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Reaney and Wilson's Dictionary of English Surnames states that several surnames are related linguistically. (For specifics, see the link, or see the section below on Origins.) In reality, however, there are several distinct families although the names may in some cases have related origins. DNA testing can reveal when families are related, even if documentation does not exist. In conjunction with documented family history, DNA testing is a very powerful technique which can clear up mysteries and can, in some cases, break through 'brick walls'.
I am gathering links to family trees of ALL of the related surnames, and I am gathering birth /christening /marriage /death /census data for Thrift & Evilthrift.
The most common variants, Firth & Frith, are beyond my resources to research other than gathering together the family trees (that is, I don't have time to dig for vital data for these surnames.) However I do hope eventually to research vital data for the rarer variants among those listed below. Note that if YOU research & contribute vital data on ANY of the related surnames, official or not, it can be included in the GOONS' searchable online archive here.
The surname Thrift is known to be a variant of Frith in at least two cases (Thrift lines from Virginia, USA and from Florida /the Bahamas). Variants of Frith are discussed in detail in the section below on Origins. Although there are many related surnames, the only ones officially registered with the Guild currently are Thrift and Evilthrift.
In Old English 'fyrhpe' (frith, woodland), the character 'p' stands for the runic Anglo-Saxon character 'thorn,' which represents a sound similar to 'th.' In Old English the sound of the 'thorn' character could be unvoiced as in 'thick', or voiced as in 'the.' (The Y in 'Ye' --as in Ye Olde Pizza Shoppe-- is actually a Middle English representation of 'thorn.' Middle English 'Ye' is pronounced 'the.')
'Fyrhpe' does sound somewhat like like 'firth.' Reaney and Wilson's Dictionary of English Surnames (which however does not cover any Scottish, Irish, or Welsh origins) states that English names deriving from the word fyrhpe include Firth, Frith, Frid, Fridd, Fryd, Freeth, Freed, Vreede, Frift, Thrift, Fright, Freak, Freake, Freke, Firk, and Firks. (I highly recommend looking at the entry linked above!) The Welsh toponym Ffridd is also related. The exact form of the surname thus depended on the local dialect, and on the listening and spelling skills -or lack thereof- of the parish scribe. (Surname variations actually used by the individuals are called 'variants'. Incorrectly spelled entries in the vital registers, not actually used by the individual, are termed 'deviants'. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference.)
In the book 'Surnames of Scotland' by George Black, the name Thrift is said to have derived from the common meaning of the noun 'thrift' (which the Oxford English Dictionary relates to the verb 'thrive,' also spelled with a thorn).
Other origins have also been noted, most obviously from the place name Firth. Miriam-Webster's on-line dictionary has 'Etymology: Middle English, from Old Norse fjorthr. Date: 14th century.' Firth and Frith have often been interchanged not only in surnames, but also in place names, as in The Pentland Frith.
The above are generalities. I would like to get specifics as far as possible. If anyone is knowledgeable about shifts in regional pronunciations in Old and Middle English, or about the earliest occurrences of a surname at specific locales, I'd love to get your input. Also, I assume Reaney and Wilson based their statement on data; I wonder if their data is available somehow?
Geoffry atte Frythe and Walter atte Frythe are listed in the Rotherfield Subsidy (Tax list) of 1296 for the Villat' de Suthborgh (Township of the South tithing) in the Hundred de Retherfeld, Sussex. Associated place names are Frighthurst Farm, Fright Farm, & Frights Cottage, near Mark Cross & Rotherfield, East Sussex. Although there are some early Friths mentioned here, the surname does not seem to be unusually common in this area. The Dictionary of English Surnames states that when the 'h' of 'fyrhpe' was preserved, the 'hp' often became 'ht' and later 'ght.' The Fright surname is most frequent not far away in Kent; this suggests that the sound shift occurred more than once in the area, and thus there may be a local tendency for this sound shift. In other areas, 'hp' became 'kp' or just 'k' as in Ferkche and Freek.
Many other place names include the term Frith: Aldington Frith in Kent, The Frythe, Welwyn, Hertfordshire (residence of John del Frithe in the 13th century), Frithsden in Hertfordshire, Chapel-en-le-Frith, and Duffield Frith in Derbyshire, Wrenbury cum Frith parish in Cheshire, Frith Common in Worcestershire, Bruach na Frithe on Skye, Firth parish, Orkney, etc.
