What does the name Wanless mean?

What does the name Wanless, Wandless, Wanlass, Wanlace, or Wanliss mean? Where is it found? How old is it?

According to Black’s patronymic dictionary, Surnames of Scotland, the name Wanless is “peculiar to Northumberland”. Reaney, in the Dictionary of British Surnames, says it means “hopeless” or “luckless”. Black responds with “the usual definitions offered for this name are, I think, improbable”. Another book suggested that it might be Norman (French) in origin. I’ve noticed several placenames that start with Wan in the Borders area (Roxburghshire, Scotland to Durham, England) — Wansbeck, Wandel, Wanlockhead, Wandon, and I wonder if the prefix Wan means anything?

The name has existed in various forms in the Borders (the border between northern England and southern Scotland) area since at least the 11th century. A Simon Wanles was a monk at Melrose Abbey in 1451, and the name Wanless is recorded somewhere in Northumberland in 1523. It is unclear whether the name should be considered Scottish or English, as early Wanlesses were found in large concentrations on both sides of the current southeastern Scottish border, and this area fluctuated between English and Scottish territory over the years. In my own research, I have found that prior to the mid-1800s (when people started to move around more), the greatest concentration, by far, of early Wanlesses occurs in southern Scotland and northern England, specifically in Northumberland and Durham.

From Adrian Beney: Wanless Terrace in Durham City, UK was built circa 1896 and is signposted Wanlass at the top and Wanless at the bottom. We think that Wanlass is the earlier spelling. The road off which it is built is now called Providence Row, but used to be Wanlass Lane. We are given to understand that in this context Wanlass means “a hill, but not a very steep one” which is a lie, because it is steep, and very icy in the winter! —Adrian P. Beney, 9 Wanless Terrace, Durham, UK

From Mary: On my last trip to Scotland, I picked up a book at an antique shop called “Scots Dialect Dictionary” & found several meanings for “Wan”.

    1) adj. used of water; black, gloomy.
    2) v. pret. dwelt. compared to Won, placed to dwell
    3) adj. not fully round or plump
    4) n. hope; a prospect of success; a liking for anything
    5) n. a direction, adv. in the direction of
    6) v pret. wound
    7) pref. a negative prefix corresponding to ‘un’ as in Wanless adj. hopeless

Family lore from one or two Wanlass families reported that the name meant “windlass” or “windmill”

From Marya Rose-Buckingham: Here are couple of tales from our family which are probably apocryphal. but interesting anyway:

  • There was once a ‘graham?’ chieftain who whenever he rode into battle, with each perosn he slayed he would yell ‘one less‘ and so he got the nickname of wan less!
  • The family were originally Dutch traders with Scotland and the Scots could not pronounce their name Van Leiss (or something like that) and so when they spoke the name it came out ‘wan leece’ which evolved into Wanless.

Two more possibilities as to the meaning of Wandless, from Michael John Wandless Remme:

  • There is a craft in England called the wandlace. This ancient craft involves using reeds, or wands, and lacing them together so as to make a light movable fence suitable for fencing off a garden. Wallace is a derivitive of wandlace i.e. wall maker.
  • Since Northumbria was settled by Vikings, and many areas maintain their ties to the Norse tongue, another possibility is the Norwegian word vandelaus, which means easy going, not difficult, simple; ie, an easy going, non contentious clan. That doesn’t describe many Wandlesses I know, but maybe it was descriptive many moons back! I have studied Norwegian and know that the Scandinavian languages are the closest European languages to English. As to Wandless meaning “luckless”, I doubt it. Wan is also a synonym for sad, or crestfallen. (sad and wan), so “wanless” would mean “free of sadness”, or “happy go lucky”. That ties in with the vandelaus theory.

More on the Norse front, from Alex Marshall:

A few years ago I recall seeing a church service on TV from the Orkney Islands. Centuries ago the islands were a Norwegian possession and the people who lived there spoke a dialect of Old Norse. The inhabitants of the islands still sing their hymns in Orcadian or Old Norse. I distinctly remember the words of one of the hymns coming up on screen and noticed the word “wanless” in there.

The Concise Scots Dictionary (via H. Russell Wanless) :wanlas etc; wanles etc. a circuit made to intercept game (n.hunting = wanlace).

A Topographical Dictionary of England: Volume 3; ANTIQUITIES.; Preface; page 191 (www.ancestry.com)

LYNESACK, a joint township with Softley, in that part of the parish of AUCKLAND ST. ANDREW which is in the north-western division of DARLINGTON ward, county palatine of DURHAM, 7 miles (S. by E.) from Wolsingham, containing, with Softley, 732 inhabitants. This township contains some extensive collieries: it is bounded on the south by the river Gaunless, or Wanless, and on the north by the Lin-Burn.

Here’s more about the Gaunless river, but Wanless is not mentioned here.

In religion, early Wanlesses tended to be Methodist or Presbyterian (which were called Dissenters and NonConformists in the late 1700s, meaning they dissented with the Anglican church). We’re just a bunch o’ rebels!

See a map of how the name Wanless was distributed throughout the US in 1990 (unfortunately other spellings were not provided).

How many different spellings are there?

The most common spellings used today: Wanless, Wanlass, Wandless, Wanliss, Wanlace, Wandlass

In 1999/2000, according to the UK Info Disk, there were listed in UK phone books:

  • 1001 people spelled Wanless (0.0016% of the population)
  • 292 people spelled Wandless
  • 25 people spelled Wanliss
  • 6 people spelled Wanlass
  • 2 people spelled Wandlass

As of Feb 2008, the US Social Security Death Benefit Index (an index of government benefits paid out when people die – not everybody who died in the US is in it, but most are) showed the following distribution of spellings, recorded in deaths since 1962, with a few deaths going back to 1937:

Wanless 340
Wanlass 75
Wandless 59
Wanlace 4
Wandlass 3
Wanles 3
Wanlas 1

Other variations found throughout the centuries: Wanlis, Wanles, Wandles, Wanlas, Wanlys, Wandlis, Wandlys, Wandlass, Wandliss, Wandelys, Wandlace, Wandlesce, Wanlesse, and even Oneless !

Often misspelled, misread, and mistranscribed as: Wanlefs, Wanlifs, Wandlefs, Wauless, Waulefs, Waulefe, Waness, Waulifs, Warless, Wardless, Warlis, sometimes misheard & written down as Wallace; misread as Vanless, Vandless, etc.

This confusion about the letter “f” appearing in our name is explained by the use of the “leading S” character, which looked like the letter “f” in old handwriting. However, the careful observer can tell the difference — here are some examples:

The letter “f ” : note that both loops are on the right side of the vertical bar.

“Leading S” alone and with trailing “s”: note that the lower loop is on the left side of the vertical bar


“Wanless” as it commonly looks with a leading “s” character