English naming traditions

First of all, wherever you are in the world, I hope that you, your family and friends are well.

All that thinking about Irish, and possibly Scottish, naming traditions in my last post made we wonder if a similar tradition existed in England.  It turned out it did.  In fact it was exactly the same.

To recap:
1st son named after paternal grandfather (patGF)
2nd son named after maternal grandfather (matGF)
3rd son named after father (F)
4th son named after father’s eldest brother (patB)
5th son named after mother’s eldest brother (matB)

1st daughter named after maternal grandmother (matGM)
2nd daughter named after paternal grandmother (patGM)
3rd daughter named after mother (M)
4th daughter named after mother’s eldest sister (matS)
5th daughter named after father’s eldest sister (patS)

However, there were other traditions too, that might have varied the above rules:

  • Babies may have been named after powerful people, e.g. royalty, and these names were likely to have become fashionable, perhaps particularly in London and other fine towns and cities. Naming a child after a local wealthy landowner was also common.  Perhaps this was more likely in rural areas.
  • In addition to the grandparents, parents, and their eldest siblings, babies might have been named after another significant family member. In my last post there’s the example of Annabella, named for her great grandmother who had recently died.
  • In those days of high infant mortality, babies were often named after earlier siblings who had died in infancy. This often comes as a shock to beginner genealogists. Again, in my Irish family (see last post) there’s an example of this.  As late as 1888, Patrick’s second son John was named not only for his paternal grandfather but also to honour the memory of the first-born son.  Below, William and Jane lost seven of their children in infancy, among them three Thomases and two Edwins.
  • Biblical names were popular amongst Nonconformists, particularly for people belonging to a dissenting protestant church or meeting house. In my own dissenting lines I have Nathaniel, Benjamin, Isaac and Abraham, but in wider research I’ve come across Jonah, Zedekiah and Zillah.

Perhaps some of these variations on the regular traditional naming pattern were more likely in 18th or 19th century England than in Ireland.  My very small-scale study, outlined below, is nowhere near enough to be able to say whether this is so, but it’s a possibility.

As for my last post I’ve looked at several families, this time in my English lines.  The respective parents married in 1775, 1790, 1821, 1848 and 1886, and they are from three different lines of my ancestry.  I appreciate that the detail is of no interest whatsoever to anyone else, so I’ve put the tables showing my findings right at the end of this post.  All you need to notice is the peach highlights I’ve used to indicate adherence to the tradition.

Every single one of the tables shows adherence at some level to the same traditional naming pattern that existed in Ireland.  William and Jane (m.1848) are textbook examples; and even in 1886 George and Rose honoured most of the main family members alongside a couple of fashionable names.  Scanning other families in my tree, I see the tradition not in every case, but certainly generally used throughout.  I’ve even drawn upon it in my research, comparing names of an ancestor’s siblings and their own children.  I just never picked up the full extent of the pattern.  It was there all along though, hiding in full sight.

So this naming tradition, involving passing the same names down by all siblings to their own children, can be a good thing and a bad thing for us as genealogists.  Bad, in that if John and Mary have twelve children, there are potentially twelve first- or second-born grandsons called John and twelve first- or second-born granddaughters called Mary: all of them cousins for you to wade through when looking for your particular ancestor, John or Mary…

But there are benefits too:
Naming patterns can in fact help you to identify which John and which Mary is yours.  If we look wider at siblings’ names, and take into consideration the names of both spouses’ parents, we can separate out the distinct lines.  I talked about this in a previous post about Evidence – look at Case Study 1: Who are Joseph’s parents.  It can require a lot of concentration to do this, but you can achieve astonishing breakthroughs.

Varying from the standard rules to incorporate one of the other traditions might give us a little more info about our ancestors and what was important to them – could the name George or Victoria at a certain time be important because our ancestor was a royalist, or because of the appeal of a fashionable name, for example?

Can the passing on of the name of a family member that doesn’t really fit into the traditional pattern suggest the importance of a bond with an older family member, like a dear uncle, or in my Irish example, honouring father George’s great grandmother, Annabella.  In fact George is an interesting example for another reason: the grandparents’ names he passes on to his children are not his birth parents but those of the man and woman who brought him up.  I strongly suspect the reason George and his wife Bridget chose to honour both of his parents before hers was to show George’s gratitude.

Obviously, finding biblical names can be a huge clue that the family were dissenters – a fact that would impact on many areas of a person’s life and opportunities, and was not just about their religious beliefs.

And finally, naming patterns can be used in conjunction with DNA matching to identify families with likely connections.  This is particularly useful for ancestral lines where records are scarce (e.g. Irish and Jewish ancestry).  There is an example of this in my last post.  DNA matching proves only that another living individual and you have a common ancestor.  You have to work out where that match is for yourself.  Using naming patterns along with geographical locations to identify similarities can point to where that connection is, even if records have not yet come to light and possibly never will.

I hope there is something amongst all of this and my last post that will give you some ideas for using naming traditions to progress your research.  It would be great to read about any breakthroughs based on this in the comments.

*****

Here are the tables created while analysing application of the above rules in just five of my ancestral families.  The apricot highlights indicate that the rules were followed as expected.  Where the order of two consecutive expected names is reversed I’ve considered that as complying.

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children

Tables analysing use of traditional English naming pattern in naming of children

 

2 thoughts on “English naming traditions

  1. Then there are the mavericks! My Mam was one such. She from the age of 14 years, had brought up her siblings when her mother died and her father worked at sea. I think this weakened family traditions. Anyway, she named her sons, and insisted that their first names should be non-family names, although their secondary names were family ones. My father, a traditionalist, named his daughter for her mother and both grandmothers.

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  2. Yes, that’s a story in itself isn’t it – the reason for the decision NOT to use traditional names. Although by the time your mother was naming children these traditions outlined above would have died away. My dad has the same slightly unusual name as one of his great uncles, but whether that was a way of honouring the uncle or whether it was just that his parents liked the name I couldn’t say.

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