Thursday, 1 September 2011

You learn something every day -

I was thinking of using the name Verity for a woman character in the Victorian period.  I searched for it in the 1881 Census to see how commonly used it was.

The search returned twenty eight people who had Verity as a given name. Twenty two of them were men.

Verity is a surname; there was a Yorkshire cricketer called Hedley Verity. Most, if not all, of the male Veritys were probably named after a Mr Verity of their parents' acquaintance.

Three of the six women had Verity as their second given name, not their first. They too might have been named after someone with the surname Verity.

Which leaves three girls or women alive in 1881 whose parents might have chosen the name Verity intending it to mean 'Truth'.  If I use it for my character I'll be giving her a name that was very unusual at the time, and most people, on hearing it, would probably think she was a man.  Which is a bit too much of a cliche to use as a plot point.

One difficulty with choosing a name for a Victorian-era character is that the Victorians loved short forms or pet forms of names. The Queen's three eldest children were known as Vicky, Bertie and Affie.  I don't want my character to be Kate or Lizzie or Nellie, but realistically, if her name was Katherine or Elizabeth or Ellen (or Helen or Elinor), that's what her friends would call her. So I want a name that could plausibly have been given to a girl born on the mid 1850s that can't easily be shortened or otherwise altered.


  1. At least you’re not trying to call her Kylie, or something completely made up. I’ve seen that done too many times.

    Obviously it varies by region and family, but I’ve just had a quick look through my family history files for women born 1850s and the most common names I have for England are Sarah, Mary, Mary Ann, Emma, Amelia, Elizabeth, Harriet (not necessarily in that order).

    I also have Julia, Matilda, Rachel, Susanna, Leah, Ellen, Augusta, Isabella, Hilkiah, Athaliah, Charlotte, Laura, Jane, Louisa, Margaret, Janet in that period, but those are definitely less common.

  2. I had a quick look at registered births for 1855. There were obviously far too many to analyse quickly, so I cut it down to London Registration Districts, and chose the surname Smith as I have seen families of all classes with the name. Riding roughshod over a few spelling variations, and ignoring middle names unless the first-middle combination was very common, I got this:

    Eliza (39), Mary Ann (38), Elizabeth (37), Emily (28), Ann (27), Emma (26), Alice (24), Jane (22), Harriet (20), Sarah Ann (18), Mary xx (not Ann) 17 (17), Ellen (16), Sarah (16), Louisa (15), Maria (13), Sarah xx (not Ann) (13), Charlotte (12), Caroline (11), Agnes (10), Amelia (9), Hannah (9), Frances (8), Margaret (8), Martha (8), Susan (8), Ada (6), Clara (6), Eleanor (6), Fanny (6), Jessie (6), Julia (6), Rebecca (6), Sophia (6), Henrietta (5), Mary (5), Esther (4), Isabella (4), Annie (3), Catherine (3), Edith (3), Eugenie (3), Kate (3), Matilda (3), Rose (3), Selina (3), Susannah (3), Adelaide (2), Amy (2), Dora (2), Emilie (2), Florence (2), Lydia (2), Marion (2), Rosina (2), Cecilia (1), Gertrude (1), Grace (1), Miriam (1), Pauline (1), Phoebe (3), Rachel (1), Wilhelmina (1), Zilpah (1)

    You probably know all this, but in my experience the posher the family, the more forenames given, but it was quite common for fairly ordinary people to use mother’s maiden name, or some other name deemed worthy of perpetuation, as a middle name. The use of surnames as given names seems to have been more common for males.

  3. Oh yes, inappropriate names for fictional characters is a big peeve of mine. I can't believe in the character if the name is wrong.

    Hilkiah is new to me. The most unusual name on my family tree is Angela, which was repeated over several generations from the mid 18th century. I know it was unusual in the 18th century because most of the people who wrote it down couldn't spell it!

    That's a very interesting piece of research you've done. Most listings of popular names on the 'net are either modern and/or American. I'll save your list for future reference!

    Interesting to see short forms such as Eliza, Kate, Fanny etc so often being given as names in their own right. (My grandmother, b.1887, had Eliza as one of her names. She hated it. Strangely, she had a sister called Elizabeth!)

    Going by my own family history, it seems to have been about 1880 that a wider range of names began to be used. Partly I suppose because more babies were surviving so more names were needed, and partly because people were becoming more literate, so were more aware of different names.

    It would be interesting to repeat that exercise for different dates up to about 1950.

  4. It would be interesting to repeat that exercise for different dates up to about 1950.

    It certainly would; I'll see if I can think of a better way to do it quickly. One thing I have noticed in the past is very sudden fashions for a particular name; there's a Quarterly period back in - I think - Edwardian times, where practically every girl had "M" for a final initial, presumably after Queen Mary.