A Kiwi in search of her ancestral tribes

Tunnicliffe? Tunnecliffe? Tonacliffe? ~ Surname Saturday

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series The Tunnecliffes of Taranaki

It’s fascinating where surnames originated and how they evolved. In April I posted about my 3 x great grandfather, George Tunnecliff. Or was it Tunnecliffe? With an ‘e’, or without? What was the “correct” surname?

My last lot of assignments for IHGS were all centred around surnames, and since we could pick a couple of our own family names to look at, I chose Tunnecliffe as one of them.

Tunnecliffe is actually a variant of the more common TUNNICLIFF(E). Reaney1, Titford2 and Hanks & Hodges3 agree that it is a habitational surname, taken from Tonacliffe in Lancashire, which was recorded in 1246 in the Lancaster Assizes as “Tunwal(e)clif”, from OE tun enclosure, settlement + wœll(a) spring, stream, + clif bank, slope, so ‘enclosure on the banks of a stream’.

Both Reaney and Hanks & Hodges give the variants of TUNNICLIFFE as: TUNNICLIFF, DUNNICLIFF, DUNNICLIFFE. The interchanging of T and D is not unusual in surnames, so the variants are not unexpected. Interestingly, there appear to be no variants of the name where the -CLIFF(E) suffix has developed into a -LEY ending, as has happened to a number of other surnames.

As with many other habitational names, the surname has become more common where an inhabitant from that place has moved or travelled away from his immediate area, which helps explain why the surname is more prevalent in a neighbouring county, rather than in the county where the place is actually located. Titford noted the name is mostly found now in Staffordshire, where I have traced back my family back to a Robert TUNNICLIFFE, whose son Edward was buried in 1821 at St Michael’s Rocester with the surname TUNNECLIFF inscribed on his gravestone. This variant spelling continued with all of Edward’s descendants researched so far, though in modern usage an E was  usually tacked on to the end.

For our assignment, we were asked to look at death registrations in England & Wales from July 1837 to December 1851 and plot the surname’s distribution. When searching FreeBMD, I wanted to look for all instances of TUNNICLIFF(E) and DUNNICLIFF(E), including any variant and deviant spellings. To cover as many alternate spellings as possible within the confines of FreeBMD’s limits, I used the search strings: tu*n*cl*f* and du*n*cl*f. I also searched using different first vowels to pick up any stray entries, and found only one (TENNECLIFF).

The variants and deviants found are listed in the table below. The dominant variants are clear to see, although it is obvious that the DUNNICLIFF(E) variant is far less common than TUNNICLIFF(E).

Death registrations in England & Wales 1837-1851
Tunnicliff(e) Deaths Dunnicliff(e) Deaths
Tunnicliff 206 Dunnicliff 44
Tunnicliffe 110 Dunnicliffe 9
Tunnacliffe 12 Dunicliff 6
Tunnacliff 11 Duncliffe 4
Tunnecliff 11 Dunicliffe 2
Tunncliff 8 Dunnecliffe 2
Tunnercliffe 6 Dunacliff 1
Tunecliff 5 Duncliff 1
Tunicliff 5 Dunnacliffe 1
Tunicliffe 5 Dunnecliff 1
Tunacliff 4 Dunneclift 1
Tunacliffe 4
Tunitcliffe 4
Tunecliffe 2
Tunincliffe 2
Tunnecliffe 2
Tunnycliff 2
Tunaclif 1
Tunercliffe 1
Tunnaclif 1
Tunnicleffe 1
Tunniclift 1
Tennecliff 1
Total 405 72

So where are all these Tunnicliffes and Dunnicliffes? From the death registration data, I mapped their distribution across England and Wales:Tunnicliffe and variants - death registrations in England & Wales 1837-1851As to be expected, the surname is mostly found in Staffordshire, and surrounding counties. Internal migration for work may have resulted in the instances found further south. Indeed, most of those counties are connected to the coast, which could suggest maritime or trading occupations.

I also wanted to look at whether there was a regional difference in the distribution of TUNNICLIFF(E) compared to DUNNICLIFF(E). Was there one point of origin for this variant, and would it be apparent from mid-19th century records?

Tunnicliffe and Dunnicliffe - comparison of death registrations in England & Wales 1837-1851The Dunnicliff(e) variant was more concentrated in Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Perhaps this was where the variant originated? However, it does appear in the South East as well, perhaps from an earlier migration of a TUNNICLIFFE family where the spelling changed, or a DUNNICLIFFE family moving recently south.

Edward Tunnecliff’s great grandson George emigrated to New Zealand in 1857 and brought with him the TUNNECLIFF(E) variant, which has now unfortunately died out there. It currently only found in very small numbers in the United Kingdom and the United States4.

