The same applies to correspondence, with many an important document having to be re- issued when my name has been mis-spelled. So when the family historians of the future build my family tree, they may run into a few problems finding the real me.
If I have these troubles today, just think how it would have been for past generations, when you add poor literacy and local dialect to the mix. For today’s family historian, it is important to understand how these variations occur and how they were recorded.
Research suggests that the name came as a result of an occupation, similar to those we may be more familiar with such as Smith or Baker. Swinbank may mean the bank where the swine were fed; or, from the old Norse "sviethinn", (middle English "swithen"), meaning land cleared by burning; and the old Norse "bakke", (middle English "bank"), a bank or slope. So, a person named Swinbank may have been someone who cleared banks of land by burning or a keeper of pigs. Given the choice, I think I prefer the idea of being occupied as a professional fire raiser over that of a pig farmer.
In 1875, a report by the Registrar General noted that 16% of men and 22% of women could not sign their name in the marriage register and had to resort to using a mark. This statistic, however, did not indicate true levels of literacy; with many having learned to write simply what they believed was their name in the written form. So it’s not surprising that there are many variations to surnames to find and research. Examples found during my research are Swinbank, Swynebanke, Swinbanck, Swinbancke, Swithenbank, Swedenbank, Swainbank and, of course, Swidenbank. I believe that Swinbank is likely to be the basis of all the others; it is recorded as far back as the 1500s, originating in the South East corner of Westmorland (Cumbria) and the South West of Yorkshire. One such record shows that a Cuthbert Swinbank was the vicar of Kirkby Steven from 1568 to 1620. During his time the parish registers listed seven of the possible name variants, with four being recorded in a single register in less than a decade.
It is, of course, possible that in these early records a different scribe recorded each event in the way he felt was the correct one.
Accepting that these variations often make it difficult to prove anything other than a circumstantial link, it is a pursuit I would recommend to the family historian, as without it parts of my family tree would be little more than saplings.