I doubt we'll ever know for sure where and how the GANDER surname originated in Britain where surnames gradually came into general use about the 14th century - although some surnames are known to exist before this. Early theories I traced suggested that GANDER derives from the bird, perhaps originally as a nickname or occupational surname. This can be discounted ( - although yes, I AM using cartoons of the very bird on these pages!) as in Britain not only is GANDER an English rather than just a British name, it is predominately peculiar to the County of Sussex.
in 1984 - a third of the listed GANDERs in England - could be located in the area of Brighton, Sussex When I searched through all the British telephone directories back in 1984 I was surprised to find that a third of the total of listed GANDERs in Britain - not just England - could be located in just one telephone directory: that for the area of Brighton, Sussex. If GANDER derived from a nickname or occupation to do with the bird, it would be reasonable to expect the name to have been more evenly or possibly more widely spread but this just isn't so.
Incidentally, the number of GANDER telephone subscribers in Britain in 1984 was 448 which led me to estimate the number of GANDERs at the time living in Britain was around 1,800. [I've since lost the formula I used to produce this figure]. I don't think I was far wrong - the Electoral Rolls for 2002 (these are adults of 18 years and upwards only of course) came up with 1,200 GANDER and 29 GANDAR entries - see the distribution map for that year.
A kind and helpful GANDER researcher in my early years was the late Edmund GANDER from Keynsham near Bristol who theorized GANDER is Saxon in origin. Edmund pointed out that by and large the areas invaded by the Saxons in the years following AD477 correlate with the 19th century Registration Districts for Births, Marriages & Deaths where the vast proportion of GANDERs were, and still are, to be found. Even today that most Saxon of counties, Sussex (ie the 'Kingdom of the South Saxons') still has the highest proportion of all GANDER registrations in England; Middlesex ('the Middle Saxons') and Surrey are the next largest groups. There are also sizeable groupings of GANDERs in Dorset (part of Wessex - 'the West Saxons').
One flaw in this theory is the absence of GANDERs in the parish registers of Essex ('the East Saxons') from their commencement in the middle of the 16th Century. Essex GANDERs are also few and far between in the General Registrars' Indexes of Birth, Marriage and Deaths for England and Wales (started 1837). One also asks how, if Saxon in origin, did the name survive for the 900 years up to the 14th century when surnames came into popular use? One possible answer to this might be that tenants of a medieval estate may have taken the name of a geographical feature or location close to their home, which in turn may have been named after, or perhaps once the property of, a prominent Saxon GANDER - or a name which GANDER derives from. This can only be pure speculation, many old names of places, fields, copses, etc have long disappeared from localities and cannot now be traced.
Occasionally GANDERS have been found and a distinct line of GANDARs can be traced, although in another line both GANDER and GANDAR spellings are used and in all probability GANDAR is a derivation. There are also less GANDARs than GANDERs. GANDERTONs appear to be quite separate, more common than GANDER and to have origins in Worcestershire. Some GANDERSONs can be found and the 'SON' part suggests this could be a name of Scandinavian origin but it is not something I've pursued. No research is known of the occasional GENDER or GINDER although have noticed more of the former in the north of England and the latter in Kent. GANDELL doesn't seem to be linked to GANDER. GANDE is found occasionally and is probably a misspelling of GANDY, again with no links to GANDER.
In May 2009 I was contacted by some GAUDER researchers and was pleasantly surprised to find their Birmingham and Wigan GAUDERs had indeed originally derived from a Sussex GANDER one. (It must have been a conscious decision on someone's part as the surname is 'gorder'.)
If one accepts that GANDER derives from other spellings in Old English then the earliest record is in 1275, for GANDRE in Suffolk. This theory doesn't match up with the predominance of GANDERs in Sussex however, not to mention the rarity of GANDER records in East Anglia, The earliest record of a GANDER I've found to date is in the Letter Books of London in 1327 which refers to a William GANDER, one 'of the mistery of Pursers' (Pouchmakers) who made representations to the Mayor about purses they'd found being sold that were made by non-Pursers. This William GANDER is also listed at other times as GAUDER or GANDRE. Indeed the GANDERs of Sussex and the smaller group of GANDERs of the London area may well turn out to be of different origins - I have an open mind on this.
If GANDER in Britain does have Saxon, and therefore Germanic, origins this would at least tie in with the other large grouping of GANDERs from Europe; those who originate from the Alpine areas of Europe - Switzerland & Austria. This is not an area of research I've pursued myself - it's been covered very extensively by Charles Harrison GANDER ('Chuck') of Arlington, Virginia, in his 1987 labour of love: The History and Genealogy of the GANDER Families.
This book was published by Gateway Press Inc. of Baltimore after some 20 years of research by Chuck. The book extensively details many GANDER families in the USA and traces their lines back to their Alpine origins. I was able to contribute some data on British GANDERs and supply a couple of GANDER family trees from London - my own and the other large unrelated GANDER family tree I knew of, that of the above Edmund GANDER. However, I was only just starting to get into my stride at the time and the book doesn't contain any linked GANDER family trees from Sussex. I have details now of about six very large GANDER trees from that county, with many smaller branches I hope to link in one day.
Briefly, quoting from Chuck's research:
GANDER - derives from the old high German word gand which denotes a slope strewn with rocks that could range in size from pebbles to large boulders. The suffix '-er' in a German geographic surname refers to a resident who is from, at or near the .... feature.
Chuck's book sold out long ago. Even the second edition printed in 2003 has now sold out. Copies will be at the standard reference libraries in the USA and a copy was also lodged with the Society of Genealogists in London. You can also read more about its contents.
Anyway, if you have GANDER origins, particularly British ones, I would be happy to hear from you - it could be we can help each other.