Introduction to the Surl Family & Family Trees 


1 - Origin of the Surl Name 

2 - The two branches - Newent & Tewkesbury

3 - Old Parishes of Gloucester

4 - General Notes & Information Sources

5 - Acknowledgements 


1 - Origin of the Surl Name

According  to a book on the history of family names that I found some years ago in the rare book dept of Foyles in London, Serl, Surl, Searl and the dozens of other spellings that now abound, all originate in Normandy at the time of the Norman Conquest. Historians have suggested that it was Serlo, Abbot of Gloucester from 1072, who was not only responsible for starting the building of Gloucester Cathedral but also who recommended to William that he undertook a massive census of the the country he had come to rule  - now better known as the Domesday Book. Another Serlo was the first Archdeacon of Exeter (1225 to 1250) and is buried in that cathedral whilst another Serlo officiated at Salisbury Cathedral. 

It might be though that tracing the family history of such an unusual spelling of the name would be dead easy.  Sadly it isn't. This is partly because some sources lump all common variants together so one has to wade through them all to find the occasional gem. More importantly, most ordinary people were unable to read or write until the latter part of the 19th century so the recording of births, marriages and deaths was in the hands of those who could - generally vicars and curates - who spelt the name as they thought best. Vicars & curates changed over the years so one regularly finds children christened as Surl are Searle or another variant upon marriage and vice versa.  

I have always joked that there are even more spelling variants of 'Surl' than there are of Luxulyan (of which there are over 20) but then Luxulyan is a fixed place whereas people wandered the length and breadth of the country, thereby bringing regional accents and variations into play. When parents reported the birth of a new child or had it baptised, it takes little imagination to see how, with a strong regional burr, Serl or Searle could quickly become Surrell, Sirrell or even Surl. I also believe that, thanks also to old-fashioned script being more easily misread, names like Turl and Furl could well be linked while local differences in pronunciation of an initial letter 'C' could possibly also link us with Cirrell, Currell and even Curl. (Chickens have come home to roost since this comment was first made as the transcribers used by Ancestry.Com are utterly hopeless in this respect, Turl being one of their favourites, not to mention Suel, Sevel and even Lueb !!).

When looking at the national picture, certain particular spellings do indeed seem to occur more frequently in some areas of the country than in others but this is not exclusively so. For example, while Surrell frequently occurs in the North East and to the west of Birmingham, this variant was also being recorded in Newent at the exact same time as Surls. Similarly, Searle seems to occur most frequently in London and Cornwall, but again some other spellings were being recorded concurrently in the same areas. 

Also, as has been mentioned elsewhere in respect of the other families researched, the enumerators of the censuses in the 19th century (and those who answered their questions) added a whole new dimension to the art of mis-spelling and mis-recording.

In the days before the Internet and simple phone-book look-ups, when making a  first visit to a town or city, I would always look in the phone book for any Surls. After years of miserable failure, I eventually found one in Los Angeles - one Beulah Surl - whom I promptly contacted. His Southern drawl was rather difficult to understand but I quickly gathered that his origins were in the cotton fields of the deep south.  Now although several Surls made it over to South America, I hadn't heard of any connection with that part of the USA. The likely answer transpired to be that when slaves were freed, they very often took the name of their former owner or employer and, again, this was spelt as the recorder of the name saw fit rather than the holder (witness the US immigration staff on Ellis Island when dealing with foreign names). 

However, this taking of an employer's name as a surname is not unique to the USA. On the contrary, it happened a great deal here, particularly during the 16th & 17th centuries. So, instead of being directly descended from revered Norman clergy, the Surls could simply be descended from servants or labourers on a big estate who thought that taking the master's surname of Surl was a marginally better option than Baker, Barker or Hogsherd.


Postcard of High Street in Newent sent by A L Surl to his parents on 30th May 1938


2 - The Two Branches of Surls - Newent & Tewkesbury.

Since re-discovering each other in 1948, it had been firmly believed that there was a close relationship between the two family branches but until 2007 research had failed to pinpoint the nature of the link.

