Mapping London’s Surnames

Inspired by the What’s in a Surname? map we helped make with the National Geographic, I have created 15 interactive typographic maps to show the most popular surnames across London. What they lack in cartographic brilliance, I hope they make up for in detail. There are 983 geographic units (Middle Super Output Areas) in each map and across all 15 there are 2379 individual surnames (15,000 surname labels in total). The font size for each surname label has been scaled to give an idea of the number of people who have that surname in each place. The surname frequencies come from the 2001 Electoral Roll and won’t contain everyone living in London but it is one of the best datasets available.

London is renowned for being a diverse city but this is barely reflected in the most prevalent surnames- only a few name origins can be discerned from the map. You have to look a little further down the surname rankings for this diversity to become apparent. The surnames shown on all 15 maps can be traced back to one of 38 origins; I have selected unique colours for 10 of the most popular. Surname origins were established using the Onomap classification tool. We are mapping the origins of the surnames, which are not necessarily the same as the origins of the people possessing them. Many people in London have adopted Anglicised surnames.

It is also clear from the maps that the same sorts of surnames tend to cluster together. This is because they often closely reflect the naming preferences of particular groups of people within an area. As you transition through to the less popular surnames things become a little more jumbled and the distinct patterns present in the first map become less distinct.

The final thing that stands out is how surname popularity decreases between the first and second most popular names and every subsequent change after that. You can see this by how quickly the text size reduces until almost all names are written in the smallest font sizes.

The more you study these maps the more interesting, and perhaps complex, they become. My final thoughts therefore appear a little contradictory. The first is that a surprising number of Londoners share the same name (especially with their immediate neighbours). The second is that despite the dominance of relatively few surnames at the top of the rankings, the further down the rankings you get the more you see of London’s population diversity. We are of course only mapping the top 15 surnames in each area of London- there are many thousands more. If you can’t find your surname on these maps, you can see where it is around the world here.There is no doubt that is an excellent drug, with a strong and long-lasting effect. It helps me and my friends to cope with the problem of the severe erection.

The maps were created as part of my ongoing PhD research using the Worldnames Database compiled by University College London’s Department of Geography. Thanks to Oliver O’Brien from CASA for putting the maps online. A high resolution print version of the map (previewed below) is available on request.


  1. Alan Parkinson (@GeoBlogs)

    Hi James
    Another great piece of work. I don’t suppose the map exists in an ESRI shapefile format ? I’m a little ignorant of the processes that you go through to create maps like this, so that might be a ridiculous question, but am just thinking through the way that a map like this could form a useful resource in the geography classroom as a layer along with other data in a GIS package…

    Keep the maps coming 🙂

    Alan Parkinson

    1. James Author

      Hi Alan,

      Yes they are a shapefiles but unfortunately we had to pay a lot for the data so we can’t give it away. The other issue is the labelling rules are a bit complicated and cause ArcMap to fall over every now and then so I doubt it would make a reliable layer for teaching :-(.


  2. Alan Parkinson (@GeoBlogs)

    Thanks for the reply James.
    I appreciate that there are some costs involved, and also that sometimes these are substantial, but thought it was worth asking – thanks for the e-mail too..
    Alan Parkinson

  3. Liza

    Hi – amazing maps. Really fascinating. Are you by any chance able to do a version, or provide a map alongside, that shows the geographical place names?

  4. James

    Hmm. A very -clever- visualisation, but one that risks misinterpretation. At worst this could, in the hands of certain political organisations, be used to present a very distorted view of the racial makeup of London.

    The trouble is that South Asian surnames, in particular, are considerably more homogenous than ‘British’ surnames. So it doesn’t take a huge number of Patels moving into an area for them to outnumber all of the Smiths in that locale – but they may themselves still be a tiny minority compared to all the Smiths, Joneses, Johnsons, Browns and Williamses – and the vast long tail of other surnames – in the area – while there is not a correspondingly long tail of other Gujurati surnames because of the sheer preponderance of Patels in that community.

    But in the visualisation you present here, suddenly it looks like that surname has just crowded out all of the traditional British surnames.

    I think you need to be very careful about how this map could be abused….

    1. James Author

      Thanks for the comments. I am well aware of the issues you have highlighted and they are a key reason for mapping the distribution from the 1st to 15th most frequent surnames to show just how mixed up London really is. I think you will find that my blog post has been worded (and the additional information on the map) to minimise the chances of misinterpretation. There are many more maps that can enforce right wing views; 18 months ago I blogged about a map the ONS produces here for example. For the tens of thousands that have seen the map in the last few days I hope it has provided an interesting and informative way of showing some aspects of London’s population diversity. I will be really disappointed if the map has been abused. I don’t believe ,however, that it will create any negative perceptions about London.

      I would be interested to hear if you would rather I did not produce these maps, or if I should have kept them out of the public domain.

  5. Maf

    “Begum” is not a surname or part of a surname. It’s a suffix used by women of Bengali heritage. This is like saying the most popular first name is “Mrs”.

  6. Perhaps the slider might work in reverse. The map’s default state could show a crowded mass of surnames representing (for sake of argument) the top 10% of surnames in a frequency distribution. As one moves the slider to the right, surnames are successively removed from the map until only the top 1% of the distribution are left.

    You would know better than I whether a linear or log scale would work better.


  7. Terry Campbell

    The names Campbell (mine), Taylor, Cooper, Clarke, Brown, King, etc…. amongst many jump out at me…

    Problem is, they could be identifying Caribbean people (slavery heritage) or British people of long standing historical residence.. I’m not sure if London is filled with Jamaican’s or white English by looking at your map.

    Fascinating, but it confuses me a lot.

    1. James Author

      Thanks for the comment- your issue is why we stress that we are looking at the origin of the surname not the origin of the person bearing it.

Comments are closed.