Why family history is so difficult (4)

Continuing my exploration of first name frequency.  This sequence started here.top 10 names f linetop 10 names m line

The most dramatic change was the decline in dominance of the traditional top ten names, especially among females where the top ten names dropped from 68% in 1860-1879 to just 35% in 1900-1919. In males the comparable figures were 71% and 55%, though in Galbi’s sample it was below 50% and as low as 35% by 1925.

So what was behind these changes?

Galbi tells us that the frequency of the top names fluctuated between 1300 and 1800, but there was no overall trend. In my own family tree of Dennis or Dennies ancestors analysis of children born 1600 – 1799 indicates relative stability.

Galbi wrote:
Dramatic increases in name personalization were occurring by the mid-nineteenth century, before radio, and television, and large newspaper companies. In contrast, the popularity of the top name, the popularity of the top ten names, and social information all changed little in the first half of the twentieth century, a period in which the newspaper and magazine business grew significantly in scale and scope.

My own sample of Andrew’s Kindred does not allow meaningful comparison, but this seems to fit.

In the online version it is not suggested by Galbi that a reason for name diversification in families is that they simply grew bigger during the English Industrial Revolution. I suggest three dynamics are pertinent: decreasing infant mortality; proximity; and death in the workplace.

In the reign of (say) Henry VIII the overwhelming majority of people in England lived in small, rural communities, did not travel far and met few outsiders. They used names to honour their kin or perhaps the monarch, or some other famous person, but generally stuck to traditional names. Indeed, there was little need for a broader range of names – why mend what is not broken? Nonetheless, even in these places, rarer names existed, for example Biblical names like Isaac, Job, Esther and Hannah. A kind of inertia, which Galbi identified, meant that some of these names were only used by Andrew’s Kindred when the traditional ones had been used up. Brief analysis of other census data indicates other families were the same. Changes occasionally happened after marriage when different traditions combined, so, in addition to the usual male names of William, John and Thomas, Mary, Sarah and Elizabeth, names such as George and Dorothy gained a foothold.

However, as the Industrial Revolution progressed people gravitated towards larger towns and cities and mixed with people with a wider range of minority names. In my home town of Brownhills in 1881, for example, the top names were still John, William and Thomas, Mary, Sarah and Elizabeth, but there were 90 male and 105 female names, ranging from Aaron to Zachariah and Ada to Winifred. The great majority of these minority names were represented by fewer than four individuals and many by just one.

But the key change as the nineteenth century wore on was that fewer infants died. This meant that families became larger and more names were needed. Families of ten, twelve or even more children became commonplace. The few old, traditional names of grandparents, aunts and uncles, were no longer enough and people adopted names from neighbours and friends. Some, doubtless, came from what we would call celebrity, for example Florence, after Florence Nightingale, but it only needed one new name to start a trend. A child named Florence would grow up to have her own daughters and nieces and some of them would be named Florence, too. And so would granddaughters and grand nieces.

A third, tragic trend was that industrial “accidents” cut short the lives of John, Thomas, and William, so that there was sometimes no uncle John or grandfather William to honour at baptism, but there was an increasing range of names such as Arthur, Francis, Jesse and Samuel, or Florence, Edith, Clara and Ellen (though the last had some tradition from 1832 and Eleanor from the early eighteenth century (perhaps back to Queen Eleanor in whose honour the Eleanor Crosses were erected).

Oddly, in 2015 the top ten boys’ names still included Jack, Harry, Thomas and William, (Henry, Joseph and Samuel occupied places 15, 19 and 21 respectively) though of the traditional top four girls’ names only Sarah at 95 (and Sara 96) was in the top one hundred (Independent, 25 Aug 2015).

One consequence of this dominance of a few repeated first names means that, even for people tracing relatively uncommon family names, it becomes more difficult to distinguish between families, in other words, to identify which set of parents is relevant to a baptism in (say) 1815, which may be too early for the censuses to help with relationships. This is what confronted me when I found the baptism of Henry Dennies on 8 January 1815 at the parish church of Measham, Derbyshire. His parents’ names were William Dennies and Elizabeth, but there was no mention of Elizabeth’s maiden name, which was not unusual for the time. All the more confusing was the discovery that there seemed to be twenty seven Dennies children whose mother was Elizabeth and who were baptised or born in about the right time and place to be Henry’s siblings.

AK mf 1900-1919

To round this off these pie charts show how dramatically the top names in Andrew’s Kindred had changed by the early part of the twentieth century. Among males the top two names were still William and John, but these only amounted to 20% of males. In females the change was much more dramatic, with Mary and Elizabeth outside the top ten and the top three names being Florence, Edith and Lilian, though these made up only 18%. 55% had names outside the top ten.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s