Aliases - a Discriminant Function


M.D. Hooper



Nowadays we usually think of an alias as a false name, a device used by criminals to disguise their true identity. This is, I believe, a reversal of the purpose of aliases over the last 700 years. This purpose was to emphasize and make absolutely clear a distinct, individual, identity. Quite when this reversal of function began I do not know but it has been going on for over 200 years - there are criminals with aliases in the Beggar's Opera.

The original purpose is still extant: even a respectable lady like my Grandmother had an alias. After Grandad's death, she sold a house, made a will and died. In the house conveyance Grandma was "Sophia Bliss alias Sophia May Bliss", in her will and on her death certificate she was "Sophia Bliss otherwise Sophia May Bliss"

The range of alias forms and usages

Grandma's alias illustrates two common forms, "alias" & "otherwise". One can also find "als", "also known as", and sometimes just "called". It also illustrates the fact that alias usage is usually only found in formal, legal, documents. Grandma was known to everyone in everyday life as "Daisy Bliss" - her given names were known to the family but never used. Daisy is, of course, a pet or nickname and some early aliases have this appearance; the distinction between them is not always clear.

What seems to me to be clear is that putting down a nickname in a formal document of the 14th century was to make clear who was meant in just the same way as Grandma's alias in the 20th. Indeed, if this discriminant function is paramount then other forms of words approach aliases - John Hooper of Salston and John Hooper of Thorn in the 14th century, are a sort of double surname when others were simply John of Cadhay or John of Knightstone, . Here, however, I feel there is an element of elitism-but who would not be proud of being a Fulford of Fulford or a Cruwys of Cruwys Morchard? And that leads to hyphenated names - the nobility and gentry trying to demonstrate their quarterings without benefit of heraldry. (The shade of Lady Caroline Jemima Temple-Nugent-Chandos-Brydges-Grenville looks on)

The first place to look for Devon aliases is on the Genuki/Devon website, which lists some 200 of them. Further aliases will be found in:

Fry, E. A, (ed.) Calendar of Devonshire Wills and Administrations-Principal Registry of the Bishop 1559-1799 & the Archdeaconry Court, 1540-1799, Devonshire Association (1908).

Fry, E.A., (ed) Calendar of Devonshire Wills and Administrations, Consistory Court, 1532-1800, Devonshire Association (1914).

These two sources list over 1,000 aliases, and the first is available on CD-ROM (Archive Books project).

They are incomplete in coverage in space (because of the extent of jurisdiction) and in time (e.g. the Civil War period). They can be supplemented by

For the Civil War period:

Ridge, C.H., Index to Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1655-1660, British Record Society 1952.

For all periods:

The IGI (but remember that only some parishes are covered and parish Registers often only begin about 1600).

Tax and other nominal lists, such as the Subsidy of 1524-5 (so look in Stoate's publications) do have some aliases but I have not searched them systematically. There are certainly some in Sidmouth in 1524 which illustrate various forms of the discriminant function very well: e.g. Andrew Drever Sen. and Andrew Drever Jun., John Chanon of Westowne, John Chanon of Bulverton, and John Chanon the longer, together with John Stephyn als Whyte and Wm. Whyte als Stephyn.

The nearest to aliases in the 1332 Subsidy (Erskine 1969) are what might be called double surnames - e.g. John le Hopere de Salfynistone at Ottery St. Mary. Most aliases occur after this point in time but for aliases between 1332 and 1550, I know of no good single source.

Some may be gleaned from

Rowe, M.M., & Jackson, A.M., (eds) Exeter Freemen, DCRS, 1973.

and there is a discussion of such early aliases in

Postles, D., 1995, The Surnames of Devon, English Surname Series no. 5, Leopard's Head Press, Oxford. (See pages 39 & 40.)

The middle period is discussed in

Murray, Sir Oswyn A.R., 1921, Devonshire Wills of the 16th & 17th Centuries, Trans. Devon Ass. vol 53, pp 48- 83. (The alias discussion is on pages 75-82)

Once one has perused such a large data set as is provided by such sources some points seem obvious and lead to useful conclusions.

First. Aliases in the broadest sense start quite early in the 14th century but then peak and fall into disuse - the greatest frequency of use is in the period 1601-1650 with a gradual decline, especially in the second half of the 18th century and are quite uncommon after 1800. From looking at all the above sources, and counting a sample of surnames I estimate the relative frequency in each half century as:


1501-155060(13 in Brown's list)
1551-1600150(42 in Brown's list)
1601-1650300(70 in Brown's list)
1651-1700170(37 in Brown's list)
1701-1750150(43 in Brown's list)
1751-1800120(34 in Brown's list)
1801-185015(4 in Brown's list)

Second. The more common a surname is the more likely is it to have aliases associated with it. Thus there are significantly more aliases for names like Adams, Andrews, Baker, Bennett, Clarke, Cooke, Hill, Hooper, Smith, Stephens, Wood or White. Take as an example surnames beginning with R. The Calendar by Fry has some 230 such surnames, with about 50 aliases, of which 15 are associated with Richards, 6 with Row(e), & 5 with Reed - 50% of the aliases are linked with only 3 names out of 230.

