Who Do You Think You Are?
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Understanding your ancestors’ baby name choices may help you to uncover new family connections, says Ed Dutton
Choosing a baby’s name has been taken very seriously by parents for thousands of years and their decision would have been influenced by custom, family ties and the fashions of the time. Understanding naming traditions can help family historians make connections and uncover vital clues.
Names can even give you clues to time of birth (Easter, Christmas) and, perhaps, your ancestor’s sense of humour. In March 1659, at St Mary’s in Reading, Nicholas and Elizabeth Day decided to have their child baptised Christmas. Some children were named after their place of birth: for example, Florence Nightingale was so named because she was born in Florence.
Families often used names to honour particular members, so you can trace the name’s family history. I was named Edward because it’s my father’s middle name, but he was given that name in honour of his great uncle Ted (1885-1961), an engineer who paid for my grandfather’s education. Ted, in turn, inherited the name from his uncle, Edward Dutton (1846-1873), an oil importer who died of typhoid in Old Calabar, now Nigeria. And it’s possible that this Edward was named after his own great uncle, Marylebone cheesemonger, Edward Dutton (1766-1791). However, the practice of naming the eldest boy and girl after their parents did not become predominant until between 1590 and 1620. Prior to that, children were often named after – indeed named by – a godparent.
To my perpetual irritation, my middle name is my mother’s maiden name, meaning I’ve always had to explain it to people. It was romantically given to me because my grandfather didn’t have any sons or brothers. Giving a child the mother’s surname as a middle name was not uncommon, especially among the 19th century gentry. On my own tree, my 3x great grandmother Anne Dutton née Birch (1817-1909) gave the middle name Birch to two of her nine children.
At least ten US presidents have their mother’s maiden name as a middle name including Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Bush (senior). Sometimes, double-barrelled surnames evolved from this practice. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the mothers of illegitimate children (especially if the father would not acknowledge the child) would give them the father’s full name and then their own surname. So, if a 19th century shepherd has a surname for a middle name he is likely a love-child.
Upper class names
In sociology, the Trickle Effect refers to the process whereby fashions are innovated by the upper class, and imitated by those below, until they ‘trickle down’ to the lowest rung on the social ladder. In the meantime, the upper class have abandoned this particular fashion and adopted a new one.
At the start of the 18th century, the upper class started using Latin names, such as Horatio, and Latinising English names; Joan became Joanna, Maude became
Giving a child the mother’s maiden name as a middle name was not uncommon
Matilda and Anne became Anna. These names trickled down the hierarchy, meaning the strength of their class association varies across time. At the same time, the upper class began using French girls’ names, often those which are feminine versions of boy’s names: Jacqueline, Charlotte, Christine. Again, these names trickle downwards.
Middle names can be a good indicator of social class, helping you to work out whether you’ve found the right person. They were almost unheard of until the late-18th century. On the 1911 census, only about 30 per cent of Brits had a middle name, but by 2013 this had increased to 80 per cent. However, on the 1911 census middle names were more common among the better off. Indeed, the practice may have been popularised by the Hanoverians – the German royal dynasty which ruled Britain from 1714-1832. George I (1660-1727) was our first king to have a middle name, while George V (1865-1936) was the first to have multiple middle names; a practice still associated with the upper classes.
Hyphens are a class issue too. In 1616, the Earl and Countess of Exeter named their daughter Georgi-Anna, a name which likely evolved into Georgina. There were isolated cases of ‘composite names’ among the upper classes prior to the 19th century. By the late 19th century, commentators noted that the working class had a habit of using composite names, especially SarahJane. Certain naming habits also began with the working class: spelling names in non-standard ways (for example, Gordern) and using nicknames as official names, especially with boys ( Harry, Jack, Danny).
The most popular names were fairly static until about 1900. In 1700, and in 1850, the top ten included William, John, and Thomas and Mary, Anne, and Elizabeth. But fashions waxed and waned according to what famous people named their children, what novels were being read at the time, and who was in the news.
Alice spiked in popularity from 1843 when Queen Victoria gave that name to her daughter. Sir Walter Scott’s novels inspired the rise of Waverley and Flora. Quite a few names were simply coined by writers such as Pamela ( Sir Philip Sidney), Shirley ( Charlotte Brontë), Ida ( Tennyson), Sidney (Dickens) and Wendy ( JM Barrie’s Peter Pan).
New names would often be inspired by the surnames of famous figures. Clive developed in honour of Sir Robert Clive (1725-1774) who established British control over India. Gordon only became a first name in 1885, in honour of General Gordon of Khartoum.
