Snakes and Ladders: the clues and crimson fish hiding in first names

These days most parents seem to spend weeks reading baby name books, discussing naming options and trying out short-listed forenames on friends and family. Many even debate as far as the particular spelling of the name, the possibility of initials being a acronym for something less than pleasant, and whether the name works in all life situations (can the name be shortened for everyday use but still used in full at the alter or on a job application?!). 

Has it always been this way? Well, as with many things in genealogy, yes and no! This blog entry touches on ten different things to look out for (or keep in mind) when considering first names... but be careful! Just because you think you’ve come across a clue, it doesn’t mean you have. Your clue could just as easily be a snake as a ladder!

1. Family names

As today, many first names were simply ‘family’ names which were used down the years to honour previous generations. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find a run of direct ancestors with the same name: John Miller (1806), John Miller (1853), John Miller (1876), John Miller (1907). While this sort of repetition may lead you to see a pattern, beware of cousins born in the same areas and don’t assume the next generation up continues the sequence – in this case, the first John Miller’s father was Frank!

Other families named children after their deceased siblings. I have a family with four Thomas’ before one survived beyond infancy. In another example a recent article in Suffolk Roots came from a lady that thought she may have a family with up to six daughters named Sarah. Don’t fall into the trap however of thinking that a family would keep naming children the same thing until one survived – at any point they may have decided that they would like to use another name. 

2. Naming patterns 

Continuing the family name theme, you might know that in your family the first three sons were named after paternal grandfather, maternal grandfather and then father. Being aware parts of your tree may have conformed to a naming pattern could point you to a further child as yet undiscovered, but there are things to keep in mind. 

If both grandfathers had the same name, some parents may not have repeated it across two sons – others may have done. Naming patterns could restart after a second marriage or you could be looking for a child that doesn’t exist – maybe there was a family rift or the child’s mother put her foot down because she hated the name! 

3. Naming for more wealthy relatives or for social advancement 

Was you ancestor born into a family with a rich, but childless, uncle? Perhaps I will never know whether one of my forebears left his fortune to a namesake by design or through coincidence, but it is certainly possible that families thought along these lines. Perhaps you may discover a Plato or a Cornelius among Johns, Williams and Freds – I discovered both in a hut by a railway line in Bristol. Might their parents have thought that an unusual name would help them stand out from the crowd, or could their names even point you to extended family or a learned parent fallen on hard times? 


Naming for these reasons is not limited to parents naming children. Later in life family members may change their names for inheritance purposes or to cover up past escapades. This could be done formally through deed poll or just by becoming known by another moniker. My ‘Betton’ line for instance contains an example of a gentleman changing his surname and arms to those of ‘Bright’ as the heir to his mother’s father’s estate. Later on, my Great Great Grandfather (pictured) changed his name (for a second time) by deed poll from ‘Hurst Outerbridge’ back to Richard Betton Bright after he separated from his second wife in 1916. The ‘Outerbridge’ was a clue to his mother’s maiden name, but the ‘Hurst’ is still a mystery. Incidentally, when we discovered his ‘other’ name the initials on his yacht suddenly made sense!

4. Siblings with similar names

In 1881, Harriet and Emma Harriet Coman appear as sisters on the census. On the arrival of Emma’s birth certificate however, Harriet was revealed as her mother. The link between their names was a clue to an illegitimate birth in this case. 

However, elsewhere on the branches of my tree, Elizabeth and Eliza Larter appear to be full sisters. Just because one name may appear to be a short of another, or otherwise similar, it doesn’t mean that there is anything more complicated than a sibling situation. Likewise, a surname as a middle name may be an indication of a child’s father, but could be there just be to reinforce a connection to another family line, typically a maternal one. 

5. Silent first names 

Families with the same first name for all the girls or all the boys are surprisingly common. Perhaps all a family’s daughters are named Mary but known by their middle names, a friend of mine being a living example. Similarly, fathers and sons with the same baptismal name may be known by their middle names – or a least by different shorts - in order to prevent confusion in day to day life.

