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.
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?