Monday, July 27, 2020

What Are the Origins of the Ackley Surname - Part 4?

This post on the origins of the Ackley surname is the last (for now) in a series of four articles on the topic. Part 1 explored the origins of surnames in general and the meaning of the Ackley surname itself as well as its classification as a location surname. We also looked at the actual locations in England after the Norman Conquest (about the time surnames began to be adopted) that related to the definition of the name (oak lea or oak meadow). Part 2 discussed the Ackley name and some of the surnames that have been associated with it either because they sound similar, are variations of one another, have the same meaning, or look similar when written out, and the difficulties encountered in collecting data on the frequency of occurrence of these surnames from census records. Part 3 took a look at Ackley and the associated surnames and the DNA evidence that suggests that there is not a genetic and genealogical connection between the names, at least for the names for which we can find data on Family Tree DNA surname projects. This post will present the data collected on the distribution of these surnames in England in the form of surname distribution maps and attempt to draw some conclusions that could be helpful for future research.

What is a Surname Distribution Map?

We touched on surname distribution maps in part 2, but it is worth repeating some of that information here. In short, a surname distribution map is a way to display the number of occurrences of a given surname in a given geography at a certain point in time. These maps are the embodiment of the old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" for surname researchers. They can take data on surname occurrences and paint a picture that might be tough to discern from raw data or a spreadsheet table.

These maps can display information in absolute terms; i.e., the raw number of occurrences in a given area, or in relative terms, meaning the data is normalized by the population of a given area in an attempt to put densely populated areas and more sparse areas on an equal footing. In either case, the goal of a surname distribution map is to give a sense of the concentration of a surname in different parts of a country. For our purposes, the hope is that such a map will give us an idea of where our Ackley surname is concentrated in England and thus where to look for our English ancestors. 

A question to ask, though, is whether it is reasonable to expect that data 19th century censuses would be a clue to the earlier origins of Ackleys. During a review of books and surname studies in her book "The Surname Handbook, A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century" [1], Debbie Kennett discussed an important book, "The Surname Detective", that was published by Colin D. Rogers in 1995:

Rogers investigated the distribution of 100 English surnames from 1086 to the present day. The book is split into three parts, each of which is liberally illustrated with surname distribution maps. In the first part, Rogers studied the distribution of surnames in the present day using modern telephone directories. The second part is concerned with the historical distribution of surnames in the last 500 years in order to see how much the surnames had been affected by geographical mobility, while the final section deals with the distribution of surnames in the medieval period. At the end of the exercise Rogers was able to conclude:
With a few exceptions, common surnames of all types still appear to be concentrated where they were six hundred years ago. Furthermore, as there is nothing unusual about the hundred investigated, the expectation is that this broad generalisation is true of most of the others. [2]

So, it is not a pipe dream to think that data from the 1841 England Census might give us an idea of where the Ackley surname was concentrated in the earlier times.

Data and Methodology

As mentioned several times already, I chose England Census data to construct the maps you'll see in the next section. It was a no-brainer -- as genealogists we know that census data is theoretically a source of information for every person living in a given country at the time the census was taken. As discussed in part 2, census data is not without its problems, especially when it comes to incorrectly indexed names, but in spite of that it is still in my opinion the most complete, accurate, and easily accessible source of surname frequency data.

I collected data for the Ackley surname as well as a list of other possibly related surnames (including misspellings of Ackley) mentioned in the first three parts of this series from every available England census [3], which includes 1841 through 1911. There are a number of different sources for this data; I have a subscription to Ancestry, so I gathered data from there. I used the exact spelling feature to get only the records that had the correct spelling for each name, but included alternate spellings in exact searches of their own. 