The story starts back in 1948 when my father, Arthur Lionel Surl (ALS), spotted an article in 'The Lady' magazine which included a photograph of a Mr Alfred Surl and his daughter bundling elderberry pith sticks in Woolstone, Glos.  ALS wrote "His features bore a striking resemblance to those of my own father so, as he was living near Tewkesbury, I took a chance and addressed a letter to Mr Surl, Woolstone nr Cheltenham.  He was delighted and replied by return saying that he used to live in Tewkesbury and had always understood that the Newent Surls had died out leaving his son John as the only one left to carry on the name.

"However, he did remember that as a boy of about 10, a young man with a football team from Newent came to visit his father (in Tewkesbury) and that this young man had lost an eye in a fireworks accident. Undoubtedly this was my Uncle Jack (1869-1908) whom I well remember at Newent when I was a child of five ..... and the likelihood was pretty remote of there being more than one young man in Newent by the name of Surl who had lost an eye whilst handling fireworks (!).

"Moreover, my father told me that his father had cousins in Tewkesbury and that one was manager of the gas works but contact had been lost. Alfred mentioned in his first letter that his father had been Gas Manager at Tewkesbury and Hinckley"

The possibility that the heads of the two branches - John Surl of Newent (born 1791) and James of Tewkesbury (thought to have been born c1820) - were 'full' brothers was thought to be rather unlikely due to the 30 year gap that appeared to separate their births. Half brothers or even first cousins was therefore considered more likely but research since the 1980's then revealed ..... 

  • James's birth date of 1820 had been calculated from the one and only reference that could be found at that time - 35 on his death in 1855. However, after discovery that his first marriage was in 1834, birth in 1820 seemed rather implausible as he would then only have been 14. A guess was made that 1811-13 was more likely (and 30/12/1810 has since been confirmed) so, with now only an approx 20 year gap, full or at least half-brothers became a possibility again.  

  • John of Newent b1791 was known to be the son of a John but the name of James's father proved elusive until a document was recently found which also described James as a Tin Plate Worker/Brazier "son of John Surl, Brazier". So both John and James had a father named John ... but was it the same John and did they have the same mother too ? 

  • The answer seems to be Yes & No respectively because, shortly before he died in May 2007, SJS traced two marriage records, both in the parish of St Mary de Lode, Gloucester, as follows:

    • John Surl to Margaret Powell - 10 Aug 1788

    • John Surl to Frances Herring - 3 Nov 1810

  • In 2015 a "marriage allegation" for 1810 in St Mary de Lode was found which stated that John was a widower while Frances was a spinster  Though not absolutely conclusive, the evidence is slowly mounting that John senior married twice, each wife bearing him a son within the first three years of the marriage: John b 1791 to head the "Newent Branch" and James b late 1810 the "Tewkesbury Branch"

So Half-Brothers it looks to be .... and for more info on the parishes they lived in, read on ....


3 - Old Parishes of Gloucester

Soon after SJS discovered the marriage records for St Mary de Lode this page contained a map and and write up of this parish on the assumption that they lived somewhere within its extensive bounds. Wrong !  

Closer examination of the John's first marriage record revealed that both parties were in fact residents of Holy Trinity parish which, as can be seen from the map below left, is a relatively small parish to the South South West of the Cathedral. However research then revealed that because it no longer had a parish church, services were actually held at St Mary de Lode which is just to the north west of the cathedral (in a small stub of its parish). So the small area of Holy Trinity parish seems to be where the patriarch of our Surl family first resided.   

The parish situation becomes more complicated when it was found that the parties for the later St Mary de Lode events were from St Catherine's Parish ... so why not use St Catherine's Church ? Answer - it was badly damaged during the Civil War battles for Gloucester, pulled down c1651 and not re-built (on the same site) until the 1860's. The church was re-named St Catharine's in 1886 but pulled down around WW1 time after a new St Catharine's church was built in the northern suburbs to be closer to the physical and modern population centre of the parish. So although there was a St Catherine's Church and there is one again now (elsewhere), for over 200 years there wasn't one - which is when the Surls were in residence. It is interesting in this case that although all services were held at St Mary de Lode, the benefices were kept separate for most of this time and indeed there were separate Birth, Marriage & Death registers too. Can be confusing !



