WELSH ANCESTRY  by Cleif Davies HOME.gif (1280 bytes)

For those with a will to uncover the family treasures and skeletons here are a few pointers

Difficulties encountered with Welsh Research:

1.  The paucity of surnames.    

2. Pre-19th century surname changes - patronymics

3.  Accessing pre-1813 IGI entries - baptisms indexed by Christian names.

4. Post-1780 non-conformist baptisms & burials.  By 1851 80% non-conformist. Many chapel registers lost.

5.  Population movements with rise of coalmining (post 1850)

Useful literature, web sites, family history societies etc. to help track down your Welsh forebears:

Welsh Family History  - A Guide to Research     J & S Rowlands (929.1429 ROW)

The Surnames of Wales - Distribution & Density    J & S Rowlands (929.4429 ROW)

Parish Registers of Wales – Location & Dates     C & J.W. Williams (Reference)

Wales – A view Wales and the Welsh from a German perspective.    Peter Sager

www.family.search.org (Mormon site) – IGI (Christian name for pre-1813 bapt) & 1881 indexed census

Gareth Hicks’ site – home.clara.net/tirbach/hicks   An excellent site.  Free research/County Record Offices etc

Cyndislist - www.cyndislist.com/wales  Sundry Welsh links

Freebmd – freebmd.rootsweb.com  Free indexed access to 1837-1910 G.R.O. births, marriages & deaths (c120 million entries & about 85% completed for England/Wales)

1837 online – www.1837online.co.uk   Pay-to-view GRO Indexes 1837-2002.  App. 25c per page

Ancestry.com. – www.ancestry.com  Access to 1851, 1861,1871, 1881, 1891 & 1901 indexed censuses available free at State Library or pay-to-view.

1901 census indexes. www.1901census.nationalarchives.gov.uk   Free access to indexes but pay-to-view the actual census.  About $2 a census page..

Gazeteer – Bartholemew’s Place Names of Britain.

Phillimore’s Atlas & Index to Parish Registers -  910.342

Probate Records (1858-1943) indexed by year

Family History Societies.    Wales has been blessed with the finest F.H. Societies in Britain.   Areas covered & services offered in their journals listed below:

Clwyd (Flintshire & Denbighshire) – 940.93005 HEL

Glamorgan (Glamorganshire – 942.9705 GLA

Gwent (Monmouthshire) – 942.9905 GWE

Gwynedd (Anglesey, Caernarvonshire & Merionethshire) - 942.99005 GWE

Dyfed (Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire & Pembrokeshire) – 942.9605 DYF

Powys (Breconshire, Montgomeryshire & Radnorshire) – 942.9605 DYF


A potted history of Wales

Although inhabitation dates from 250,000 years recorded history of Wales begins with the Roman arrival in Britain in 55 BC.  They established garrisons and built roads but much of the interior remained the domain of native princes.  The Romans left in 410 AD and a number of native kingdoms evolved and were able to repel invasions by the Irish and Vikings.  By the late 6th century a language closely akin to modern Welsh had emerged from its Brythonic ancestor.  Cornish and Breton are closely related but the Gaelic of Scotland and Ireland much less so.  By the 8th century a monastic form of Christianity had been introduced and grafted on to old Celtic beliefs.  Bards and musicians flourished under the patronage of the local chiefs and Princes.


Welsh Law was introduced by Prince Hywel Dda (d. 878) and considered by some to be uncommonly kind to women.  They were permitted to divorce their husbands especially if he was a leper, impotent or had bad breath.  The Welsh resisted the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 until the death of Prince Llewelyn in 1282.  Castles were built to control the Welsh and settlements of English established with promises of rent free land.  Owain Glyndwr led a Welsh rebellion from 1400-1406 and proclaimed himself Prince of Wales.  The Parliament he established in Machynlleth still stands.


Under the Tudors, who were of Welsh blood, English was declared the official language and no one could hold public office without knowledge of English.

The Gentry aligned themselves with the ruling dynasty, eager for the perks of office, and turned their backs on their language.  The complete Bible was translated into Welsh in 1588 and proved a great boost for the language especially its written form. This was enhanced with the advent of the nonconformist circulating schools which were conducted in Welsh during the latter half of 18c when some 70% were monoglot Welsh.  That figure had fallen to 50% by 1900.  The use of Welsh in schools during this period was actively discouraged.  In 2001 some 20% of the populace were Welsh speaking (560,000), a slight increase over the previous decade.


In 1831 workers in Merthyr Tydfil rioted over inhuman work and living conditions, several hundred were to die of cholera.  Their leader, Dic Penderyn or Richards Williams, was hanged.  Between 1839 and 1846 rural poor in South West Wales took out their anger at tolls levied on roads by blackening their faces and dressed in women’s clothing smashed the tollgates. The ‘Daughters of Rebecca’ were successful, the tolls were lifted, an early blow for transgender rights. The utopian Chartists Riots at Newport in 1839 had no such happy ending.  The three leaders got life in Van Diemans Land, no Utopia. 