As discussed in part 2, I discovered when looking at the frequency data by county that there were some anomalies with the Ackley data that caused me to take a closer look at it, and in doing so I found that there were a number of common indexing errors that inflated the 1841 data. As a result, I went through all of the 1841 data for the surnames of interest record by record and made my own determination as to the correctness of the indexing (see part 2 for some examples of this). One thing I discovered in using the exact spelling search is that Ancestry will return all names that were originally indexed with a particular spelling as well as any names for which a user has submitted a correction. This creates a situation where a surname that has been corrected will appear in the results returned for two different surnames -- the one that was originally indexed and the one to which it was corrected. Using the Ackley/Arkley example again, I found a number of Arkley records that were indexed originally (incorrectly) as Ackley, but several of these records had user-submitted corrections to Arkley, so those records showed up in both the searches for Ackley and Arkley, which I had to account for in the final allocation of records to each surname. After this exercise, I was able to reallocate some of the improperly indexed records to different surnames and came up with revised numbers for each surname. I believe the end result of this process is the most accurate representation of the data that I could come up with for 1841. The process was very labor intensive (looking at every single name on the census images), so I only completed it for the 1841 data and therefore only created maps for the 1841 data.

The table below shows the original 1841 data that was collected for each surname as well as the adjustments that were made during the review process.

The table below shows the final, adjusted 1841 data by surname by county that was used to create the maps in the next section.


I used a program called GenMap UK [4] to create maps using the 1841 UK census data. The program is easy to use, and allows the user to copy and paste data from spreadsheets into the internal data table it uses to tabulate the number of people living in each county. The program has a gazetteer built into it; i.e., a sort of dictionary of location names from around the UK, so it understands place names from census data and can total up the number of people living in each county. I did not create maps for any surname that had less than 10 occurrences in the 1841 census.


The map for the Ackley surname is below. While a total population of only 44 people with the Ackley surname is pretty small, you can see that the map gives us some pretty good information about the distribution of Ackleys in England in 1841.

The three-letter codes in each county are the standard abbreviations (known as Chapman codes; see table above) for each county, and the number in each of the blue shaded counties tell how many people with the Ackley surname lived there. The more intense the shade of blue, the more people lived in that county. You can see that about 75% of the Ackleys (31 of 44) in the UK in 1841 were concentrated in five counties in the northwest (Cumberland, Lancashire, West Riding of Yorkshire, Chesire, and Staffordshire), with Lancashire having the highest number.

Although the map is not detailed enough to show this data, it is worth drilling down into the details for the two largest counties, Lancashire and Staffordshire. In Lancashire, the highest concentration of Ackleys is in and around Salford. All 16 of the people in Lancashire live within 45 miles of each other. In Staffordshire, all 8 people live in and around Stoke Upon Trent.

The fact that the town of Salford comes up in this discussion is of interest to me. Way back in 2016, one of the first posts I made about Nicholas Ackley discussed the fact that there are a lot of family trees around the internet that claim, without any documentation, that he was born around 1635 in Shalford, which is in Essex. It is impossible to know why, when, or how this "rumor" got started, but I have never been able to find one shred of evidence that this is true, which is why I continue to consider his birth place to be an open question. (I have questions about the date as well, but that is another topic for another day.) I don't think this information is made up -- someone had to have seen or heard some reference to this location and jotted it down without documenting where it came from, and eventually it made its way onto the internet and got spread all over the place. Having said that, isn't it reasonable to hypothesize that Nicholas was born in Salford, Lancashire rather than Shalford, Essex?  While I still need to do a whole lot of research to try to find records to support this theory, I feel that the surname distribution data at least gives us a basis for researching records in and around Salford rather than unsubstantiated entries in hundreds of family trees on the internet claiming Shalford. By the way, if anyone has any information or documentation on the Shalford claim, I would love to see it and would be happy to publish it in this blog for all to see. In the end, it shouldn't matter if Nicholas was born in Shalford, Salford, or anywhere else in England -- it would just be nice to have some kind of documentation that supports whatever claims are made.


The Hackleys in England in 1841 were relatively spread out, although there was a healthy concentration of Hackelys in southeastern counties of Essex, Middlesex, and Surrey. About 56% of Hackleys lived in those three adjacent counties.


Hagley definitely looks like a southwestern England family -- almost 65% of the Hagleys in the 1841 census lived in Devon and Somerset.


Although there are some pretty high concentrations of the name Oakley in several counties, it is pretty hard to draw conclusions about any single county or group of counties where they might have originated. There were only four counties where Oakleys didn't live in 1841, and there were 11 counties where the number of Oakleys was over 100.


Ackerley most definitely looks like a Cheshire family. Almost 70% of them lived in Cheshire in 1841.