These two points lead to the conclusion that aliases were used as discriminators or, as Postles puts it, as formal qualifiers, used primarily to distinguish, say, one John Hooper from another. They became more used as the population grew but the stock of surnames declined with some random extinction of some lines. I would also suggest that aliases fell out of formal, legal, usage because of the rise in popularity of second forenames. It cannot be chance that second forenames become more and more frequent just as aliases decline in abundance. The frequency pattern of second names for Hoopers in the IGI (from an early edition, which I have in photocopy), for example, is



I also think it significant that nearly all the earlier second forenames are surnames, and further that they are surnames of immediate ancestors. My Great-grandfather, for example, was a John Knighton Parr Hooper. His Mother's maiden surname was Parr, and his Grandmother's maiden surname was Knighton. He had Uncles called Henry Stoneman Hooper & Thomas Hunt Hooper, born in the 1790s, whose maternal grandfather was Thomas Hunt and paternal grandmother Mary Stoneman. It is only after about 1800 that the second forename is not a surname (e.g. John Thomas or Charles Edward) with any frequency & only after about 1820 that this is common. Murray noted this and suggested the strings of forenames born by the Hanoverian Royalty made this fashionable. I have doubts-my families do not begin to use Hanoverian forenames until about 1830 when there is asudden blossoming of Carolines & Charlotte Sophias.

Third. Any one alias pair tends to have a limited distribution in space, e.g. Hooper alias Scar or Skar I have found only in Otterton, Colaton Raleigh & Harpford. (and while Hooper is generally distributed throughout Devon I have only found Scar/ Scarre/Skar on its own in East Budleigh & Ottery St. Mary). Hooper alias Elston is to be found in Washfield, Butterleigh, and Dunster, and Hooper alias Sheapheard in Barnstaple.

Fourth. Some places have a greater frequency of families with aliases than others and it is my impression that these tend to be the more isolated in space (e.g Dartmoor edge or the far north-west)

My explanation of these two points would be to invoke the well known/accepted local migration pattern (movement within a 10 or 12 mile diameter circle), local marriage partner pattern (selection of mates within a similar circle) and poor seasons, disease, war, etc., leading to a fall in the local population and, more importantly, with differential survival, a fall in the stock of surnames - isonymy in Postles' terminology.

I infer that communities with a high index of isonymy should be places with the frequent use of aliases. Nevertheless I must admit that of the many surnames that Postles lists as contributing to local isonymy I have found only one with an alias.

The way I think it worked is first imagine a John Hooper, a go-ahead farmer, taking on more farms by lease or copyhold, a wife bearing him sons, who survive the vicissitudes of early life (because he is a good provider) Then, in time, these sons have their own sons and wish to honour the founder of the family fortunes - they all name their firstborn son John! So we can have, say, three John Hoopers in the same, or adjacent parishes, who, in the fullness of time, are all dealing with the same Manorial courts, with copyholds, leases, taxes, & finally wills. Naturally a discriminant name is required.

If our first John Hooper lived in the first half of the 17th century, his grandsons in the second half would have taken their Mother's maiden name as an alias, for this discriminant. If the Mother had a gentle, rather than a yeoman, surname, family pride could make it persist! If, however, our first John lived in the first half of the 18th century and his grandsons in the second, they might either have their Mother's maiden name as an alias or have begun to follow fashion & have it as a second forename. Move forward another 50 years and the alias is no longer likely, the second forename is universal.

Going back in time is more problematical. I am happy to think of most 14th & 15th century aliases as being originally from the female line. There is no very convincing evidence against this hypothesis. There is as support the Hooker/Vowell alias, born by the famous Exeter Chamberlain, which appears first in 1494 and is known to originate in a Hooker-Vowell marriage. Moreover most of the 15th century aliases in the Exeter Freemen's lists combine two surnames which can be shown to have existed previously, independently, in Exeter. But this does not rule out the possibility that apprentices took an alias from either their masters name or the name of their trade, as suggested by Postles.

However I am less than impressed by Postles' use of evidence in his discussion of these aliases from the Exeter Freemen list. For example he gives a list of aliases, from John Dene alias Barbour in 1403, to John Glasyer alias Berneswyke in 1469 and goes on to say "Implicitly, these Freemen practised the trade which formed their alias." But it is explicit that John Glasyer was a tailor!

And I think there is more than meets the eye at first glance in John Dene's case. The earliest Dene "alias" is for a Nicholas Dene, "called Gurdeler" in 1357, with evidence of Gurdeler as a surname prior to this in 1320 with "Richard Gurdeler, Chaplain" There is a John Dene who was a barber by trade in 1389 and a plain John Dene in 1416. As for the Barbours, the first three to enter the Freedom seem to have exalted sponsors, so that I cannot think of them as barbers, or even barber-surgeons.

Nevertheless some aliases probably do indicate trades at this time. As do surnames themseves-it was a surprise, after seeing several with the surname Hooper and the trade of skinner (1322 & 1339) to find, for 1408, John Houpere with the trade of hooper! And a useful reminder that surnames were still flexible.

Some of the very earliest "aliases" seem to be nicknames. Henry le Cocus "called lame inthemuth" must have stuttered and what else can one make of "Robert le Beste, called Not" but a humorous nickname?

The need for a discriminant seems still the driving force, even in these early times - John le Hopere de Salfynistone at Ottery in 1332 was so called to distinguish him from another John le Hopere there. Among the Freemen of Exeter John Stanbrig was admitted in 1419, in 1420 we find John Stanbery alias Lyde, and Robert Langbrig alias Webber. Surely these aliases are to prevent confusion with John Stanbrig? And surely Webber and Lyde are the mothers' maiden names?

Brian Randell, 16 Jul 2010