How a surname from Wales travelled the world

The James surname has its origins in the Bible. James has its ancient root in the Old Testament name of Jacob, although today James is seen as a separate and distinct name in its own right. The personal name of James appears in the New Testament in the form of two of Christ’s disciples – James the brother of John and James the brother of Andrew. As time passed, this personal name was taken up as a surname although today it is still a very popular and enduring personal name.

In many name origination texts the surname of James is given as being English in origin but that is misleading. Although James appears all over the British Isles, its main concentration is in South Wales. Welsh people would claim the James surname as their own, and they would appear to have a strong historical case for that claim. James is a surname firmly rooted in the Celtic fringe of these islands.

With the ascent of the British Empire the James surname burst forth from the shores of Great Britain and can now be found all over the globe. It will be encountered in all the Old Commonwealth nations and the former colonial possessions. From the valleys of South Wales, the James name has truly gone international.

In 1837, 418 James children were born in England and Wales. In 2005 there were 1,943. In 1881 there were 11,846 James households in the British Isles and for that year the top occupations for those with the James surname were – Scholar, Coal Miner, Dressmaker, Agricultural Labourer and General Labourer. As can be imagined, all these occupations were well represented in South Wales at the time.

Between 1838 and 1910 the top ten counties for James births were – Glamorgan, London, Breconshire, Monmouthshire, Staffordshire, Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire, Gloucestershire, Cornwall and Lancashire.

It can be clearly seen from the above that these births were predominantly in Wales with a fair representation in Cornwall, another Celtic domain. The English counties mentioned were ones to which migrant labour would have gravitated and taken their names with them, or they directly bordered South Wales.

Between 1984 and 2005 the top ten counties for James births were - Glamorgan, London, Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Hampshire, Kent and Surrey.

It can be easily deduced from the above, that the James surname has settled and become established in areas far from its historical heartland. The name itself can provide a reliable route map of migration, both within the British Isles and beyond.

Let us look at this internal migration within the British Isles during the Victorian era. The surname of James was most popular in the following counties over a period of seven decades:

  • In 1841 it was – Pembrokeshire, Cornwall, Middlesex, Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire.

  • In 1851 it was – Middlesex, Pembrokeshire, Glamorgan, Cornwall and Monmouthshire.

  • In 1861 it was – Glamorgan, Middlesex, Pembrokeshire, Cornwall and Gloucestershire.

  • In 1871 it was – Glamorgan, London, Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire.

  • In 1881 it was – London, Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire.

  • In 1891 it was – Glamorgan, London, Monmouthshire, Gloucestershire and Staffordshire.

  • In 1901 it was – Glamorgan, London, Monmouthshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire.

The James surname left British shores in some very interesting ways. It arrived in Australia via colonial settlers. Amongst these were many convicts transported to Australia for often very trivial offences. In all there were 26 James convicts sent to Australia between the years 1788 and 1842. Today the James surname is most popular by far in the states of New South Wales and Victoria.

Many other migrants left the British Isles for a new life in Canada and the USA. Many of these crossings were hazardous in the extreme, due to the weather and the poor state of many of the ships taking them to the new world. By 1891 the most populated province by those with the James surname was Ontario and that still remains true to this day.

In the USA by 1920, the most populated state by those with the James surname was Pennsylvania, followed by New York, Ohio, Illinois, California, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Iowa.

To close this fact sheet on the James surname there is one more statistic to relay. The average male James can expect to live for 77 years, whilst a female James will last until her 81st year. Interestingly in Scotland the figures are 74 years for a male and 79 years for a female, it must be something to do with the weather.

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