Early occurrences of these surnames mentioned in Reaney and Wilson's Dictionary of English Surnames include Ralph Delfrid (1176, Surrey), Wlmar de Frith (1195, Kent), John del Friht (1197 & 1203, Kent & Norfolk), John del Frith (1201, Norfolk), Henry de fricht (c 1248, Buckinghamshire), Alexander del Frike (1275, Worcester), William en le Frith (1276, Essex), Nicholas atte Ferthe (1296, Sussex), Edith Ythefrith (1300, Worcester), Robert atte Ferghe (1327, Sussex), Denis Frede (1327, Essex), John atte Ferkche (1332, Sussex), and Thomas atte Vrythe (1333, Somerset). ('Ythe' and 'atte' are contractions for 'in the' and 'at the.')
The Dictionary of English Surnames states incorrectly that '' 'Thrift' is a common late development, not so far noted before the 18th century'' (-referring to England). I have found several references to William Thrift in the Court Rolls of the township of Wakefield, West Yorkshire in 1330-1335. It is possible that forms such as 'atte Frythe,' being in the Norman /French fashion, were used for people of the upper class, with land holdings. In contrast, William Thrift was a baker. However, after ~1330 French, until this point the language of the legal courts and grammar schools, began to lose its influence due to conflict between England and France. In 1379 Willelmus Thrift and wife were noted in the Subsidy Rolls for the village of Elland, Halifax parish, Morley wapentake, and Johannes Thrift was in Low Dunsforth, Aldborough parish, Claro wapentake, West Riding of Yorkshire. In 1617 Ann Thrift wed Thomas Rawson in Barnsley, and in 1622 Percival Thrift of Ecclesfield wed Sarah Remington, widow, of Silkstone in the West Riding. The Thrift family of Cranbrook, Kent, can trace back to at least 1664. Outside of England, James Thrift was a reidare at Collace, a parish near Perth, Scotland, in 1574. Ninian Thrift, spouse of Agnes Crookshank, was noted in Scone, Fife, in 1614. William Thrift was a schoolmaster in Auchtertool, Fife, in 1642. The surname Thrift appears in the colony of Virginia by the late 17th century immediately following Bacon's Rebellion. (It has been suggested that in this case the family of a rebel may have changed their name from Frith to Thrift to avoid retribution by the governor. I don't know if this is the actual reason for the switch, but it seems possible.)
One very intriguing variation is the surname Evilthrift, found near Hertfordshire, which in some cases has evolved into Thrift. Most likely this derived from a form such as 'del Frithe' found in the area in the 13th century. (However I wonder whether it may relate to the name of Aethelfrith, King of Bernicia (Northumbria), d. 616.)
For more on Firth /Frith /Thrift surname origins see
It is worth noting that in the British Isles, surnames were generally adopted after 1000 AD, and, in places like Wales, as recently as the latter part of the 18th Century (see Origination Of Scottish Names, Norman History, and Welsh Names and Surnames). Tracing a surname can only take you back at most 30 generations or so, though descendants of nobility may be able to trace back a bit before the establishment of the surname.
Wikipedia lists a few people of note with these surnames:
(The lists above are far from complete, and focus on names from popular culture. Feel free to contribute other names that should be included here.)
John Frith, 1503 – July 4, 1533, English Protestant priest, writer, and martyr.
Sir James Thrift, bef. 1520-aft. 1546, Scotland, treasonable Fire-raiser, likely the same James Thrift who was reader at Collace mentioned in George Black's Surnames of Scotland.
Mary Frith (Moll Cutpurse), ~1584-1659, English thief.
John Thrift, bef. 1715-1752, Tower Hill executioner.
Several Thrifts are mentioned in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, from 1729 on. Several were transported to the colonies of Virginia & Maryland.
Here are my favorite historical Frith/Thrifts:
Providence, Bahamas, July 1702 (The governor is whining about his lack of control over his people, and gives examples of how outrageous they are): 'Samuel Thrift forcibly took away the wife of one Starr, and detains her from him, and most of the rest live after the same manner by daily changing of wives and mistresses.' 'America and West Indies: July 1702, 6-10', Calendar of State Papers. Colonial, America and West Indies: 1702, volume 20 (1912), pp. 441-463.
And then there's Hezekiah FRITH, son of William Frith ( -1771) and Sarah Lea, was born in 1763. He hoarded booty from two stolen ships, kidnapped a young French woman, hid her from his wife - and stashed his wealth for his family to start a liquor store.
