Surname Saturday: Boulter


An unusual family name that stays in one village – simply popping up in records and then vanishing again.

My Boulter line came to an end when my maternal Great Great Grandmother Elizabeth Boulter married John Freeman Dewey in 1878 at the tiny village of Wentworth in Cambridgeshire.

Elizabeth’s parents were Robert Boulter and Mary Ann Moden who also married at Wentworth. After marrying in 1852, the couple went on to have 10 children with Elizabeth being the oldest. Out of the ten children, seven of them were daughters (one of whom did not survive infancy).

The earliest Boulter ancestors i’ve found so far is William Boulter and his wife Ann Covell – Robert’s parents. They married in 1815 (again, in Wentworth), and had at least four children – 3 sons and a daughter. I don’t yet know where William came from before his marriage to Ann – although she was from the neighbouring village of Witchford, so perhaps William was living in Wentworth in 1815.

John and Edward Boulter

John Boulter (right), my Gt Gt Grandmother’s illegitimate first child, with his son Edward ‘Happy’ Boulter (left) – the only part of the Boulter family that I have photographs for.

The mysteriousness of the family continues, with only one part of the Boulter family (not ancestral) that I have photographs of in my collection (see above) – given to me by a fellow researcher (and distant relative). The photo shows John Boulter (right), the illegitimate first son of my Gt Gt Grandmother Elizabeth Boulter, who was born five years before she married my Gt Gt Grandfather John Freeman Dewey. John Boulter occasionally takes the surname of Dewey in census returns, but this may have been more an attempt to hide the stigma attached to illegitimacy than it might have been to suggest that John was actually his father. In fact, when John got married in 1896, he names his father as ‘John Boulter – deceased’ - did he ever know the truth, or was he using his step-father’s first name?

John Boulter moved to London when he was just 17 where he married Alice Watts and started a family of 11 children (the photo shows him with his third son Edward). Eventually, he joined the Corporation of London as a groom and often rode First Postilion on the Lord Mayor of London’s coach during the annual show.

Distribution of the surname

With Robert and Mary’s family consisting of a larger number of female children than male, it may go some way to explaining how/why the surname has struggled to survive in the area – with the name becoming redundant upon marriage.

Distribution of Boulter families in England, 1891

Ancestry.com’s mapping of the distribution of Boulter families in England, according to the 1891 census.

Ancestry.com have plotted the 1891 census data for the surname, allowing me to see the distribution of 1,661 Boulter families (note – not individuals). According to this data, Cambridgeshire had just 21 families with the surname. Norfolk is the 4th highest concentration of Boulter families with 102 – with it being a neighbouring county, this data might suggest that the family went there or even came from there. Unsurprisingly London led the way with 310 and Leicestershire came second with 240 families. Wiltshire was third with 121.

Origin of the surname

John Ayto offers a couple of different origins for the surname, probably due to it’s common misspellings. In his book ‘Encyclopedia of Surnames
he suggests that the origin is either from a ‘maker of bolts’ (as in for arrows or crossbow); a name given to someone short and stocky; or to the name of someone who sifts flour (from the Middle English term ‘bolten’ – to sift flour).

Where next for research?

I hope one day to find a photograph of my Gt Gt Grandmother Elizabeth Dewey (née Boulter), particularly as I have a photo of her husband, and I know where her grave is. She is my closest ancestor of whom I don’t have a photograph.

As for finding the surname’s next generation back – I’ll be resuming the search in neighbouring parishes for clues (Witcham and Sutton are top of my list) on William’s parents, and I’ll be checking Wills to see if there are any clues left there.

If you have stumbled across this unusual name in your research, please do drop me a line!

About Andrew Martin

+Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.
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