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John Pryce Blair
One Name Studies

About the Willsman One-Name Study

I started tracing my family history about 10 years ago and discovered that my great grandmother Ivy Edith was surnamed Willsman. I didn’t realise just how unusual a name it was/is until I started tracing her ancestral line. I also became aware during census searches etc that the surname seemed to be Devon-centred. Aware that the name was unusual, I collected all references I found to the surname Willsman just in case it might come in useful. I have always been interested in the history & origin of names. Then I heard about The Guild of One Name Studies…Variants

In my own Willsman family history research I have seen the name spelt as Wilsman, Wellsman & Welsman, so decided to have these as my variants.

Origin of the surname

I looked up my variants, and the National Trust Names website said English - Occupational Name; Ending with –Man. The Public Profiler website also said it was of English origin. My own research into my surnames & variants point to the name staring in Devon & so I doubt I am related to any of the people in the surname history I found (see below), but agree with the theory that Willsman perhaps might mean ‘son of William’. However in my line of descent the Willsman surname is earliest recorded as Wellsman so I don’t know if this is a spelling mistake or a different meaning altogether. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames, Wellman/Welman means “dweller by a well or stream” – a Norman variant is Gillman. Wellsman/Welsman means “Welshman.” – variants are Welshman & Welchman.

George Redmonds (an authority on surnames) says that much of what has been written previously about surname history is assertion; you need to marry surname study with FH as much as etymology. Each surname is unique beginning with one person or family at a particular time and a particular place.

Historical occurrences

I only managed to find one history, one I bought from a market stall selling computerised surname histories (probably not the most reliable source): “The surname Willsman is a baptismal name ‘the son of Gilmyn’. The name was brought to England in the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066. Early records of the name mention Gilaman filius Gilandi, 1100, Yorkshire. Other names mentioned include John Wylemin of Bucks in 1273, William Wyleman of Cambridge and John Wyleman of London all in the same year. Also documented at the same time were Walter Gilmin of Oxfordshire , John Gyleman of Bucks, Gylemin Coc’ of Kent. Cristopher Gylemyn was documented during the reign of Edward III (1327-77) in Somerset. Gilmyn Rogeri of Yorkshire was listed in the Yorkshire Poll Tax of 1379 as was Johannes Gyleman. Waldeof filius Gilmin was recorded in Yorkshire in the year 1400. There was the record of a marriage license issued to John Carter and Gylmen Haverd in 1546 in the Faculty Office. Later records include Harold Gilman (1878 – 1919) an English artist born in Rode, Somerset. The name is also spelt Gillman and Gilmin.”

Some of these names more likely original forms of the name Wileman or Willman.

Frequency of the name

In 1881, the highest incidence of the Willsman surname was in Devon. Of the 27 Willsmans in the 1881 census, 14 were born in Devon and 10 of them are my family. 8 were born in Essex. 2 were born in Bristol but were the wife & daughter of one of my Devon Willsman clan. 3 were unmarried women (i.e. Willsman was their birth name) born in unexpected places and one of those was a transcription error, but I need to investigate these further.

I found 2 people surnamed Willsman, born Germany, living USA – so perhaps their Willsman surname evolved in a different way.

I also checked for one of my registered variants, Welsman (124 of them), and the distribution was similar – predominantly Devon, which is reassuring, with a healthy sprinkling over Dorset & Middlesex.

All this confirms my theory that Willsman is a Devon surname.

I checked the most recent Electoral Roll online and discovered that there were only 6 people surnamed Willsman registered! The name is becoming rarer.

Distribution of the name

According to the Public Profiler website (2008), Willsman is an English surname. Highest incidences of the name in the UK are in (descending order) Devon, Newport, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, and Northamptonshire. In New Zealand, the Willsman surname occurs in Queenstown, Dunedin City and Christchurch.

The overall concentration of Willsman seems to be Devon, which is what I suspected, having conducted many census searches over the years as part of my family history. However, I do wonder if my findings throw some doubt on the surname history I bought.


Data collection is very much a work in progress. Core sources completed so far: original BMD Indexes; census extractions for 1841, 1851, 1881 & 1911 for name & all variants, 1861, 1871, 1891 for Willsman (main name); IGI; Otterton Poor Relief records, 2002 & 2009 electoral roll/phone directory/directors from FMP; WW1 medal index cards; 1911 Irish census; National Archives global index.

My next steps –

1. I have just joined the Devon Family History Society and I hope that extractions from their indexes will give me a more rounded picture of the surname.

2. Continue the census extractions for those years I am missing for my variants.

3. I have neglected Vital Records, so will search them.

4. A trip to the Devon Record Office to at least get a feel of what’s available there.

DNA project

Volunteers wanted! If anyone is willing to contribute a cheek swab I will happily pay for a test for the first two Willsman men (from different lines) who volunteer! It is a harmless genealogical DNA test, the test result is a string of numbers, and contains no personal information. Unfortunately a man is required for it to be the right sort of DNA or I'd do it myself. The Y DNA test tells you about your direct male line, which would be your father, his father, and so on back in time.

I am excited to announce that the Willsman/Wilsman/Welsman/Wellsman DNA Project has been established at Family Tree DNA, and it is ready for participants to join and order a test kit. This is the project’s page - https://www.familytreedna.com/group-join.aspx?Group=Willsman (you will probably need to copy and paste this link)

The goals of the project are to:

Discover information to help with our family history research

Discover which family trees are related

Discover information to help with brick walls

Confirm surname variants

Validate family history research

Get on file a DNA sample for trees at risk of extinction of the male line Discover information about our distant origins

Click here to find out more about joining the Willsman, Wilsman, Welsman and Wellsman DNA Project!

You can follow the study's prgress on Facebook or Twitter

Denman One Name Study and DNA Project

I have been studying the Denman surname since 1999, and in 2012 registered my study with The Guild of One Name Studies - you can see the study's profile page here.

Click here to find out about the Denman DNA Project

You can follow the study's progress on Facebook and Twitter