The above maps (1800 on the left, copyright Lovell Johns Ltd and 2015 at right by Google Inc) attempt to show that although over 200 years separates them, during which time Gloucester has undergone many far-reaching changes as have land surveying & map making techniques, some of the major elements remain recognisably the same. In particular Water Street (where it is believed that John Surl snr later lived) can be seen in 1805 curving around the remains of the first St Catherine's Church  and we believe that the current St Mary's Street more closely correlates to this than St Catherine St as claimed by others.

Finally - a Pure Coincidence ?  James b1810 who heads the Tewkesbury branch was born in St Catherine's parish, Gloucester. One hundred years later three of his female descendents emigrated to Canada and one hundred years on again, all their gravestones were found in the same cemetery - in St Catharine's Ontario. 


4 - General Notes & Abbreviations

  • Those born with the Surl surname are shown in bold face. Paragraph numbers are the generation reference numbers from the family trees followed by sub-paragraphs in chronological sequence of birth. For simplicity, the same generation reference numbers have been used across all the family trees - generation 11 being my own. 

  • Abbreviations ‘b’, ‘m’, ‘d’ and ‘bap’ have been used for birth, marriage, death and baptism. ‘c’ = circa while > and < have been used to denote after or before the quoted date as a reference to them at that time has been located. 

  • Early parish registers (at least pre-1837) were compiled on a ‘church year’ basis which if I recall correctly was from the ‘Quarter Day’ in March to that in March the following year (so not dissimilar in principle to our current tax year). Events in Jan-March thus appear in the registers under the heading of the previous year so it is very easy when transcribing register entries to record the wrong year. Some transcriptions quote both possible years eg 1750/1 but where the latter is the more likely due to other related events (eg would mean two children born within less than 9 nine months of one another), this has been changed and is denoted by an asterisk (*).

  • Compulsory Birth, Marriage and Death registration commenced in 1837. To speed searching for a particular event, indexes were created for each type covering a quarter of a year, the March quarter covering events in Jan, Feb and Mar and so on. These Indexes show only very limited information but they were available for free access at Somerset House then St Catherine's House in London. Many, but by no means all, have since been transcribed into databases which can be viewed on the Internet. As such they are a valuable resource but

    • Actual date of the event is not given so info from this source is shown as 'Mar qtr' denoting that the event took place (or at least was registered) in Jan, Feb or Mar of that year. (Note that Ancestry.Com is, as always, different - they show Jan/Feb/Mar as Jan !)

    • Until the early 20th century, marriage indexes did not show the name of the spouse. Where other information (eg census) has not been used to establish a Christian name, all that can be deduced is that it was someone on the same page of the original register. Normally this gives a choice of two (but it can be more) hence showing these as 'xxx or yyy'.

5 - Acknowledgements 

I am indebted to John Surl (SJS) of Cheltenham and his son Robert (RAS) for their own research in London as well as for correcting & updating the draft tree ALS produced shortly before he died. Thanks are also due to Mary Mayhew for having updated me in the late 1980's on the Chancellor/Broadbent side .... as can clearly be seen in Tree 2, in the space of just 4 generations, they are now a whole generation ahead of the Surls despite being descended from Mary Ann Dyer Surl who was 5 years younger than her brother Edwin John. 

Thanks are also due to :

  • Roger Bailey of Aston Crews nr Ross on Wye for info on Ann Surl and Edwin Bailey of Newent, the latter being his great great grandfather's elder brother.

  • Wendy Simpson of New Zealand re Frederick Wm Henry Rimmer

  • John Altoft & Judy Cardwell of Ontario, Canada re sisters Sarah Alice & Polly Surl plus their spouses & offspring.  

Research still continues (now and again) so please forgive the blanks, question marks and the age of some of the data as well as any broken hyper-links and mis-typings. Observations, corrections and updates are always welcome !!  



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Last updated 25th May 2020