Surname Origins & Distribution

Another common question I have been asked regarding this relatively unusual surname is “So where exactly does that surname come from?”.

Public Profiler¹ identifies 217 individuals bearing the Swalwell surname in the 1881 census of England & Wales. It further states that name has an occurrence of 8 per million and rank order position of 11813 in a league table of surnames. It also shows that the surname has grown in number terms between then & 1998 when they quote the number of individuals bearing the Swalwell surname as 329 but has slipped in the surname rankings to 12099.

Swallwell is represented in such small numbers that it does not alter the above picture significantly and Swallowell is not featured at all.

It is not perhaps surprising therefore that Swalwell does not appear in many of the Surname Dictionaries. Where it is found, it is linked to Swalwell, near Gateshead, Durham, which is the only place that exists in the modern English gazetteers with that name. The surname therefore is concluded to be a locational surname.

Using a mapping software called Surname Atlas² and based on the 1881 census data it is evident that the surname has the strongest concentration of name bearers in County Durham. It seems a reasonable assumption to make that the link with the place Swalwell is probably true.

The issue with reaching that conclusion, however, is that modern distribution does not necessarily reflect the original distribution of the surname though some studies³ have suggested that there is a strong correlation. To try & map earlier distribution patterns the study has been plotting male marriages as an indicator of:

  • household formation
  • establishment of breeding populations
  • continuation of the surname
  • source of genetic links to the modern day

A total of 512 marriages have so far been plotted. Only those marriages where the parish of marriage has been identified and then assigned to their “ancient Parish”ª as defined by Family Search. This last element had been done to avoid the distorting effect of the creation of new parishes which can suggest populations of name bearers are less contiguous than they truly are. This exercise has shown that in the earlier distribution of the name County Durham still has the highest concentration of name bearers.

The “ancient parishes” of greatest influence on distribution in terms of both the earliest presence and the number of Swalwell marriages are:

  • Gateshead
  • Durham City
  • Pittington
  • Hart
  • Billingham

In terms of distance this would represent a maximum migration of about 35 miles from the hypothesised source of the name.

If we turn our attention to the history of place names, then it is evident that other places have been known as Swalwell. The Historical Gazetteer of England’s Place Namesº states that Swalwell was an alternative historical name for Swallowhill, a hamlet in the parish of Darton in the West Riding of Yorkshire. This place is, however, normally associated with the Swale surname and to date only two early references to Swalwell or its potential variants have been found here.

Given the fact that surname appears to be a locational one & that there may be more than one place of origin for the surname it seems that the hypothesis must be that there is likely to be more than one source of the Swalwell surname.


1: Public Profiler. SWALWELL. 20 May 2015
2: Surname Atlas.
3: The Surname Detective: Investigating surname distribution in England.1086-present day. Colin D ROGERS. Manchester University Press 2007
a: GENUKI: “Ancient parishes are often defined as ones which existed prior to 1597 and 1601 Elizabethan Poor Law Acts”.
0: The Historical Gazetteer of England’s Place Names: