St Agnes: let’s not forget first names

Anyone who has spent hours ploughing through nineteenth century census records cannot fail to notice the arrival of a greater range of first names in the latter decades of the century. While there is a voluminous academic literature on surnames, their origins and their distribution, there is much less on first names. Yet the names people chose are a much more immediate sign of cultural change than are surnames, which instead emphasise continuity over time.

At mid-century in Cornwall, the same stock of first names monotonously recur. For boys, names such as John, William, Thomas or Richard were the norm; for girls Elizabeth, Mary, Ann or Jane were among the staples. However, by the 1880s and 1890s a greater variety of first names were sometimes making their appearance.

Emily and William Matthews’ family in the 1891 census

For example, Oliver and Elizabeth Willoughby, living at the village of Blackwater in St Agnes in 1861, had given their boys the conventional names William and John, while their daughters were named Elizabeth and the less common Emily. Emily married William Matthews, a clerk, in 1872 and the couple moved to Dodbrooke in south Devon. While their first son, born in 1873, was named William, later arrivals had more novel first names. The girls were called Nellie, Laura and Victoria; the boys Frederick, Percival, Reginald, Hubert and Wilfred.

The nature of this switch, the occurrence of new first names, their cultural significance and regional and class dimensions have rarely been the subject of study. But the timing, frequency and distribution of the change might add much to the picture of changing attitudes in the later Victorian period. Does it, for example, indicate a greater sense of individualism and a desire to break away from the tried and tested names of former generations? Does it reflect a growing desire for experimentation and an openness to change? Is it a harbinger of modernity? How far did the influence of literature explain changing fashions in naming? Did it first appear in the cities and among the middle class and then spread out from there?

When did first names begin to show greater variety in your family tree?

The small harbour at Trevaunance Cove in St Agnes around 1900. The north quay – the one furthest away, was destroyed in a storm in 1916 and the south quay followed a few years later. Nothing now remains, This was the fourth attempt to construct a harbour here, the first being in 1632.

3 thoughts on “St Agnes: let’s not forget first names

  1. What a brilliant thought, thank you. It also reflects their horizons; did the railways bring newspapers with national news, or did emigration of relatives make distant places real in their minds? I can think of some with names from the Crimean or Boer wars, and there were plenty with American mining town names. And it seems particularly important considering the central tension in the present century between those of us in Cornwall who attach importance to what we inherit from the past and those whose references points lie in what they can achieve in the present.


  2. I am very intrigued by your queries in this article, and have long thought about him. I spent many years on and off with relatives working on the Wolstenholme family tree which was entirely working class during the 1800s with men working in the mines and women in the mills in Kearsley, Lancs.

    There was a remarkable switch in names around the 1880s onwards. Prior to that we had the devil’s own time trying to work out which Mary or Elizabeth or William was one of “ours” in the national census (one reason the investigation took ages) yet suddenly the tree becomes populated with Sarahs, Rebecca’s, one Bold, a Prisella (who was literate and signed her own name upon marriage unlike her husband) – and we have her name in the Pilgrim’s Progress we now own yet no one else in her family could read (all married placing an X in the certificate). Then there was my great grandma, a millworker, landed with Euphemia as a first name (Effie). It was a grand family anecdote that when Effie went to hospital to get checked up from something she provided her full name. The nurse responded by saying by saying “Oh no dear I don’t mean your condition. I just want to know your name”! Apart from being amusing this anecdote suggests that new fangled names remained unfamiliar to many.

    My gran, her daughter, was called Edna. Old fashioned now but at that time 100% cutting edge. She called my father Roger (born 1937) after the screen cowboy and crooner Roy Rogers. My father could never get over being named after a cowboy. His sister was called Shirley after Shirley Temple. By then, the family was lodged in the middle class but I don’t think this had much to do with the new flexibility in naming.

    So, yes, centuries perhaps of having the same first names switched within a generation.


  3. Interesting! I got ‘waylaid’ by 2 first names appearing in the mid to late 1800’s. Evangelina and Alonzo. The latter set me thinking about a family rumour of a Portuguese or Spanish connection. Turned out to have been used shortly after novels with those characters named and published shortly before the births. Reading was becoming more widespread -maybe that in part explains ‘new’ names appearing?


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