Might as well mention Syd Thrift (1929-2006) too, a better reputation than the above, but once a pirate always a Pirate...
I have obtained maps of Thrift, Frith, & Firth surname distribution in Great Britain in the early 1800s (low resolution). Data and maps are here. These maps attempt to indicate the surname distributions before the major advent of the Industrial Revolution (after which greater migration took place). The data reflect absolute numbers of occurrences in each region, not normalized to the region's population, so dense centers such as Middlesex /London are exaggerated. Almost all Firths (84%) were in Yorkshire. Firths had a separate enclave in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. Friths were also centered in Yorkshire, but had a very much broader distribution. Thrifts were broadly distributed, but in contrast to Friths and Firths, Thrifts had their highest densities in Kent and Middlesex (London). Thrifts also had a separate enclave in Scotland, primarily in Perthshire and nearby counties. Thus there are, at a very minimum, two origins each for Firths and Thrifts.
In mapping surname distributions, the absolute number of occurrences always tends to highlight the most populous areas, e.g. London. In contrast, the normalized frequency of a surname emphasizes the regions where the surname is most common as a percentage of the local population. This may provide a clue as to where the surname originated. (Or it may merely show where families have migrated to, and have been able to proliferate, over the past several hundred years after the founding of the surname.) To see how radically the distribution has changed in the last ~100 years alone, one can open maps (as described below) for 1881 and 1998 side-by-side. The result is very interesting.
To view the normalized distribution of a surname in England, Wales, & Scotland in 1881 or 1998, right-click on this link to open it in a new window, click the 'search' button, enter the surname, and click '1881' or '1998.' Once you reach the map, you can find more details on each surname in the links near the top. One can open several web browser windows at once from the above link, and compare the distributions of several surnames. The distributions of Thrift, Frith, Firth, and Freeth in 1881 do not co-localize, and so do not suggest that they share a common origin. However, what we really need is data from 500 years earlier.
The UB-Southall area of greater London is the region with the highest normalized frequency of Thrifts in 1881. The home counties surrounding London show high frequencies of Thrifts as well. In Scotland in 1881, Perthshire is the only region with Thrifts, but the frequency is low. (The frequency in Perthshire is even lower in 1998.) Currently in the USA, the state with the highest frequency of Thrifts is Georgia.
For comparison, the following links show absolute numbers of occurrences in each region, from the 1891 census:
Please send me a link to your online family tree or family history records, for ANY of the surname variants. If it is not online, please post it, or contact me if I can help.
Eventually we will have a web page here on the Guild site which will index all occurrences of Thrift & Evilthrift that can be found in the various free online vital records of England, Wales & Scotland, and we will have a head start in organizing these into families. (An example is the Ferneyhough archive for births, marriages, deaths, and adoptions, http://www.one-name.org/archives/fernyhough.html ). The archive will allow Birth, Marriage and Death records from England & Wales (from 1837) and Scotland (from 1855), Civil Probate Records from England & Wales (from 1858), and Census Records from England & Wales (1841 to 1901).
Help in gathering data would be appreciated. My preference is to give highest priority to the oldest available data. (I find it interesting that while the Guild insists that we agree to collect data worldwide, they only provide a mechanism on their site for presenting vital data from England & Wales, and from limited periods in Scotland. However this focus will be very useful.)
1790 USA census results (all 17 entries for Thrift -Hey, it's a start!) (Most are also in the online family trees listed above):
We need you (or your father, brother, or uncle) to join!
A one-name project tends to focus on lists of names. I would like to organize as many names as possible into family trees. Further, I would like to be able to show which trees are closely related even if no documentation exists on paper.
There are many cases where it seems one family is probably related to another with a similar surname, but this can’t be proven by historical records. These relationships can be revealed through DNA testing. It can be shown whether two families are closely related or not, based on specific markers in the DNA of the Y chromosome. Beyond this limited usage, DNA testing can sometimes be used to arrange a whole group of families into a larger family tree covering many generations, showing which families probably branched off soon after the earliest common ancestor, and which branches split more recently. This can be done EVEN IF BIRTH RECORDS ARE LACKING. (However, best results require a large group of contributors, in order to trace where each change occurred --so find your tenth cousins and get them involved!)
(Forums similar to the above exist for most of the related surnames as well.)
For further information, contact:
Dr Richard Thrift
This page last updated 13 January 2012.
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Profiles of other one-name studies registered with the Guild may be found here.