What's in a name?

What's in a name?

Denise Bates explores the trends and traditions of Victorian forenames

Denise Bates, historian, researcher and writer

Denise Bates

historian, researcher and writer


When registration of births, marriages and deaths became compulsory in Britain in 1837, any strait-laced men who were appointed to maintain the new registers may have had a shock. Although most parents opted for a traditional name such as Charlotte, Elizabeth, George and William, some had a less conventional approach to naming their offspring. Unusual choices were only a small proportion of names registered, but personal values and wider public opinion can be inferred from some of them.

Tribute names
Admiration, deference and hero worship are apparent in some cases and recent reports of a surge in popularity of both Jeremy and Corbyn is the latest example of a long-standing trend. As soon as Admiral Nelson’s naval victories turned him into a national hero at the end of the 18th century, children began to be named Horatio Nelson or Lord Nelson. When the Duke of Wellington finally defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815, his names Arthur and Wellesley were bestowed on youngsters as well as Wellington, the name of his dukedom. Waterloo, the field of the victory was also celebrated as a forename.

Military heroes and the battles they won are newsworthy at a certain point and the popularity of such names was often confined to a few years or even months, though an anniversary of a battle, or the death of a hero may have sparked a brief resurgence, which can give clues to an ancestor’s probable age.

Although many tribute names are strongly associated with a specific time, a few people enjoyed decades of popularity, across social class divides. From 1855 until well into the 20th century, Florence Nightingale [Surname] was registered more than 500 times, reflecting the enduring reputation of the pioneering nurse. Florence was not a well-used name in 1820, when Nightingale’s parents called her after the Italian city where they were living. The previous year, her elder sister, Frances Parthenhope Nightingale, was named after her mother and the part of Naples where she had been born.

One of the most admired men of the 19th century was the four-times prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Between 1861-1910, almost 5000 boys were registered William Ewart [Surname], Ewart Gladstone [Surname] and Gladstone [Surname]. In addition to those who used one of Gladstone’s names for their child’s first name, plenty more used it as second or subsequent forename instead, so the extent of tribute-naming was much higher than these figures.

Parents flocked to name a child after Charles Dickens and some of his characters
Parents flocked to name a child after Charles Dickens and some of his characters

Parents who were lucky enough to share the surname of their hero or heroine took advantage of it. Several Dickens families called a son Charles. Literary characters also found favour. Coal miner Richard Holmes and his wife, Martha, named their eldest son Sherlock and the next Mycroft after the fictional detective and his brother. To have been so aware of Mycroft suggests that this couple were avid readers and great fans of Conan Doyle’s work, because Mycroft was a very minor character who really came to prominence in 20th century adaptations of the stories.

In the 1940s, the names Scarlett and Amber increased their popularity after they were used for the feisty heroines of the best-selling novels Gone With the Wind and Forever Amber .

Plenty of children were names after battle sites or commanders in the Boer War
Plenty of children were names after battle sites or commanders in the Boer War

Patriotic fervour
From Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, many parts of Britain were gripped by an increasingly fervent nationalism that peaked in the Boer War at the dawn of the 20th century. A decade later, the country became embroiled in a more serious conflict, the First World War. These events were reflected in contemporary forenames. Early examples relate to the Queen’s Jubilees when Victoria, Diamond, Jubilee and Royal were well used, either singly or in combination. The names of other members of the Royal family soared in popularity and their titles were also used as forenames. Princess May (who became Queen Mary) was especially popular.

In South Africa, the Boer War erupted in 1899 and sparked a crop of conflict-related names. The surnames of key military commanders, Kitchener, Roberts, Baden Powell and Redvers Buller were widely used across the country. The sites of sieges and battles were also bestowed on babies and include Ladysmith, Mafeking, Pretoria and Tugela. While some parents combined the conflict name with a traditional one, very patriotic parents used two, three or even more, or combined war names with royal ones.

