Y the fuss about surnames?


One of the first questions I ask before embarking on a genealogy project is how wide it is to be: does my client want to know about all their ancestors, or only those that share their surname? Some might be curious about their female line; it is after all the source of Mitochondrial DNA and the only way that Richard III could be genetically identified. But interest is often skewed towards the patriline because that’s where surnames come from in many cultures. Bryan Sykes of Oxford Ancestors demonstrated a strong correlation between surnames and the y chromosome a couple of decades ago, further entrenching the traditional bias. I have traced a couple of families from Wales, and have to admit being relieved and excited on reaching the threshold of established surnames only about 200 years ago in Anglesey. In most parts of England, you would need to go back at least 600 years to stub your toe on that threshold, and all family historians know how likely that would be, don’t they?

Truthfully, I am often more interested in Christian names than surnames. Why? Because every time a child is baptised its parents or godparents are asked to “name this child”. It is a decision, a choice, not a common law custom. They may follow some family or local custom, and that in itself would tell you something about their character, or they may divulge something about their social relationships or religious, political or cultural outlooks. Either way, you will learn more about what made your ancestors tick from their deliberate choices of first names than their inheritance of surnames.

hatchedThe 1841 census enumerator made a dog’s breakfast of the name Theodosia Lightfoot, but it was clearer in 1851, and confirmed by the GRO death index in 1865. Theodosia was baptised in St Mary’s Church, Nottingham, as an infant on 8th May 1790, but her name was the pen name of Anne Steele (1717-78) a Baptist poet and hymnwriter, so it is very likely that her parents Thomas and Helen Lightfoot had nonconformist leanings and regarded the Anglican ceremony as an empty but obligatory formality.

Tracing the Woolley family in Elizabethan Leicestershire I noticed several women of the family named Modwen. It sounds Welsh rather than English, doesn’t it? The Welsh Saint Modwen was the Abbess of an Anglo-saxon Nunnery at Burton-on-Trent, which is now the only parish church in England under her Patronage. There is a Transnational Atlas of Saints’ Cults [TASC] developed by Dr Graham Jones and now hosted by the University of Leicester. You can download datasets showing not only churches dedicated to a saint, but also landmarks and historical attributions. Many pre-Reformation Saints were quickly forgotten in Protestant England, with odd exceptions remembered for locally patriotic reasons, such as Frideswide in Oxfordshire. Look out for traces of local cults in early baptism registers: thus I discerned a scattering of devotion to Modwen across the Trent and Soar valleys, perhaps spreading from Burton but not confined there.

Roosilia was a name invented in the mid-eighteenth century within the Morganatic family of the 3rd Duke of Rutland, who at first took their mother’s surname Drake rather than their father’s family name Manners. But Roosilia commemorated the minor aristocratic title Lord Roos which belongs to the Dukes of Rutland, and went on to be passed proudly down in Roosilia’s own family, the Thorotons.

There are rare occasions when an adult chooses his or her own name late in life. They may have something to hide or to spin, or they may have experienced a conversion of some kind. Monks and Nuns have Conventual names; one of my friends is an Oblate of the Anglican Benedictine Order and took the name Augustine. My own family research discovered that my ancestress Charlotte Deaville converted to Roman Catholicism in the time of Cardinal Newman and became a Sister of Mercy, running an orphanage (after apparently abandoning her own children, but it’s perhaps best not to judge without knowing all the facts). I have found evidence of her taking the middle name Cecilia – Patron Saint of Music –either as her conventual name or when baptised a Catholic. When she was born and baptised in 1803 she was patriotically named only after the then Queen, but when her son tragically predeceased her in 1890, she gave two Christian names – Charlotte and Cecilia. There’s a musical streak in that branch of our family, and I like to think that is why Charlotte chose Cecilia for her conventual name.

We don’t just name our children: what about our dogs, homes, or even boats? Thomas Halfyard, a fisherman sailing out of Hull in the mid-nineteenth century, named his fishing smack The Queen of the West. Was it a coincidence that he was not a Yorkshireman, but a Devonian? A clue was in the name.



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