Finding Forefathers Near Offa’s Dyke

Once again, I appear to have hit a brick wall in my genealogical research, and this time it’s the weird and wonderful yet perfectly logical Welsh system of identification that has me stymied. I never expected it to be easy to trace ancestors from villages and townships on the Anglo-Welsh border, especially those called Williams, Jones, Evans and Owens, but I did hold out a little hope for the Proberts.

I was aware that Probert comes from ap Robert, meaning son of Robert, but not sure how far back the original Robert would be. I have indeed found my 8th great-grandfather, Thomas ap Robert, whose son William was born in 1670, but there the trail peters out in the first half of the seventeenth century. The existing parish records don’t tell us the name of William’s mother, i.e. Thomas’s wife, nor of Thomas’s parents, nor where Thomas came from, and so it seems impossible to discover which of several Thomas and William ap Roberts we are dealing with.

The prefix ap means son of, as does the suffix s, so Probert and Roberts both mean son of Robert. Where a surname listed successive generations, the first ap was sometimes omitted: William ap Thomas ap Robert could also be William Thomas ap Robert or William Roberts. Within a family, brothers could have different surnames. There was a custom for the eldest son to adopt his grandfather’s name, whilst the other sons gave their own names as surnames to their children, so cousins are not always obviously related. Where a father and son shared the same name, the older man was often referred to as Llwyd (Lloyd). Families tended to be numerous with the same names recurring, so frequently a nickname would be added to the Christian name. These could indicate
a) the abode – Sion y Ffynnon, Evan y Bryn (by the well, on the hill)
b) the trade – Aled y Gôf, Owen y Crydd (smith, shoemaker)
c) the complexion – William Wyn or Gwynne (pale), Huw Coch or Gough (ruddy)
d) the village or township of origin – Dafydd Trevor, Mostyn, Penrhyn

The system no doubt served its purpose well within a village where most families had lived in the same place for generations and everyone knew everyone else, as well as their parents and grandparents.

–       Which Dafydd are you talking about?

–       Davydd the shoemaker, son of Huw and grandson of Owen, that fair-haired guy who lives by the well and has a son also called Dafydd. That clearly distinguishes this David from any other in the place.

Our man would be Dafydd ap Huw, Dafydd Pugh or Hughes, Dafydd Huw ap Owen, Dafydd Owen, Bowen or Owens. That covers the patronymics. David the shoemaker? Dafydd y Crydd. Fair-haired? He would be Dafydd Wyn or Gwyn. Lives by the well? Dafydd y Ffynnon. Has a son with the same name? Then he would be Dafydd Llwyd or Lloyd. All the village would know who that was – but nobody spared a thought for the genealogists!

The children of my 7th great-grandfather, William ap Robert, son of Thomas ap Robert were all known as Probert, so from 1670 onwards it is relatively easy to trace the line of descendants. It’s an entirely different matter for the antecedents. What was the father of Thomas ap Robert called? Was Robert his father, grandfather or great-grandfather? Who was his mother? Whom did he marry? Where did the family live, where were the parents born? Which parish records do I need to consult? Well, I live in hope, and maybe one day I’ll find out. Maybe I’ll also have to learn Welsh?

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