The red herring here is that those known by their middle names may not have the same first name as other family members at all – my Great Granddad simply didn’t like his forename while an elderly aunt was always known by her middle name and had never known any different. 

6. Acceptable names

Many families stuck to familiar names which required little explanation. A quick scan of my family tree (just over 2000 people – not all proven yet!) reveals that I  have 100 Elizabeths (not including Elizas) and 128 Williams for example. Often the names were Biblical. Although my tree only reveals four Matthews and two Marks (and no Lukes at all!) it does contain 99 Johns.

Would your ancestors have come across scores of different names as we do today? Probably not. If they did, would they have felt confident going against the grain, or spelling an unusual name to the clergy? With common names it is important to remember that although they are less likely to be mistranscribed in full, they may have been recorded in shorthand - ‘Thos’ for Thomas, ‘Wm’ for William etc. 

Still, not everyone stuck to the classics and a family with ten ‘ordinarily’ named offspring might still surprise you with the 11th child (my case in point: Sarah, Lucy, Rebecca, George, James, Mary... Providence!). In my tree it tends to be younger siblings that are given more inventive names – perhaps after the ‘family’ ones are used up. Of course, with unusual names you may need to be prepared for more mistranscription (Letitia appears as Lettie, Letzia, Lettitia, Lettice etc) which can sometimes level out the usefulness of a unique forename! 

7. Numbering

Alfred Septimus, a previous occupant of my blog must have been the seventh child, yes? No.  He appears to have been at least the ninth, but possibly the seventh son in a row. Certainly a ‘number name’ could be a clue (a la Stardust) but is that really for the reason you initially thought? 

As you can see, while a Hepzibah or an Octamus may seem to indicate birth order, it may not be so simple. Could the child have been born on the eighth day? The eighth month? The eighth full moon after harvest?! 

8. Names with historical significance 

Like everything else, names go in and out of fashion. Emigration abroad or migration to cities led people to mix with new people and cultures and naming patterns sometimes changed as these affected peoples’ lives. A growing media and smaller world introduced people to more and more outside influences. 

Some first names can be very helpful in providing an approximate birth date for an individual if you are unsure. I once researched a family with sons Foch, Petain and Joffre – all Marshals of France during WWI, effectively ‘dating’ them to around 1914-18. 

Another example with less specific dates is the girl’s name ‘Adelaide’ which became popular with Adelaide, wife of William IV (born 1792, crowned Queen Consort 1831 and died 1849) and then fell in popularity - but importantly for red herring purposes didn’t disappear completely - after the turn of the century.   

9. Latin 

If you are new to family history, don’t be put off by Latin in older parish registers. Little William was unlikely to have been known as Gulielmus in real life! The Johannes and Katharina in the registers matching your dates for John and Catherine are most likely the same children (but don’t assume – remember previous points about reusing names). 

Many names you will come across may be almost self-explanatory – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the officiating minister just added ‘us’ or ‘a’ to the English version in several cases. There are plenty of books and web pages giving you an introduction to written Latin versions of common first names. A good starting point is which will help you with the more unusual occurrences. 

10. Second hand information and the unknown 

While certificates are certainly always worth getting and often add vital written evidence to your tree, it would be wrong to suggest that they solve every query and that birth, marriage and death certificates always follow through. 

There are various reasons for this – perhaps an illegitimate child took on it’s father’s name between birth and marriage, perhaps parents registered a middle name but the subject never knew it or thought it was something else, or perhaps the registrar simply made a mistake. Only last week I was told that an official recorded a death as ‘Margaret’ as she thought the individual couldn’t possibly have been born ‘Maggie’, which actually was the name on her birth certificate. 

Birth certificates may not name a father (but still contain clues to parentage), marriage certificates may include a grandfather in place of a father (which nevertheless may help you back a generation) and death certificates may record names reported by next of kin which don’t match the birth paperwork (which could still explain why grandchildren had a certain name!).


So there we have it. First names can provide tantalising clues for furthering research, but as with everything, they can lead to dangerous assumptions which can cause an awful lot of problems and confusion down the line. 

Still, without the detective work and the red herrings, genealogy wouldn’t be half as interesting and satisfying as it is. The moral of the story is: appreciate first names and what they can tell you, but don’t read too much into them!

