The Origin of the Surname Nurse - Part 2 - Geographical Origins

Category: Nurse Family
Last Modified: Apr 28 2017


In a previous article I described the Etymological origins of the surname Nurse.  In this article I will describe my research on the geographical distribution of the name.

There are many references to the name Nurse (or Nourse) in the IGI[1] (International Genealogical Index) for England, with a large number of them in the Somerset and Gloucestershire sections as well as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. However the IGI is not a particularly good source to use for geographical distributions as some counties have much better representation in the Index than others.

The first step in locating the geographical home of a family name is to establish the current distribution. It is surprising how often family names, even after all the mobility of modern times, are still rooted in or near the places where they were first recorded in the Middle Ages. We therefore begin our research with a recent telephone directory for the UK.[2]

A very large majority of homes have telephones, and from a statistical point of view, the distribution of names of telephone subscribers should reflect the distribution of names in the population as a whole. The directory lists 591 entries for the name Nurse, an average of 12 per million population.[3]

Figure 1 Distribution of the Surname Nurse in the 1999 BT Telephone Directory by Postcode


Figure 1 shows the percentage of all the Nurse BT subscribers plotted by Postcode Area (i.e. BS or WC).

PostCode Area might appear to be a curious geographical area to use, but the mapping software only provided modern counties, rather than the historical counties.

There are three areas where the Nurse name is concentrated.

These are:

  • The area around the Wash centred on the Peterborough Postcode (PE) with about 23% (136) of all the Nurse BT subscribers. This corresponds approximately to the historical counties of Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. The Peterborough Postcode has the largest concentration of Nurse subscribers – 38 or 6.4%, with Leicester (LE) having 28 or 4.7% and Norwich (NR) having 20 or 3.4%.
  • South Wales with 9.3% (55) of the Nurse subscribers.
  • Bristol and North Somerset with 7.6% (45) of the Nurse subscribers.

Our next step in determining the geographical source of a family name is to use older record sources. One obvious set of sources are the census’ taken between 1841 and 1901, in particular the 1881 census[4] as it was the earliest census to have been digitally indexed[5].  Figure 2 plots the percentage of Nurses in the 1881 Census, again by Postcode Area.

Figure 2 Distribution of the Nurse Surname from the 1881 Census


It is clear from this census information that two of the three clusters of Nurses were even more evident 120 years ago although even after over a century of increasing mobility, which would tend to average out the distribution, they are still fairly distinct.

In fact, in the 1881 census, only 6 of the 122 Postcode Areas have more than 3% of the total number of Nurses (1461) and these 6 have nearly half of the total number of Nurses. These are:

  • The Peterborough Area (PE) with 197 or 13.4%.
  • Norfolk (NR) with 153 or 10.5%.
  • The Bristol Area (BS) with 115 or 7.9%.
  • Suffolk (IP) with 83 or 5.7%.
  • SE London (SE) with 72 or 4.9%.
  • The Bath and North East Somerset Area (BA) with 68 or 4.7%.

Let’s look at these two regions in more detail, starting with the region surrounding the Wash. Figure 3 shows the Census information plotted by census location (village/town) rather than the larger Postcode Area.

Figure 3 Distribution of the Nurse Surname in the vicinity of the Wash (1881 Census)


While there are concentrations of Nurses throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and Northern Cambridgeshire, the largest concentrations are centred on King’s Lynn itself. In particular there are four large clusters of Nurses:

  • 48 in and around Dersingham, about 6 miles north east of King’s Lynn
  • 27 in and around West Dereham, about 12 miles slightly east of south of King’s Lynn, and
  • 20 in and around Wisbech to the south west of King’s Lynn
  • 18 in and around Downham Market, about 10 miles slightly west of south of King’s Lynn

In fact of the 350 (23.9%) Nurses in the 1881 Census in the PE and NR postcodes, 179 (12.3%) are located within 15 miles of King’s Lynn, with a further 124 (8.5%) located within 30 miles of King’s Lynn, predominantly to the East of the city. This is fully one fifth of the total number of Nurses in the whole of the British Isles, as counted in the 1881 Census.

Figure 4 Distribution of the Nurse Surname in the vicinity of Bristol (1881 Census)


Figure 4 shows a similar distribution for the cluster centred on Bristol and North Somerset. Here there are 3 major concentrations of Nurses:

  • 33 centred on Hanham, Bitton and Oldland,
  • 29 in south west Bristol centred on Bedminster
  • 48 in the area of Somerset between Shepton Mallet, Wells and Glastonbury, centred on North Wooton.

In 1881, most (if not all) of the Nurses in the Hanham/Bitton area are my ancestors and their descendants, as are many of those in the Bedminster area.

To conclude this discussion, we can postulate two scenarios;

  1. the name originated in two locations independently, or
  2. the name originated in one location and a descendant moved to the second location, where the family prospered.

Prior to the national censuses of the 19th century there are no sets of data that are as complete. We are therefore left with these two scenarios.

As mentioned earlier in this section, while the IGI is not a complete survey, there are quite a lot of references to Nurses living in Somerset and Gloucestershire. In particular, there are quite a few references in the IGI to a family living in the parish of Awre, near the Forest of Dean, the earliest mention being the Baptism of a Johes Nurse, son of Robert Nurse on 22nd Feb 1539.[6]

In addition, there are many references in Boyd's Marriage Index, as well as the IGI for Somerset to a family (or families) living in the Parishes of High Ham and Aller, just east of Taunton. One of the earliest references is to the marriage of Elizabeth Nurse to George Dimont in High Ham in 1597.[7]

Since I have been able to trace my Nurse ancestry back to the early 18th century to north Somerset, it is likely that my Nurse line originated somewhere in Somerset or Gloucestershire, most likely the former county.

Bibliography and Notes

[1] - The IGI or International Genealogical Index is a computerised list of genealogical data gathered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Much of the data is suspect as it has been submitted by members who are keen to “baptise” their ancestors into their faith, and has not been verified independently. However, it does provide a useful jumping off point for genealogical research, as long as one verifies any data. (

[2] - 1999 BT Telephone Directory (

[3] - Based on a population in 1999 of 45,726,756

[4] - 1881 Census of England & Wales on CDROM, Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints.

[5] - The 1901 and more recently the 1891 censuses have been digitally indexed and are available on the Internet. However, the 1881 census is the earliest available, so it was chosen for this analysis.

[6] - International Genealogical Index, Rev. Jan 1988, Gloucestershire County, Page 16,867.

[7] - Boyd's Marriage Index for Somerset, Society of Genalogists  -

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