By Emma Jolly
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with names.
Growing up in the English countryside, I entertained myself by making lists of names from all my favourite books. Each of my toys was named only after due consideration. I also used to write stories, usually spending more time on my characters’ names than on plots. Thinking ahead, I had full names planned for each of the nine children I intended to have. After having two real, noisy, hungry children, I decided that nine might be too many, and had to return to naming imaginary people in my fiction writing.
In my day job as a professional genealogist, I come across many interesting names. Some are useful in that they fit into a naming pattern or contain an ancestral surname that can provide clues to their family history. Others indicate a religious family, or perhaps one that is socially ambitious. Many parents in the 19th and early 20th centuries named children after family members or used fashionable options. In 1911, for example, parents opted for contemporary choices: the most popular girls names in England and Wales were Edith, Doris, Florence, Elsie and Gladys.
Those that most trigger my curiosity, however, are the names that suggest a passion of the parents for something literary, artistic, musical, or political.
A couple of years ago on my personal blog, I wrote about parents who appeared to be inspired by events in the British Empire: “Naming for Empire”. This reminded me of how parents in the past reflected contemporary political and cultural concerns through the names they chose for their children. They gave their children unusual names, in part to inspire their offspring, and also to reflect their own identity and social views.
In another post, “NAMING NAPOLEON: how exploring first names can give an insight into Victorian world history,”, I looked at the Bottomley family of West Yorkshire. They chose to name one son, Napoleon Bonaparte and another Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mr Bottomley worked as a paper maker, possibly involving the books from which he gained inspiration for his children’s names.
Musing on Harriet Beecher Stowe, I decided to check whether any other English or Welsh parents had chosen to name their children after this esteemed American abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who lived from 1811 to 1896. Born “Harriet Elisabeth Beecher, her last name was added when she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a prominent anti-slavery campaigner, in 1836.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in 1852. In its first year it sold 300,000 copies in the USA and, perhaps surprisingly, one million in Great Britain. From the effect on name patterns, it appears British readers were moved strongly by the novel. Most of the Harriet Beechers were born between 1851 and 1863– just three were recorded by the English and Welsh General Register Office (GRO) after that date. Searching for just the forenames, “Harriet* Be*cher” returned 18 entries, including the first who was born before the publication of the novelist’s famous work.
Several of the parents of these Harriet Beechers were imaginative in their name choices for other children. The two children who were already surnamed Stowe reflect a trend for naming children exactly after an inspirational person.
Harriet Beecher Clark of Malmesbury was the daughter of solicitor’s clerk (and later farmer), Samuel Clark and his wife, Mary Blanton Clark. Their other two daughters were named after Frederica Lees and Clara Lucas Balfour, indicating a fondness for campaigning female writers.
Harriet Beecher Pearson was recorded on the 1891 census of Preston, Lancashire. Her father worked as a blacksmith, but was also a Baptist local preacher. It is possible that through his religious beliefs and working lifestyle, he embraced the author’s attitude to social justice. The original Harriet Beecher Stowe was also the daughter of a Calvinist preacher. And it is perhaps appropriate for someone named after a woman of letters, that the Preston-born Harriet Beecher went on to teach in elementary school.
This last example indicates the influence a name can have on a child. As parents, it is worth considering the future we hope for our children when we name them, and the values we may wish them to uphold. Reflecting on these examples, I wonder if any children have been named for Harriet Beecher Stowe in the twenty-first century. I would also like to know which of today’s authors and campaigners, if any, are inspiring the current generation of baby names.
Emma Jolly works as a professional genealogist, writer and historical researcher. She is the mother of two carefully named sons and has a particular interest in historic naming trends. The author of four family history books, Emma is based in London, and can be found online at www.emmajolly.co.uk.