  1. Reaney, P.H, A Dictionary of British Surnames, 2nd edition, ed. Wilson, R.M. Routledge and Kegan Paul (London: 1983).
  2. Titford, John, Penguin Dictionary of British Surnames, Penguin Group (London: 2009).
  3. Hanks, Patrick & Hodges, Flavia, A Dictionary of Surnames, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2004).
  4. Public Profiler, World Family Names Profiler (www.worldnames.publicprofiler.org/ : accessed Sep 2014).
Series Navigation<< Edward George Tunnecliff ~ an ANZAC all the sameSt Mary & All Saints Church, Checkley, Staffordshire ~ Wordless Wednesday >>


At the going down of the sun and in the morning ~ Remembrance Sunday


St Mary & All Saints Church, Checkley, Staffordshire ~ Wordless Wednesday


  1. Daniel Tunnecliffe

    I find this very interesting. I happened to punch my last name into the web and found your study. I an about ready to retire from work and was thinking that I might try to work on a family tree.

    • Maggie

      Good luck, Daniel! It is a fascinating and addictive pasttime. Let me know how you get on with your Tunnecliffe research 🙂

  2. Michael Tunnecliffe

    Thanks for the great information. I’ve had members of our family here in Western Australia ask about our name. My grandfather, Isaac Robert Tunnecliffe, was born in Derbyshire, but his original name was “Tunnicliffe”. He was an ANZAC during WW1 and someone changed the spelling of his surname on his enlistment and discharge papers, so it stays with us. I’m researching our family history and your information has been of great value. – Michael Tunnecliffe

    • Maggie

      Thanks for your kind comment, Michael, and I’m glad my post has been of some help. Would be interesting to see if our families connected at some point! 🙂

  3. Michael Tunnecliffe

    Thanks Maggie,
    I’ve collected the information you have posted on-line and will factor this in with my research. Around 15 years ago, I was working in NZ conducting some crisis management training with the NZ Fire Service at most major cities around the country. While in Christchurch, I met the then Health & Safety Manager for Canterbury Region, Michael Tunnicliff. We had some great discussions about the origin and spread of our surname. I didn’t realise that outside of the UK, various versions of Tunnicliffe are probably most prevalent in NZ, in terms of the relative population size. Best Wishes, Michael Tunnecliffe.

  4. Tori

    I am a tunnicliffe living and born in new Zealand

    • Maggie

      Hi Tori – do you know where your Tunnicliffe family are from originally? – Maggie

  5. Timothy Tunnicliff

    Its cool to here about the tunnicliff family . I’m a tunnicliff as well.

  6. Diane

    Does your variant include Toneycliffe and or Tonacliffe? So far in my research (shamelessly taken from others hardwork) I have discovered Ellen Tunnicliffe could have been also related (most likely her father) to Hugh Toneycliffe from Ireland.

    • Sam Tunnicliffe

      My grandfather was Robert E Tunnicliffe. I am not 100% certain but after a little digging found that either his mother or grandmother was an Ellen Tunnicliffe… I just can’t remember which one and got lost and stuck in researching as I’d not done anything like that before ‍♂️
      Sam Tunnicliffe of Leicestershire.

    • Karen Toneycliffe

      We have a Hugh (or 2) in our family of Toneycliffe in New Zealand. A Hugh came out from Ireland, I believe, Roscommon.

  7. Joe Williams

    Thanks for sharing. I’m a Dunnicliff descendant (UK). One of my strongest DNA communities (tested with Ancestry) covers Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire/Staffordshire. My maternal grandmother was born a Dunnicliff in Nottingham.

  8. Samuel Marc Tunnicliffe

    Hi, really interesting stuff!
    I am Sam Tunnicliffe, 34yo, from Mountsorrel, Loughborough, Leicestershire, UK.
    Our surname is rare around here, though have heard it is still more common Stafford way. Strange to think there are more of us around there… People here often wonder where it’s from and see it as unusual. Gets frustrating sometimes telling them that it IS ENGLISH! I like to think, we are still here, relatively local from origins of England, and ‘proper’ English, as we are! 🙂

  9. Neil

    My connection is through my grandmother, born Alice TUNNICLIFF. She descended from Thomas Tunnicliff who emigrated to Nelson NZ with wife Hannah and children in 1842 on the Clifford.
    These Tunnicliffs have been traced back to Thomas de Tuniclif,, a yeoman living in 1549.
    Subsequent generations lived in Doveridge, then Ashbourne in Derbyshire.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Text & Images Copyright © 2011-2024 iwiKiwi

Adapted from a theme by Anders Norén