The Atcherley family also had a high concentration in a single county. Shropshire was home to two-thirds of the Atcherleys in 1841.


There were only 14 Atchleys in the 1841 census, so it is probably not appropriate to try to draw any conclusions about where they might have been from.


As mentioned in a previous post, the Arkley family was predominantly a northern England family. Almost 75% of the Arkleys living in England in 1841 could be found in the three adjacent northern counties of Northumberland, Durham, and North Riding of Yorkshire.


Although the Ashley surname is similar to the Oakley surname in that there were Ashleys in almost every county in England in 1841, they do appear to be a little more concentrated in the west-central counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, and Shropshire. Having said that, those counties only account for about 25% of the Ashleys living in England at the time, which is not nearly as concentrated as some of the other surnames in the study.


The Ockley surname doesn't really show any particularly high concentrations in any county or group of counties.


Many of the surnames studied had relatively high concentrations in selected counties, giving us some good clues on where one might conduct further research to learn about the origins of the names. While the number of Ackleys living in England was quite small in 1841, it does appear that they were concentrated in the counties of Cumberland, Lancashire, West Riding of Yorkshire, Chesire, and Staffordshire, with Lancashire having the highest number.

A general conclusion that can be drawn is that for the most part each of the surnames seems to have its own unique distribution, supporting the idea presented in previous posts that there seems to be little to no connection between the Ackley surname and the other surnames studied.

Link of the Day

A brief description of surname distribution maps on Family Search:

Quote of the Day

"There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure."

--Colin Powell


1. Kennett, Debbie.  The Surnames Handbook, A Guide to Family Name Research in the 21st Century. Cheltenham: The History Press, 2012.

2. Rogers, Colin D. The Surname Detective. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

3. 1841 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2010. Original data: Census Returns of England and Wales, 1841. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1841. 

4. Archer, Steve. GenMap UK. Dartford, England: Archer Software, 2020.


  1. Mike, fascinating results from your hard work. This effort must have been huge! Like the question you raised about the origins of Nicholas, this information will be a center stone for future research and may raise new questions. As the world moves toward more historic information being digitized, we will unwrap some of the mysteries our family trees hold. I am anxiously awaiting information you will find as a result of your latest deep dna analysis. If my tree is tied, or is certainly NOT tied, to the Nicholas line, it will generate a burst of further research on my part. Half of the work and wondering will be removed from my search to remove the brick wall my line stands in front of.
    Thanks for your hard work.

  2. Fascinating work Mike. I've never taken the time to go this deep with Hackley in England. Mostly I've looked at maps that had surnames (farms, other land owners) and the 1881 census available on It's interesting that in the current distribution of Hackleys in England and the 1881 distribution are almost identical. Mostly Midlands and northwest with centers in Lancashire and Staffordshire. The total numbers are low...under 100. But the distribution is quite different than what you show for 1841. With numbers as low as Ackley and Hackley have, I think it's difficult to make too much our of a place of origin. It would be nice to have similar data from, say 1700. 141 years can make a big difference when the total population is only a few hundred persons. Especially since the industrialization of England cause a huge increase in migration. One extended family (say 20 Hackleys) could easily disappear in one generation due to a combination of death, marriage, and economic migration. I can give you an easy example. In the 1930s-1950s there were many Hackleys in the cotton mill town of Savage, MD. Probably of order 30 (for a very small village). Right now there isn't a single Hackley living in Savage (I still have cousins there, but the name has changed or they are from another side of my Dad's family). And all of those Hackleys were in Savage due entirely to economic reasons. They moved from farms and the Blue Ridge Mountains to Savage in the early 1900s to work in the cotton mill. Cotton mill is now a mall and the Hackleys have all died or moved elsewhere.

    I think the best approach would be to map out a surname from the late 1800s back to the earliest records available and see if there is a movement toward one location going back in time. Ackley and Hackley are both relatively rare names. That's a plus for us. Oakley would be nearly impossible, much less Smith or Jones. I would have bet that Ackley and Hackley were of the same origin, given what a small change it is and how easy it is to push out a little more air in saying Hackley instead of Ackley. Also, most written records were created by someone listening to people who could neither read nor write. Unless you are fortunate enough to come from a well established or noble line.