This is a photograph of my paternal great grandfather William Heenan. It was taken on a rare holiday at a seaside resort called Weston-super-Mare in South West England.
He’s one of 73 William Heenans I have in my database.
This fact I have so many people in my Heenan database with the exact same name is the cause of much confusion when I try to reconstruct family groups. Making sure I pick the ‘right’ William Heenan between two or more possibilities is a struggle when the names of their fathers are also identical.
Part of the issue is that people in centuries past used naming traditions that meant the same first name could pass down the generations.
Ireland for example, had a tradition of naming based on the grandparents’ names.
- First born son usually named for the father’s father
- Second son usually named for the mother’s father
- Third son usually named for the father
- Fourth son usually named for the father’s eldest brother
- Fifth son usually named for the mother’s eldest brother
- First daughter usually named for the mother’s mother
- Second daughter usually named for the father’s mother
- Third daughter usually named for the mother
- Fourth daughter usually named for the mother’s eldest sister
- Fifth daughter usually named for the father’s eldest sister.
Hence why my great grandfather’s name was William, my grandfather was a William, as is my dad.
It’s a marked difference from the way that parents today choose the names of their offspring. They can buy books with lists of possible names or they can turn to one of the many websites that explain the meaning and symbolism of each name.
Some take inspiration from rap artists, rock musicians and influencers. Others get very creative with spelling variations like Aeric (was Eric just too boring?) Did the parents who named their offspring Hennessy come up with it after taking a look at the bottles in their cupboard? I feel desperately sorry for some of those unfortunates.
First Name Popularity
According to the most recent report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the most popular boy’s name in the UK in 2018 (the last year for which the data has been compiled), was Oliver. In fact it’s been the most popular for the last six years.
The ONS even tracks the popularity of certain names over time.
Here’s how William has fared in the last 100 years. It’s been in the top 50 names all that time.
Compare that with the name that appears most often in my Heenan database: John.
From being in top spot in. 1910 it’s dropped off the cliff, plummeting in popularity since the early 1980s
I was curious whether this national pattern is echoed amongst the Heenan men in my research. Curiosity got the better of me this week and I did some digging into the database and birth records.
Most Popular Heenan Name
I discovered my database includes:
- 73 men called William Heenan
- 50 men named Patrick Heenan
- 79 men called James Heenan
- 162 men named John Heenan
Those records mainly capture men in England and Wales with a smattering from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and USA.
Looking more closely at records from England and Wales, you get a better idea of how much names have changed over time for the Heenans.
Take a look at this word cloud image of names of male Heenan births registered in the 19th century in England and Wales. The size of the word shows you which were the most frequent.
The first Heenan birth (male and female) was registered in 1840. Between then and 1899 there were 132 male births registered but they used only 38 different first names. John and William vied for first place. James, Thomas and Joseph showed a fair amount of popularity but were still a fair way behind the leaders. Trailing far behind the crowd were names like Archibald, Percival, Harold and Nicholas with just one child bearing each of those names.
So in the nineteenth century it seem the pool of names was relatively small. The following century however, was marked by a significant increase in the variety of names used.
According to the General Register Office records there were 246 births of male children registered in the years 1901 to 1999. Not only did the population increase; the range of names more than doubled to 87 unique names.
Some of the names from the previous century are still popular. John continued to be the most popular choice; William dropped back though not as significantly as Patrick. Michael rose in popularity as did David and Robert. But there are some names used in the twentieth century that were entirely new, like Bernard, and some like Reginald and Percival entirely disappeared. What isn’t shown on the word cloud are names given to just one person during this period. Names like Noel, Kynan and Melvyn.
I suspect a few things have influenced this. One is that the naming traditions used once in countries like Ireland are not as strongly followed as in previous centuries. Secondly, as families became more geographically mobile, they were exposed to individuals with different naming conventions or entirely different names which gave them new ideas. And finally, as literacy improved and newspapers flourished in the early twentieth century, new names came more to their attention.
All of this is speculation on my part. I’d love to find a research study which considers the question. If you know of a book or an article on this topic, do let me know.
This has been an interesting exercise. I think I’ll repeat it with female first names to see if the same trend towards variety is evident there. As I research countries beyond England and Wales I’ll also want to check what the trends are in those locations.
This exercise has also given me an idea for a longer term project to examine all the families I’ve reconstructed which originate in Ireland and see which of them really did follow the naming pattern I mentioned above.
This topic was prompted by a challenge called “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” hosted by Amy Johnson Crow . This week’s topic was ‘Same Name” . I’ve mentioned one name that is common in my own family. What about your own family – is there a first name that has been passed down through the Heenan generations?