Many surnames originate from particular areas, and locating such areas can provide useful clues for the family historian. Despite the greater mobility of people since the Industrial Revolution, and as because of two world wars many names still show distinct regional distributions within the British Isles; Telephone Directories provide a valuable means of examining such patterns. In the early days of the telephone, names in directories were biased towards the more affluent sections of society, but today such data are much more reliable.

Frequencies of names in telephone directories can be obtained by counting names (or more easily from measuring the lengths of columns of names in different directories) and plotted on a map showing directory areas. The unit of frequency used in the accompanying maps is the number of entries for each form of the surname per 100,000 entries in that area. Analysis of the data necessitated the amalgamation of certain spellings. The distributions of RELF(E), RELPH, RALPH(E) & ROLPH/F(E) have been plotted in terms of four frequency bands. Those used for RELF & RELPH are the same, but as the other two variants of the name are more abundant in some areas different limits were chosen, with the result that the two sets of maps are not directly comparable.

The maps show quite different distributions, but with interesting similarities. Whilst each name is absent from some areas, only three directory areas (Mansfield, N W Wales, and Harrogate) can be designated as “Relf Free Zones”. The present distribution of RELF(E) is very markedly south-eastern, with the great majority of persons of that name living in Kent, Sussex, London, and part of Essex. The highest frequency of RELPHS is in the Lake District with a slight concentration in the south-east of England. The more abundant name RALPH(E) again shows a concentration in the Tunbridge Wells, Canterbury, Medway, and North-East Surrey telephone areas. However, there are also concentrations of this form of the name in Hull, and in the Shrewsbury, Hereford & Mid-Wales areas. The ROLF(PH) name is now much less widespread, but shows hot spots in London and the Isle of Wight.

Whilst interesting, these distributions must be treated with caution from an historical point of view. Anyone who has looked for RELFs in parish registers from south-east England will know that the name was often spelt in several different ways, and it was common to find families generally referred to as RELF, appearing as RELPH, ROLPH or even ROFF in the same register. To a certain extent the present patterns of distribution of names have evolved since the Victorian pre-occupation with “correct” spelling. It would be interesting to examine the occurrence of the various forms of RELF in both space and time.