In 1999 a Welsh Assembly, with limited legislative powers, was established in Cardiff, the same year the Rugby World Cup was played in Wales.  The natives were, alas, a little more excited over the latter.

  Parish Registers

Parish Registers were started by Act of Parliament in 1538 but the survival of early registers in Wales has been poor. Only 1 in 6 parishes have Parish Registers beginning before 1660 and 1 in 3 before 1700 and, alas, 10% start after 1813. The lowest number of early registers is in the southern counties of Cardigan, Pembroke, Brecon, Carmarthen and Glamorgan and in the northern county of Anglesey.  Why the low survival rate?

  1. Impoverished and poorly educated the parish priests.  One was observed using register pages to start his fire and another in Carmarthenshire used the register to charge his musket. In Anglesey a cow kept by the clergyman munched the register into bovine by-products.  Two parishes in Pembrokeshire blamed the loss of their registers on invading Frenchmen during the Napoleonic War, a strange choice of booty.
  2. Pre-1831 Wales was largely agrarian.  Merthyr Tydfil was the biggest town with just 8,000 people.  Sparsely populated and impoverished parishes claimed they could not afford registers.  Records were often kept on scraps of paper and parchment and deposited in damp chests.  What the cows didn’t devour, mould and mice often did.
  3. Poor supervision of clergy.  Bishops were often absent Englishmen whilst the parish officers were often illiterate and spoke little English.
  4. Entries were frequently not made and sometimes only at a later date at the instigation of an aggrieved party.  In 1734 a clergyman’s gave ‘indisposition’ as his excuse for his failure to register the squire’s twins.


Clandestine marriages were common in the 17th and early 18th centuries.  A ‘parcel of strolling curates’ would for a crown, or a guinea at most, marry anybody under a hedge.  Such marriages were seldom recorded.  From 1754-1837 all marriages had to solemnised in the Established church with the exception of Jews and Quakers.


The entries in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) for Wales compiled by the Mormon Church are almost solely drawn from Bishop Transcripts.  These were supposedly annual copes of the Parish Registers sent to the bishops of the diocese. The BTs and Parish Registers frequently supplement one another and some incumbent clergy seem to have considered the BTs more important than the registers.  Both should be consulted when investigating particular parish records.

  Other Parish Chest Material:

Vestry Minute Books, Churchwardens and Overseers Accounts, Parish Books, Settlement and Removal Orders, Bastardy Bonds etc. can be of great assistance in throwing light on our forebears’ transgressions or their impoverished state and also putting a little flesh on your ancestral bones.  If these records have survived they can normally be found at the County Records Office.  Here are some interesting examples:

Llantrisant (Glamorgan) Vestry Book - 20 January 1813:

Several young women make a trade of getting bastard children, and live Idle, and we cannot suppose they live honestly as they ought to do.  And they will certainly be the ruin of almost the whole of the Young Men of the neighbourhood of the Town of Llantrissent.  Some of these women have nine Bastard children and others have two, three, and four, and several have one Bastard child each, and we are determined to Prosecute these characters as the Law directs.

Names omitted as we have a Llantrisant parishioner amongst us.


From the Penmark (Glamorgan) Parish Book:

1740   2s 8d given for stoning a badger to death.

1744  2d. for the destruction of a hedgehog.  A man who had been a slave was given 6d.


And from the diary of a local schoolmaster, William Thomas:

21 January 1763  Was buried in Penmark, Anthony Griffiths, Butcher, of 78 years of age as ye report goes from ye pox he had in Cardiff by selling a Beeve (Beef/Cow) ye 15th int. and got drunk and among bad women.  He had lately buried his wife Ann aged 80.


28 November 1774  Buried in Penmark.  Thomas Slug being he had lost himself in love as ye reports run for the aunt of Mr Jones of Fonmon.



Low numbers before 1780 but rising spectacularly after 1800.  100 independent churches/chapels in 1775 but this had risen to 500 by 1839.  The early Nonconformists were largely Baptists and Independents (Congregationalists).   The Quaker movement was formed in 1668 and shortly after a number sought religious freedom in Pennsylvania.  Named after their leader, William Penn, the grandson of John Owen of  Penmynydd (Mountaintop), Anglesey.  Their numbers in Wales were always small.  The largest denomination, the Calvinistic Methodists, split from the Anglican church in 1811.  The Wesleyans had also left the Church in 1795.  The Mormans were active in the Merthyr area from the 1840s.  By 1851 80% of the Welsh were Nonconformists.


