had been recorded.  The indication was that the person had come from North Wales - great this at least gave a slightly smaller area to search, than if the indication was only given as Wales.  Using the many resources we have at hand, we were unable to match the place name on the certificate to a gazetted name.  The Welsh Interest Group has a large extended family in the form of the Welsh Family History Societies in Wales and U.S.A.   To the appropriate family history society we sent our request for assistance to identify the place name.  No happy ending to this example, as they also struggled to make sense of what had been recorded.

Formal registration of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales began on 1st July 1837 and continues to the present. The indexes to these are readily available, through the NZSG, FHL, Public Libraries, Free BMD web pages.  Now referred to as the GRO (General Register Office), previously known as and still sometimes referred to as St Catherine's House indexes.  It is important to note that the indexes are in quarters for each year. that is: March quarter covers registrations from January, February and March.  Whereas April, May and June are in the June quarter and so on for September and December quarters. Our enthusiasm for the hunt especially in the early days of research sometimes gets away and when using the copy on microfilm especially, and not finding the expected entry on the first part of the film, we do not continue on looking at the other quarters.  In offering this 'tip' it is a case of having 'been there - done that".

Be also aware that, whereas you may know the actual month the event took place, e.g. April - the registration of a birth especially many not be done until some months later and therefore not appear in the quarter you expect it to.  There were many circumstances which could prevent the prompt registration of an event.  Just one to think about - birth in December - severe snow storm blocks all access to the nearest register office for 7 weeks - but no time then to go, as commitments on the farm prevent the head of the house from venturing away for the several days it will take to go to the town, and the mother has a number of young children etc. etc. to care for.  We will wait until spring when the trip to the market is usually made.  But all is not lost, new baby should be baptised - this is far more important than the registration the government requires.

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Locating the parish records
Parish Registers of Wales - by CJ Williams, J Watts-Williams, covers all thirteen ancient counties in the principality, describing the registers of over 1,000 parishes and chapelries in existence by 1812, and of about 400 post 1812 churches for which records are held by a repository.

When looking for the availability of records for the parish of interest, this publication is first place we begin.  An example of the records available for Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire (the parish used in the patronymic's section). At the Carmarthen Record Office are Christenings 1720-1891, Marriages 1720-1909, Banns 1754-96, 1829-1847, Burials 1720-1953The National Library of Wales (located in Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire) has facsimile copies for specified periods, and also Bishops Transcripts.  Next, a search is made using the Family History Locality Catalogue (cd-rom) issued by the LDS, also available at FHL and on the Family Search web pages.  This will indicate the records which have been filmed by the LDS and therefore available to be viewed at one of the FHL.  Sometimes the only record available is in book form, held at the Library in Salt Lake City, Utah - and what better reason could there be for planning genealogical trip.

The parish records above are mainly for the Established Church in Wales, which was until its disestablishment in 1920 an integral part of the Church of England.

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The earliest Welsh nonconformist register, the church book of the Baptists of Ilston In Gower, dates from the year 1649, much later than the register of The Established Church in the parish Gwaunysgor, Flintshire, dated 1538.  A fundamental difference between the two types of register is that parish registers refer to people who lived within defined geographical parishes, while some nonconformist registers contain the names of people from a very wide area.  In the case of nonconformists, therefore, one often has to take account of the history of an individual 'cause' when searching for one's forebears, rather than simply focusing on a geographical area.  Many early christenings took place in the parents' home, before many of the chapels were built, and this fact is often noted in the register.

When you locate the list of items available for the Nonconformist Chapel of interest, look also for the films of the membership lists and meetings.  One entry we have viewed gave details of a family who were emigrating to the U.S.A.

Nonconformity took hold in Wales and increased rapidly, due to the major influence of the English, insisting that all 'Priests' in the Established Church of Wales, would be English and that the services would be conducted in English.  Attendance at church was a very important part of the Welsh villager.  After 6 days of being down the mine - the seventh day of the week was set aside for religious worship, social gathering and singing which comes so naturally to a Welshman.  To be required to attend a church were the lessons and sermons were given in a language you did not understand, set the scene for the move to attend the gatherings of the alternatives.
When persecution eased at the beginning of the eighteenth century, nonconformity increased steadily, by 1851 about 75% of the Welsh population belonged to a nonconformist sect.