New cultural movements, such as Romanticism, also influenced the nation’s baby names. The second half of the 19th century witnessed a bloom in the popularity of flower
and tree names for girls (although Rose and Violet were known even in the Middle Ages). However, across the 18th century, flower names (Lily, for example) start to appear more regularly as do jewel names like Beryl. Rose, perhaps due to the Romantic Movement and its worship of nature, was revived in the 19th century. It became extremely fashionable and it was the seed for a massive blossoming of flora-related names, epitomised in the four sisters in Keeping Up
Appearances: Hyacinth, Violet, Daisy, and, of course, Rose.
The late 19th century witnessed the revival of Old English and Celtic names, both of which had become very rare. Alfred had survived as Alvery, but was dying out. Celtic names, such as Winifred, had survived in Wales and the Marches, but were also very scarce. The Romantic Movement changed all this. Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites were mesmerised by a romantic vision of Celtic and Saxon England, which was seen as uncorrupted and more natural. Names such as Edmund and Ethel were back in vogue. At the same time, the Oxford Movement inspired the upper classes to convert to Catholicism, as somehow more spiritually authentic and aesthetically profound. Obscure saints’ names such as Benedict and Bernard were duly revived.
Names were often used to commemorate significant events, which can help to date someone’s birth and may imply family involvement in the event. If we include middle names as well as first names, 35 Lusitanias – such as poor little Lusitania Wiggins of Wetherby in Yorkshire (1915-1917) – were born in 1915. That year also saw 248 Ypres, 574 Mons, 158 Loos, 119 Arrases and 2,231 Verduns.
People who became especially prominent in a particular year would also be commemorated. Thus, 1805 witnessed many boys being christened Horatio Nelson and even Horatio Trafalgar. In 1885, a Hartlepool lad was named Gordon Khartoum Gilchrist, in honour of the national hero who had been slain in January that year, General Gordon of Khartoum. Poignantly, Gordon Gilchrist also died for his country, at the Battle of the Somme.
Religion and politics
Baby names can also give an insight into your ancestors’ beliefs and values. My father’s side were the stereotypical Victorian evangelicals and this is most obviously reflected in the naming of my great great grandfather, George Herbert Dutton (1853-1931). He was named after the metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633), known for his devotional verse. Names can be a useful way of working out what kind of religious and even political views your ancestors had.
In the 17th century, Catholics and conservatives continued to use the saintly and New Testament names which they always had: Thomas, George, John, William, Mary,
The late 19th century also witnessed the revival of Old English and Celtic names
Margaret, Elizabeth. Puritans, however, began to distinguish themselves by rejecting saints’ names and using Old Testament and previously uncommon New Testament ones: Samuel, Joseph, Martha, Ruth. Puritans also began naming girls after virtues: Constance, Mercy, Grace. In Sussex and Kent, during the 1590s, they even named children with Biblical quotes. In 1591, in Salehurst in Sussex, a boy was christened Safe on High Hodgkinson. Even so, in 1700, 90 per cent of boys and 80 per cent of girls still had more traditional English names.
Political affiliation was also expressed through names. Throughout the 18th century, we meet children with the name Sobieski, such as Sobieski Fowler who was born in Bethnal Green in 1794. Maria Sobieska (1702 -1735) was the wife of James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), the ‘Old Pretender,’ son of the deposed Catholic King James II. So the parents who used this name were likely to be ‘Jacobites’. They believed that the Old Pretender, and his Catholic successors, should be king. In the 1860s, when their namesake became Liberal leader and then Prime Minister, we start to see children christened with the middle name Gladstone. These include William Ewart Gladstone Slater who was born in 1868 in Blackburn. One assumes his parents wouldn’t have got on well with those of George Disraeli Barnes who was born in Blackburn ten years later!
By the mid-19th century, the use of certain saints’ names had become associated with Irish immigrants, and this was particularly the case with Patrick and Bridget. Names of Irish origin – such as Eileen and Kevin – began to spread throughout England from about 1925 onwards.
If you find them much earlier, it may imply Irish/ Catholic ancestry. My Granny Ivy (1911-1990) had the middle name Eileen and – Surprise! Surprise! – her grandmother was born in Dublin.
The 19th century also saw the rise of Jewish names, as Jewish immigrants increasingly came to London. Strongly Jewish names include Reuben, Isaac, Seth, Alma, and Shira. In some cases, these names were also adopted by gentiles. Likewise, London saw more and more gypsy names appear as gypsies migrated from the countryside. These can be tentatively identified, with boys, by very unusual Biblical or simply Roman-origin names such as Hezekiah, Noah, and Neptune. Gypsy girl names included Cinderella, Urania and Anselina. Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asked: “What’s in a name?” She was convinced that the answer was very little. But she wasn’t a genealogist! In the world of genealogy, a great deal may be revealed by a name: year of birth, social class, age, and maybe a vital clue to uncovering more of your family history.