During the First World War, the incidence of war names was less obvious, because there were many smaller fields of conflict rather than a few large ones and the tendency to use a commander’s name had declined. An unusual change occurred with the girl’s name Lily, which changed its spelling to Lille, an important military site. It reverted back to the standard form in the 1920s. In the Second World War the fashion for naming a child after a leader in the conflict had abated, possibly because the inter-war years had seen ordinary people become more questioning of authority. The name Winston gained popularity between 1940-5, but the use of Winston Churchill was very muted.

Regional names
While many titles of royalty, the peerage, the baronetage and the clergy were used across the country as forenames, Lord, Sir and Squire, were strongly associated with the West Riding of Yorkshire and East Lancashire. Several other names also had a local identity. Christmas was regularly used in Wales and East Anglia. It may be that where the name was used in other parts of the country, the family had migrated there. Place names including Cornwall, Leicester and Wiltshire were used for births in different parts of the country, suggesting migration and nostalgia for roots.

Gendering of names
When a tribute name was used the child was often the same gender as the person whose name was used. When the name was of a place or event, a few rules of thumb seem to have applied but there were many exceptions. Names which sound masculine tend to have been given to a boy. There are plenty of British girl’s names which end in the letter ‘a’ and this practice seems to have been adopted. Pretoria and Alma were much more likely to have been female than male. Parents who wanted to commemorate a man in their daughter’s name, may have chosen a feminised form. Lord Roberts could be commemorated by Roberta and Prince Albert by Alberta.

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The child’s view
An unusual name could be a curse or blessing and how a child fared was an individual response, which would have depended on their personality and the wider use of the name in the place where they lived. Names from the Boer War and World War One would have raised few eyebrows with contemporaries, but perhaps provoked questions from curious grandchildren who were unfamiliar with the conflicts.

Some names may have been embarrassing and a child could have become a target for teasing or worse, especially when education became compulsory and class registers were called out each day. It is noticeable that on Merseyside the use of names relating to the Boer War was muted and the conflict name tended to be the second one. At this time, Irish nationalists and the British government were involved in a struggle about how Ireland should be ruled. In a city such as Liverpool, which had a substantial Irish population, it may have been prudent not to show public approval for the British army.

Some people dropped their unusual first name in favour of something more mundane and titles appear especially problematic. Even though some children may have emigrated, there seem to more titles in birth registers than can be accounted for in later records. Even when a person can be traced, the title may only have been used for official purposes such as marriage, or registering the person’s death. Parents too may have had a change of heart, as a child with an unusual name on one census can have an ordinary one ten years later.

Interestingly, death records for the 19th century suggest that there were more people with unusual or tribute names than would be expected from baptism records. It may be that parish priests refused to condone this type of naming and steered parents towards something more traditional if the child was baptised.

Some people clearly revelled in their unusual name and passed it on to the next generation. Orange Lemon found favour in a couple of families. Orange was used until the early 20th century, for both daughters and sons, particularly in the South of England. It is unclear whether the name was linked to orchard areas or whether it denoted support for William of Orange and the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when the catholic King James II, was deposed by his protestant Dutch son-in-law. As the use of Apple and other fruits was much more muted, it seems likely that its use was sometimes a political statement.

Named after the Italian city where she was born, Florence Nightingale’s name was regularly given to girls for over half a century
Named after the Italian city where she was born, Florence Nightingale’s name was regularly given to girls for over half a century

Negative vibes
Occasionally parents opted to cock a snook at the established order rather than to identify with it. Guy Fawkes, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte and the South African Boer leader Paul Kruger all feature in 19th century birth records. There were fewer subversive names for girls, but the respectable middle-classes probably winced at the popularity of Vesta towards the end of the 19th century, in homage to music hall idols Vesta Victoria and Vesta Tilley.

Sometimes a negative association led to a decline in a forename. Emmeline was falling in popularity before the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst sprang to notoriety, but this accelerated from the time she began to campaign actively for votes for women. Woodbine, an alternative name for honeysuckle, soon fell out of favour after a brand of cigarettes was launched in 1888.

Conclusion
Forenames are often overlooked while doing the family tree, especially if the person is not a direct ancestor. Unusual names may contain pointers to detail that has not been recorded elsewhere, such as parental character, family origins or to something that left a decisive impression. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; but it might not hold as much promise.

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