What's in my name? In the footsteps of my namesakes.

It’s very odd to see your name on a gravestone.

The first time this happened to me I was still at Primary School, exploring the old stomping grounds of my family with my parents. It was a weird sensation.

More recently I have been back to the same churches, taken photographs and done a lot of research, but no matter how many times I type ‘myself’ into a genealogy site or search engine, the bizarre twinge is still there.

There are certainly plenty of Elizabeths in the world - I can perhaps thank the Bible and a couple of famous Queens of England for that. Even in a rural primary school of 24, I was one of two. For the record, as the youngest, I was Elizabeth II not Elizabeth I. The name’s popularity may have dipped since the 80s but it’s still riding quite high in the ratings.

Despite its frequency, I think it’s a good name. True, it’s occasionally misspelt -  some people use an ‘s’ not a ‘z’ - and a lot of people assume they can call you something shorter regardless of having never met you before...but it has its benefits. Chiefly amongst these are the fact that it has at least 152 variants. It is a shame that my friends settled on ‘Liz’ when ‘Betty’ or ‘Betsy’ would be far more interesting shorts (and perhaps more suitable given my love of stockings with seams and pretty tea dresses).

My surname of course is much less common, and therefore – generally speaking - limits previous holders of my first and surnames to either ‘my’ Walnes or the ‘Lancashire’ Walnes.

For the purposes of keeping this blog short enough, I will only touch on three holders of the name here, who were, as I, ‘born to it’ as opposed to ‘married to it’!

The earliest namesake on my tree (according to ancestry probably my ‘tenth great grand aunt’), was born in 1616 in Pulham St Mary Magdalen and baptised there on 26th November of the same year. The register is in Latin: “Elizabetha filia Thos et Elizabetha bapt vicesimo sexto novembris” due to its age. Elizabeth, named for her mother, was one of three surviving children (one brother, Thomas, and one sister, Anne).

So far, I know little about her, but I am hoping to find out more from her father’s will which I have recently acquired through Documents Online ( I think she may have remained single, passing away in 1668 - a possible will is on fiche at the Norfolk Record Office so I'll give it a look some time in the next couple of weeks.

The next one came nearly 150 years later and is my ‘fifth great grand aunt’. She was born less than four miles away from the former Elizabeth, in Redenhall. She was baptised at St Mary’s church on 28th August 1754, about three months after her birth.

On 3rd April 1779, Elizabeth married John Gimingham at North Walsham St Nicholas. Seven years earlier, her sister Hannah had married John’s brother William in Norwich. The family tree began to tie itself into knots at this point!

Rev Thomas Lloyd, of previous blog fame, wrote of her:

Elizabeth, the sixth child, married John Gimmingham Esq. who enjoys a good appointment in a public office, by whom she has four daughters and one son, for whom he has the means of providing handsomely.”

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to move with John to London after their marriage. The romantic part of me would like to think it was all a bit Jane Austen (!) but I suspect the truth was somewhat different.

The couple went on to have four daughters – Elizabeth, Mary, Harriet and Anne – and a son, John, as well as two children that died in infancy.

The couple are closely tied to Old St Mary’s Church in Newington Butts. Only built in 1796, the church must have been relatively new when John and his wife were buried in a tomb near the alter. A book of monumental inscriptions, published in 1880 (The Old Churchyard of St Mary, Newington, Surrey. Part one with annotations) quotes the memorial as follows:

“In Memory of John Gimingham Late of Walworth who departed this life on the 17 Dec 1815 aged 66 Years Also two Daughters of the above who died in their Infancy Also Elizabeth Gimmingham Relict of the above who died 20 June 1832 Aged 78 Years Also Mary Gimingham Daughter of the above who died August 1852 Aged 65 Years Also Harriet Gimingham Daughter of the above who died 15 Sep 1854 Aged 56 years.” 

