Christian names may seem less important to family history research than surnames. After all, it’s the surname that tells you two people are, or may be related, isn’t it?
But christian names can be both useful and frustrating when delving into your past.
I’ve used ‘christian names’ as a case of ‘pick one and stick with it’ from a choice of: Christian names; christian names; first names; baptismal names; given names; forenames; personal names. I think it’s the most-commonly used term from that list – certainly for the history of Cumberland and Westmorland down the centuries. And because the source of some of the statistics in this piece is a book called Christian Names in Local and Family History (author George Redmond).
Happy are those with Cuthberts on their family tree.
Not because it is a particularly attractive name to modern ears.
Because let’s face it, it isn’t.
In England and Wales in 2018, three baby boys were given the first name Cuthbert.
And most people reading this, will be thinking: “Poor kids.” And: “Cruel parents.”
Cuthbert is a rare survivor of an Old English name, and means ‘famous’ and ‘bright’.
As a site called Behind the Name explains, it was inspired by a seventh century saint.
And there are several St Cuthbert’s Churches in Cumbria. (The main photo is from St C’s ‘base’ – Lindisfarne).
And I say ‘happy are those with Cuthberts on their family tree’ because honestly, it has never been particularly popular.
Pop into a pub at most times in British history and call out “John” and you’d be sure a lot of heads would turn.
“Cuthbert,” not so much.
Which for family historians means tracing the history of a Cuthbert Fisher is a LOT easier than tracing a John Fisher.
The case of Cotehill
I say ‘Cuthbert Fisher,’ because in the village of Cotehill, in Cumbria, there were a LOT of Cuthbert Fishers.
Cotehill appears in the Wetheral burial registers as Coathill:
Cuthbert Fisher burials, Wetheral register
- 1670 21/4 Coathill
- 1735 2/12 Low Coathill
- 1738 28/4 Coathill
- 1770 29/12 yeoman and householder, Lower Coathill
- 1779 29/12 yeoman, 64 Lower Coathill
- 1786 15/5 ‘joyner and widdower’ Carlisle.
- 1817 1/3 59 yrs. Quarry Gate, Carlisle
Cuthbert who died 1738, Low Coathill left a will in which he names John Fisher’s son Cuthbert; Cuthbert Junior, son of Cuthbert; and ‘my brother’s son Cuthbert’.
A Cuthbert represents Coathill as a “resolveman” of the church (Wetheral) circa 1728.
Tenancy admittances from 1785 to 1812 have a long line of Cuthberts, and sons of Cuthberts, at Coathill/Cotehill.
That is the downside of lots of Cuthberts (or any other name), of course. If you have five around at the same time, how do you distinguish between them? Especially if two (cousins) were having children around the same time.
It doesn’t help that Cuthbert Junior would have become Cuthbert Senior at some point!
Boys’ names – popularity
Of (448) people with the same surname on my family tree:
- John = 44 instances
- Thomas = 29
- William = 15
- Robert = 16
- Joseph = 14
Those are no surprise: the first three were the top three names for boys from the 1300s-1700s for sure.
Robert was 4th or 5th through those four centuries.
Joseph didn’t become popular till the 1570s or so, but by the 1650s, it was the tenth most-popular name in England.
It has had its ‘ups and downs’ since: it was deemed ‘old-fashioned’ when I was at school, but in 2018, it was the 27th most-popular boys’ name registered in England and Wales.
After centuries of domination, in 2018, John was 122nd. Robert was 117th.
Thomas was 12th and William 14th. The former having enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s/90s (when Thomas the Tank Engine was popular on TV!), and William since the birth of the current Duke of Cambridge.
Family tradition again
The next two are purely family tradition.
- Christopher = 14 instances
- Benjamin = 10
Christopher was 168th in 2018, and Benjamin 35th (18th among over-35s, as it enjoyed a mini-boom in the 1980s).
Christopher did rise to 12th in the 1560s – but there are only 41 them spread out across all the other lines of my family tree. And most of those are connected to the main line (eg a Christopher has a daughter, who changes her name at marriage and then calls a son Christopher).
There are only 12 other Benjamins at all on my tree: scattered across very different lines.
To put that into context:
There are roughly 18,000 names on my tree (call it 9,000 males).
Of those 9,000 males, just 22 are called Benjamin.
And of those 22, 10 share one surname.
On the particular line I’m looking at, there are 14 boys’ names used between 2 and 8 times.
All the rest of the male names (27) are single-use only.
Some of those tell you almost instantly when the bearer was born.
For instance, it’s no surprise:
- Ernest was born in the 1870s.
- Three Stanleys were born 1879-1899.
- Ronald was born in the 1930s.
- Trevor was born in the 1960s.
On the single-surname search on my family tree, there are 45 single-use names, reflecting perhaps a greater diversity in girls’ names overall.
- Mary = 32 instances
- Ann/Anne/Annie/Nancy/Hannah = 23
- Jane plus variations = 22
- Elizabeth = 17
- Margaret = 10
- Sarah = 10
- Frances/Fanny = 9
- Tamar = 7
Again, it’s no surprise that any Doris on my tree was born circa 1900.
Or that while Dorothy shows up from the 1600s on, the last Dorothy on my tree (any surname) was born 1934.
Dorothy was 246th on the list of girls’ births registered in England and Wales in 2018.
Like Joseph, Mary was actually not that popular in the Middle Ages: it was 49th in the list for 1377-81. But by 1740, it was 7th. (And in 2018, it was 259th – 13 places lower than Dorothy).
Tamar was 2,901th in 2018.
And yet there are 30 across my family tree.
There are two (for a few generation) unrelated families who used it down the generations, with a cross-over due to a marriage,
The last Tamar was born in 1889, and never married. And for her father, it was already a few-generations-ago memory.
As a tip for anyone looking for a Tamar on the census returns: most transcribers have never heard of the name. I have several times found it transcribed as ‘James’!