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Census returns
The census dates and format are the same as for England.  However special arrangements had to be made for those parts of Wales and Monmouthshire in which English was not understood.  A Welsh translation of the household schedule was available from 1841 onwards.  The enumerators' books were always to be filled out in English.  From 1871 onwards the enumerators were asked to distinguish case where a Welsh schedule had been used by writing 'W' in the first column of the book, immediately under the number of the schedule. The census returns of 1891 and 1901 contained an extra column for 'language spoken'. People were to write 'English' if they only spoke English; 'Welsh' if they only spoke Welsh; and 'Both' if they spoke both English and Welsh.  As with the 'problem' of the place names on certificates, this too can be a challenge when endeavouring to interpret a Welsh place of birth.  Not only if the ancestor is on a census return out of Wales, but even when the entry is actually recorded on a census return in Wales.  There are resources available to assist in identifying the place and ideally a copy taken direct from the film / fiche of the census return is a good place to start.

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Using Directories
There are a number of Directories published, earlier ones can be found as microfiche or microfilm and sometimes a facsimile copy.  Usually they show the name of a person with his or her address and occupation.  They seldom show the entire population, usually including only prominent members of the community, such as gentry, clergy, merchants and craftsmen.  The publication - Ward Lock & Co's Illustrated Guide Books - North Wales (northern and southern) and South Wales 1905, includes excellent maps of the area and descriptive narratives of the villages.  The entry for: "Pontypridd, (ponty-preeth), 6 miles by rail beyond Castell Coch, is famed for its "Bridge of Beauty" is a perfect segment of a circle which stretches its magnificent chord of 140 feet across the bed of the Taff, rising like a rainbow from the steep bank on the eastern side of the river and gracefully resting on the western.  The bridge was designed and build in 1756 by a native self-taught stone-mason named Edwards".

Another excellent source for more than the usual information on a parish is "Samuel Lewis's topographical dictionary of Wales - 1842"  For the county of Monmouthshire, see - "Samuel Lewis's topographical dictionary of England"

For the parish of Maescar, we learn that it is a township in the parish and hundred of Devynock in the county of Brecknock, North Wales.  The inhabitants of a portion of the hamlet resort to the parish church, while those of the upper part of Cym Camlais frequent the chapel of Llanilltyd.  In two of the three schools, 50 pupils are educated at their parents' expense, whilst instruction is gratuitously afforded to 110 males and females of the Established Church and to about 95 belonging to the dissenters.

Again somewhere else to establish the presence of a nonconformist.

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Place names
The translation of the place provides us with clues as to the whereabouts of the place, or a greater understanding of other influences.  Probably the most widely used beginning to a Welsh place name is LLAN : originally an enclosure, now 'church'.  Usually followed by the name of a saint.  The popular Llanfihangel translates as St Michael's church. 
Llanfihangel-Y-Pennant: St Michael's church : head of valley.

Ffridd: mountain pasture.                 Ffridd Goch: red mountain pasture.

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Further research and reading
There are numerous publications on Researching your Family history. 
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Recording the results
Managing a Genealogical Project by William Dollarhide (A Complete manual for the Management and Organization of Genealogical Materials)  It is perhaps 'helpful' to have something to follow as we endeavour to cope with the flood of information which comes at the beginning of the family search.  This publication was purchased some ten years after my research had begun.  By this time, the mountain of paper was almost overwhelming.  How you choose to record the information, whether it is on paper or in a computer program, is not the most important part of family research - as long as it is easily accessible and understood by you, that is what matters most.  A real must do is always recording the source of the information.  As you become more familiar with records and the interest names increase you will find you will need to relook at films that you view right at the beginning of your research.  Your knowledge increases, so having a Welsh ancestor turn up will present just the new challenge you have been looking for.

In presenting these guidelines, I hope I have given you an insight into the special place which is Wales.  Whereas the dates of birth, marriage and death are necessary and important to our family records, learning about the history, social conditions  and whys and wherefores of the country is of equal importance.

Enjoy your research and know that if you would like a helping hand or a should to cry on - The Welsh Interest Group will be here to commiserate or congratulate you.

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Last Updated 07 March 2009
Web Page by Val C Gregory & Megan Wickham


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