The ‘new’ church was built in 1876 after the ‘old’ was demolished for road widening in 1875. If anyone can suggest what might have happened to the Giminghams I would be interested to hear – were they moved to the graveyard on Churchyard Row which is still consecrated ground? Or do they now lie somewhere under the road or park? (

To confuse the family tree even further, Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth married a cousin, Thomas Walne, and moved back to Norfolk as yet another Elizabeth Walne!

Finally for today I come to an Elizabeth Walne born another couple of decades later, my ‘fourth great grand aunt’. This one was born in Whitlingham just outside Norwich in 1787 and baptised at Kirby Bedon (Whitlingham’s church was already all but abandoned).

Living as an annuitant for several decades as the daughter of a local gent, Elizabeth was recorded in 1841 on Upper Surrey Street in Norwich with a servant. Against the idea of Victorian women being over the hill by 30, Elizabeth married David Cooper Colls - a purser and pay master in the royal navy - in 1846 at the age of 59. The couple married at All Saints Church in Norwich, a church nowadays in the middle of the city centre sandwiched between Castle Mall and John Lewis. The groom’s residence was given as Yarmouth, explaining why the couple moved to the ‘hamlet of South Town’ in Gorlestone [sic] now part of built up Gorleston/Great Yarmouth.

Marrying late must have suited Elizabeth as she lived until the age of 95, finally passing away in 1882 at 84, High Road, Southtown - the home she had lived in for at least 20 years, and possibly since her marriage. Elizabeth outlived David by nearly 30 years.

So what do I have in common with the previous owners of my name? Well, my old office at County Hall overlooked Whitlingham, I’ve visited London and I’ve also been inside Pulham St Mary Magdalen Church. In truth, I seem to have little in common with my Stuart, Georgian and Victorian ancestors, but perhaps as time goes on things will change – maybe I’ll marry late in life and settle by the sea! All of these women had gentry fathers, but none got a university education - I think I got a pretty good deal for myself by doing things the other way around.

While none of these women are my direct ancestors, I do feel a special connection to all of them. They represent women of different eras and circumstances on a path through history that eventually led to me. think nobody knew ‘Elizabeth’ was a family name when I was born.

“That which we call a Rhoda, by any other name would smell as sweet”

Perhaps the quote is taking it a little far, but given that the meaning of ‘Rhoda’ is ‘Rose’ it is not completely far fetched.

While researching today I came to ponder the usage of the name 'Rhoda'.

How many have you ever met?

I have made the acquaintance of two. One, a lovely colleague; the other, an elderly Great Great Great Aunt. The latter was in fact christened ‘Lilian Rhoda’ but was known by her middle name. I only remember meeting her once – a very sharp old lady I recall - and she died, at the respectable age of 101, when I was only eight. I can trace my love of family history back to her as she spent many years tracing the ‘Walne’ family line long before I was thought of. She inspired my father to investigate our heritage, who in turn inspired me.

Still, back to the topic of the blog.

Rhoda (or Rhodeia, Rhodia, Rhodie, Rhody, Roda, Rodi, Rodie, Rodina). According to, of Greek origin and meaning ‘Rose’ or ‘woman from Rhodes’ (‘Rhodes’ was also derived from the Greek for ‘rose’).

A quick search on my own family tree reveals three women on my direct line with the first name ‘Rhoda’ since 1800 – about 10% of my Grandmothers after that date. Hardly as common as ‘Elizabeth’ (over a third of them, without counting those with Elizabeth as a second name – to think my parents didn’t think it was a family name when they christened me…!) but prominent no less.

In 1880 the name featured in the top 200 girls’ names. Perhaps for its biblical connotations I wonder? Rhoda was noted as a servant girl in Acts 12:12-15.

By 1930 however its popularity dropped to about 300th most common name. By 1940 it had fallen to approximately 500th and by 1960 had crashed to around 900th. Since then it has likely fallen even further.

A quick search of Wikipedia reveals a 1970s sitcom of the same name - but I admit I’ve never seen it. There is also a brief smattering of ‘famous’ Rhodas and a couple of prominent female characters in books of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

I imagine, as so many other things, the name simply fell out of fashion. Still, with names such as ‘Stanley’ and ‘Florence’ resurging in popularity over the last couple of years, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the name reappears.


“Here, Miss.”