UK Naming Conventions

When I first began doing family history research, I was unaware of naming conventions. I remember noticing that my ancestors seemed to use the same names over and over, from generation to generation.

I soon discovered that this was no co-incidence. Up until well into the mid- to late-1800s, a majority of families in the British Isles continued with the naming conventions handed down from their forefathers. That is:

  • the first male child was named after his father's father.
  • the second male child was named after his mother's father.
  • the third male child was named after his own father.
  • any subsequent male children could be named whatever the parents wished, but usually were named for a favorite brother or uncle of the father.

A similar pattern applied for female children. That is:

  • the first female child was named after her maternal grandmother.
  • the second female child was named after her paternal grandmother.
  • the third female child was named after her own mother.
  • subsequent female children could be named whatever the parents chose, but usually were named after other females in the mother's family.

Some genealogists feel that the naming conventions extended even further, so that the first, second and third-born brothers of the father, or sisters of the mother, would be part of the order, after the father or mother.

A variation on this theme is certainly true in one of the Scottish naming patterns, where they followed the above pattern in naming their first three children, and then continued on with naming their subsequent children for their great-grandparents, including the great-grandparents' surname or maiden name! Wonderful clues for us as genealogists!

Here is an example, which does not include the extended pattern of naming conventions mentioned in the last paragraph:

Paternal Grandparents Maternal Grandparents
Andrew Shearer John Jenkins
Martha Beckett Jean Smith
Gavin Shearer
Connie Jenkins

Gavin and Connie have a number of children - 6 boys, and 6 girls. Following the naming conventions outlined above, their children would be named as follows:

1st boy Andrew Shearer 1st girl Jean Shearer
2nd boy John Shearer 2nd girl Martha Shearer
3rd boy Gavin Shearer 3rd girl Connie Shearer

Mother and daughters
(Matryoshka Museum Doll. Source: Wikimedia. Public domain)
Mother with daughters

At first glance, this seems fairly straightforward. The naming conventions prove very useful when moving backward in time while tracing your family tree. If you know the names of the children of a couple, you can be fairly certain of what the grandparents' names were.

However, the naming conventions are not without their difficulties for us as genealogists. Indeed, the pattern can result in a considerable amount of confusion and frustration! Remember that families tended to be quite large in prior centuries, and that most children married and stayed within the same general area.

Father with several sons.
(Matryoshka doll - Russian politicians.
Source: Wikimedia - Public Domain)
Father with several sons

Returning to the example above, say Gavin and Connie's children all marry and begin having children. If we follow the naming conventions, the following could happen:

  • If each of their sons has at least one boy and two girls, and each of their daughters has two boys and one girl, they will have six grandsons named Gavin, as well as six granddaughters named Connie; and
  • If each of their children has two boys and two girls, they will have twelve grandchildren named Gavin, and twelve named Connie!

It must have been confusing for the grandparents, who knew and loved those children, let alone us poor genealogists coming along a century or two later and attempting to piece it all together and figure out which child belongs to which set of parents (i.e., which one is your ancestor?), or which of several grandchildren all with the same name is mentioned in a document!

Tell us about your best / worst experiences dealing with multiple descendants bearing the same name. Click here.

In my own family tree, I have a number of Scottish Canadians named Alexander Shearer, all living in the same area, and each born within 5 years or so of each other. Similarly, there were a number of Andrew Shearers. Hence, the need for nicknames, to distinguish one from the other.

One of my direct ancestors, Andrew Shearer, was nicknamed Andy "Longhouse" Shearer, to distinguish him from all of his cousins of the same name in the same vicinity! I am puzzled over the origin of the "Longhouse" nickname, although I see that there was a small town near where the family farmed in Scotland, before coming to Canada, which bore this name.

One last thing - there could be many reasons why a couple would choose not to follow this pattern in its entirety. Perhaps one of the grandparents' names was unknown; or maybe one of the parents had had a falling out with his or her parents, and did not want the children named after them.

Sometimes an older family member would pass away unexpectedly, and the pattern would interrupted by naming the next child of that gender after the one who died. This was especially true in war times, when a young man would die in the service of his country, or if someone died in other tragic circumstances.

The above convention is a generality, which is a useful tool in genealogy research, but it should not be taken as an "absolute", given the complexities of human nature.

Not all families chose to follow the pattern, in some cases opting instead for 'family names', with no particular order.  Others simply chose names they liked, as many do today.

Just some of the challenges, and rewards, of doing family tree research!

Go from "UK Naming Conventions" to "Origin of Surnames"

Go from "UK Naming Conventions" to "Surname Variations and Name Changes"

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