Religious revivals of 19th century and late 18th century caused a surge in converts to Non-conformity.  This was abetted by the flood of new arrivals into the mining valleys

after the 1840s.  (Slide B)  The established church failed to meet the needs of the new arrivals and the chapels filled the breach.  At Llanwonno, Glamorgan the old parish church on the mountain had 56 attendees at their one Sunday service whereas in the valley below the new townships of Pontypridd and Mountain Ash had 8 chapels of 5 denominations to serve the population of 3,253 in 1851. These chapels accommodated 1,500 whilst the Llanwonno church could hold only 150.


Surviving Nonconformist registers can be found at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth or at the respective County Record Office.  Entries are often recorded in Welsh but they provide greater personal details than the parish records of the time.


Censuses 1841-1901

Wales has been blessed with active family history societies.  Through the diligence of its members many of the censuses have been indexed. All Glamorgan censuses have been indexed. 1841, 51, 61 & 1881 on CD and 1871, 1881, 1891 & 1901 on-line. 1871 to 1901 censuses are also accessible on-line for the other Welsh counties.  It is often the best tool to establish the whereabouts of your forebears in their native land.

Parish of birth and exact age are given at all censuses except 1841 (County & age rounded down to nearest 5 year divisible excepting children).  The next step is often to obtain the parish register details from Mormon Library Catalogue (their website - www.familysearch.org) and order through the Mormon family history centres. There are several in Melbourne and regional Victorian cities.



The peasantry began acquiring permanent surnames from the 17th century; a process which continued until the early l9th century.  This was initially a period of Puritanism and later of evangelism which encouraged the use of biblical names.  This was also supported by the Established church when there was difficulty in getting an English tongue around a Welsh sound.  Some Welsh names have carried through as surnames: Owen, Morgan, Rees etc.


Even when our ancestors used Welsh versions of saintly names: Sion (John), Dafydd (David) etc., they seldom appear as such in official or parish records.   33.8% of people in the most populous county, Glamorgan bore just 5 surnames between 1813-1837: Thomas, Williams, Morgan/s, Jones (or John) and Davies (or David.  The ‘s’ ending donating the possessive case reflects a linking to the patronymic system. Some of these surnames were more common in particular counties and this can narrow your field of research especially with a marriage when two surnames come into play.  Some surnames have been anglicised so as to bear little resemblance to the original Welsh: Greenaway (Gronow), Lewis (Llewelyn), Giddens (Guto).


The patronymic system.  The Welsh used ‘ap’ (son of) or ‘ferch’ (daughter of) both a distinguisher and linkage to earlier generations.  A recitation of seven generations was expected from the humblest poor. Hence Gwilym ap Rhys ap Morgan ap Gruffydd ab (before vowel) Owain etc.  The ‘ap’ or ‘ab’ prefix resulted in many Welsh surname beginning with p or b:.  Powell (Bowell fortunately is a rarity), Pugh, Pritchard, Bowen, Bevan

By the 17th century a man might be known as just Gwilym ap Rhys, then a generation later as William Preece/Price.  But a son might be called Thomas Gwilliam, Thomas Rees or Thomas Preece/Price.  The anglicised area near the English border and the gentry were the first to adopt permanent surnames and by the early 19th century it had become almost universal.  There were some holdouts in rural parishes in the North and West of Wales until the 1860s.


  Unfortunately the practice was not uniform and even within families siblings could bear different surnames. Pre 1813 baptisms are best located in the IGI or  on familysearch.org by Christian name despite fixed surnames being mostly well established before this date.


A small number of surnames were taken  from occupations: Sayer (saer – carpenter,), personal characteristics: Gough (coch – red of hair), Lloyd (llwyd – grey of hair), Vaughan (fychan – small, younger), Gwyn /Wynne (fair complexion or hair) or placenames: Conway, Pennant, Mostyn.



From 1815-1860 three quarters of Welsh emigrants originated from the impoverished counties of Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Merionethshire and Montgomeryshire.

North Walians used Liverpool as their port of embarkation whereas those from the south favoured Bristol, Plymouth or London.  These passengers were listed as English.  A large number of Welsh were attracted to the Victorian Goldfields in the 1850s. (Slides L & M)  Golden Gully near Chewton was also known as the Welsh village.  There is guided tour of the ruins and surrounding places of Welsh interest this Sunday.


 From the 1860s to 1926 coal and slate mining brought about an influx of English, Irish and Scots into Wales and minimised any outflow except in periods of low demand for coal or industrial unrest.  In my own valley, the Rhondda, the population rose from 951 in 1851 to 139,335 in 1911.  It boasted a thriving synagogue and many Italian cafes. After the 1926 national strike the demand for coal decreased and this was especially marked during the depression of the 1930s. A large number of Welsh people were forced to seek work in the south of England, the Midlands and much further afield.