Why family history is so difficult

Every English family historian must have encountered the problem that so many of their ancestors had the same repetitive set of first, given or personal names. I will use the term “first names” for all of these.


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In my own family tree a small number of first names predominate through the generations. On the male side John, Thomas and William were the top three names between 1600 and 1899; and on the female side the top three names always included Mary, Sarah, Elizabeth and Ann (or Anne or Annie).

I wondered if this was to do with my ancestors’ families sticking to traditional names and whether this was different from the general population. I also wondered if the pattern changed over time. I had done some research into the 1861 census about the Brownhills area and found that the top three male and female names were the same as my Dennis or Dennies ancestors, though in a different order and not quite in the same proportion, but this could be down to sample size or just family preference. It was nonetheless intriguing.

The first thing I did was to examine the 1841 census for some of the places my ancestors inhabited: Lawley Bank, a part of Wellington, Shropshire, and Moira and Bagworth in north west Leicestershire. Remarkably, the pattern was the same.

I then searched the internet to see if there was any published research that would suggest my family was just the same as most other families or whether my pedigree was unique, or at least unusual. I also wondered whether mining communities might differ from the rest.

The only papers I found were by an American academic named Douglas A Galbi (see http://www.galbithink.org/names.htm). His work indicated that the same pattern existed across all parts of the UK, though the information apparently used to support his thesis was from England. This was fortunate for me because my ancestors were, with very few exceptions, English.

Galbi based his research around a number of English places, though, in the online version, these are not specified after 1825. No matter. What he found was that over the period from just after the Norman conquest (1080) up to 1994 the predominance of the top few names declined and this is what happened among my ancestors, too. Galbi suggests that the effect of “name sharing”, that is naming children after parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts or other relatives, creates a degree of inertia in the introduction of “new” names into the family. This seems entirely logical and it is inconceivable that dispute would be fruitful.

Galbi, quite sensibly, analysed his data set by enumerating the top (most frequent) name for both males and females, the top three and top ten names and the percentage of each of those in the population. I did the same, to aid comparison, and arrived at very similar results. The statistics about the most frequent first names are therefore not disputed.

Splitting all 2,579 (at the time of analysis) of Andrew’s Kindred into time periods to match Galbi’s twenty year intervals as closely as possible reveals the same profile of decline in the top, top three and top ten names as a proportion of the population.

It is important to bear in mind that my sample of just 659 Dennis or Dennies names is relatively small, but both this and the area samples, though sometimes even smaller, give the same results, as do the samples from Brownhills, which are considerably larger – 1861 is based on just over 2,000 and 1881 on over 4,300 people. Galbi points out that sample size appears to make no significant difference to the general pattern of first name frequency. Nonetheless, my Brown, Carter and Evans ancestors separately include other top three names: Richard, Joseph and Edward; Hannah, Martha and Jane, though these samples may really be too small for this to be significant (the largest was 70 male Brown).

Next: Is he right?

7 thoughts on “Why family history is so difficult

  1. Britain has never had the kind of prescriptive law that they have in Denmark, defining what first names are acceptable, but there has always been a degree of conservatism as you describe, and the earlier 19th century was possibly the ‘worst’ period for this. The English working class was being pounded on the anvil of ‘progress’ so there is little wonder that (whether in industrial terraces or the Prairies of the West) they clung tightly to all the tatters that they had left of their former lives – the names of their grandparents and other kinsfolk. It wasn’t always family tradition that constrained the range of names of course: I look forward to reading your ongoing analysis about this!
    You should also put on your reading list Stephen Wilson, The Means of Naming (UCL, 1998)


    1. Thanks, Peter.

      I will follow up your suggestion. I’m a bit pressed for time so not sure how long it will take – I have a draft, but it needs editing. I began writing a piece about my great great grandfather, Henry, who was baptised in 1815. Part of this was speculation as to the conversation about naming him, perhaps after his uncle Henry or grandfather. As a strong Wesleyan, his father might have preferred something more obviously Bible-related, such as older brother James or Samuel, which turned out be my grandfather’s name, but was maybe put in his place by the women folk. Uncle Henry was a butcher and may have done them a few favours from under the counter.



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