A Girl named Kirk

Known as is a column in the list of students attending my Reading and Interpretation seminars at UCL.  Preferred name is often a field in a job application form.  We might otherwise make the culturally-conditioned assumption that a person’s registered first name is for informal use and the last name for formal contexts. The Canadian Language Museum Blog last year published a map of Naming conventions in Europe, North Africa, and Asia showing that the pattern of Given name + Family name is now common from Britain to parts of south-east Asia.

We were surprised, hunting down the Mills family in West Leake, Nottinghamshire, to find  this slimline blue slate gravestone, now leaning against the southern wall of the chancel, but formerly marking the grave of two of William and Hannah Mills’ children.  What was surprising wasn’t so much the tragedy of losing a baby boy of ten months and a daughter of twelve, but Hannah’s names.  Was she really ‘known as’ Kirk – a masculine-sounding name, and not even Biblical.  Her father was a factory-owner and Methodist Local Preacher.  I’d like to imagine that she was known as Hannah or some diminutive (Hannah also being her mother’s name).  As you’ve probably guessed, Kirk was her mother’s maiden surname: William Mills and Hannah Kirk were married at All Saints, Loughborough, on 17th July 1826. The Kirks are still a significant local farming family.  If you stare heavenwards in East Leake Parish Church, you can still see in bold lettering on one of the beams ‘T Kirk Churchwarden 1769’.

In that case, her parents or godparents had chosen at the font inside Saint Helena’s Church, to give Hannah a combination of baptismal names that commemorated her family history ahead of the name they would use at home.  It suddenly occurred to me that this pattern is followed more than we recognise.  Both my mother and mother-in-law always used their middle names; it wasn’t that they dropped their first names when they became teenagers, but their parents had always intended to call them by their middle names. That was in the 1930s; Kirk Hannah Mills was born over a hundred years before, when (outside of the Landed Gentry and Aristocracy) it was relatively unusual in Britain to have more than one baptismal name.

Reflecting on my own family, the pattern of

  1. Commemorative name
  2. Preferred (contemporary) name
  3. Surname

was actually very common in the early twentieth century.  My Granddad’s siblings were ‘Uncle Eric’ and ‘Auntie Maud’, both popular turn-of-the-century names, but it was their silenced first names – Joseph and Elizabeth – that commemorated their paternal grandparents.

foden family0001

Stephen Wilson (The means of naming, UCL 1998) fails to consider whether this pattern has any significance.  I am sure that it does; it was intentional and outward-facing act by parents, balancing past and present, respect and affection, home and society.  Wilson brings to our attention research showing that in the nineteenth century and earlier French children were often known by names that were unrecorded in official records (p234):

‘He was registered as Jean-Louis, but he is called Pierre-Marie’ an ethnologist was told in the Bigouden.  A study of the Vexin shows that only about half the men and women listed in the 1836 census bore names identical to those in the register of births.

Was English experience similar to French?  Did our ancestors with such a standard palette of names in the census returns go by a more colourful selection of pet-names and nicknames at home and at work?  I don’t have much evidence, really only my own family’s oral history, which is full of name forms that you will never find on a birth certificate or census return – Aunties Nellie, Polly and Sally, Uncle Jack (and north of the border, Uncle Jock), Fin and Jennie, Aggie and Sandy.  And don’t forget the politically-charged diminutives of William used in Ireland – Protestant Billy versus Catholic Liam.

These are all hypocoristic forms of registered names, not different names altogether.  Was the French pattern of a sort of ‘Kennel name’ for the official record and a radically different everyday name ever followed in England?  We do it with pedigree dogs: our old border terrier was registered Shacklebush Baron, but we called him George or Georgie, a name unknown to the Kennel Club.  Conformist and deferential to authority, our 19th century English ancestors generally used affectionate forms of their registered and baptismal names.

But as the fashion for multiple first names spread from high to low during the 19th century, it became possible to formally give a child both a Sunday-best name and an affectionate name.  Was this a new pattern, or an old pattern now becoming visible in official records for the first time?  Do any genealogists out there have evidence, however slight and inferential, of unrecorded names in use in 19th century England?

If only there had been a column in the Census returns for Preferred Name. Then we might all get a little closer to ‘meeting the ancestors’.




6 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Booth says:

    Very interesting, Peter.




    1. Peter Foden says:

      What I’m saying is that we are almost as ignorant of the names most English people used among themselves in the 19th century (when records were kept by Parish Clerks and Registrars in English on printed forms) as we are of the mediaeval peasantry whose Latin names were declined by Notaries and Priests.


  2. MARY SAUNDERS says:

    Dear Peter, My father-in-law was baptised John Douglas Maurice, but was always known as Doug within his family, or Jack by his workmates. Whether Jack was a diminutive of John or was related to his time in the navy we will never know. Incidentally his family surname was Johnson, but this was a Cornish rendition of Johanson, a grandfather having been of Scandinavian descent. Regards, Mike S


    1. Peter Foden says:

      Do you know why each of his three first names was chosen? Which were family or godparents’ names for example? It is interesting that he was known by the middle and not the first; that’s one of the patterns I wanted to bring attention to. Thank you!


  3. andkindred says:

    This is something I had not considered, but your post is a fascinating invitation to look at my own family. I guess that, given the very high frequency of just a few names, nicknames or pet names must have been in common usage. Some names are variations on one given name, for example Elizabeth can be Lizzie, Liz, Eliza, Liza, Betty, Betsy and so on. Presumably, there would also be nicknames based on personal characteristics, such as Ginger, Lofty or Big Mike (a former colleague). Other ways of distinguishing people can include their occupation, such as the Welsh “Jones the coal” or “Evans the post”. At work my colleagues used a variation on this technique, for example Louise Library and Jackie Playbus.

    I will look into this a bit more.


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