What’s in a name? Do you love yours or loathe it?
Do you bask in its glory or curse your parents daily?
“The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers”
– Marshall McLuhan
Is your name ordinary? Is it unique? Have you ever wanted to change it? If so, to what? Why did your parents choose it? Do people regularly get it wrong? I’ve encountered some weird and wonderful spellings of my name (Lynda, Lindia, Gilliford, Guildford, Gillforth), but my all time favourite interpretation of Jane Gulliford was definitely “Dave Cauliflower”. And whatever you do, don’t call me Jayne With A Y.
I adore names. I’m fascinated by the reasons why they are chosen, and obsessed by their meanings and their implications of social class, status and ethnicity. Is that a particularly British notion? That we can, by and large, predict a person’s class and social status simply by their name?
I love to trawl through the birth announcements in the Telegraph, Times and local newspapers; it never ceases to amaze me what the wealthy and the upper classes call their children. I was particularly impressed by Tarka Valentine Mary and Ptarmigan Rose. Who doesn’t want to call their kid after a fictional river mammal ( or possibly their favourite curry)? ” I say waiter, do you recommend the Tarka?” “Indeed sir, it’s like a chicken tikka but a little ‘otter”.
What makes a mother look at her baby and think “He’s definitely a Barry”? What compels parents to name their child John Johnson or Robert Robertson?
For every Randy Bumgardner, Fanny Chmelar, Eileen Dover, and Ophelia Bott, there’s a David Davis and a Neville Neville. And what of those unfortunates with unintentionally hilarious names, or who share names with perpetrators of heinous crimes? Then there are those poor children who will, almost inevitably, end up either with a criminal record or on the Jeremy Kyle Show – yes Armani, Destiny and Aston, I’m looking at you. Another thing that really gets my goat is “made up” spellings of names, like Shivonne and Brittnee, Bradlee and Taylah. Seriously, just stop it. And can you think of anything worse than being one of six kids with the same name in your class at primary school?
See how our (my) prejudices can be reinforced and judgments made, simply upon the basis of a person’s name, a jumble of letters of their parents’ choosing?
When I was at university, one of my fellow students was called Epiphany. She was quiet, plain, unobtrusive. However, her name made her unforgettable. My mother has a theory that people with unusual names achieve great things, on the basis that they have to “live up’ to their appellation.
Choosing a name for child is a tremendous responsibility. Do you play it safe or go wild? When my son arrived, I was determined that he should be called something uncommon but classical. Any name listed in that year’s top 100 baby names was completely out of the question. Yes I’m a “name snob”, and I’m happy to admit it. I have a fear of the ordinary.
It’s fortunate for him (and the compilers of the school registers) that he wasn’t a girl – not sure how well Bathsheba Lydia Constanza Felicity Gulliford Lowes would have been received at nursery in Seaham. That’s definitely one for The Telegraph rather than the Sunderland Echo.
Our names define us, and in many ways, through the prejudices and preconceptions of others, shape our destinies. I have always loved my name, but in many ways felt that it was a lot to live up to. Does that make sense?
I am Lydia Jane.
As a child, the only other Lydias I knew were direct relatives. I was frequently teased for having a weird name, and for being “posh”. It’s a little more popular these days, and much to my horror there was even one in that dreadful “TOWIE” programme, although that lady’s name appears to be pronounced “Lijjaaah”
When my parents chose my name however, they were not looking towards my future, or at current trends, but towards the past, back to a shared heritage and a family tradition.
There were many Lydias in my family; each one a woman of very strong character. To avoid confusion, some of us are known by our middle names. We don’t do meek. We don’t do mild. (You may or may not have noticed.) We are characterised by our forthright opinions and steely determination, forged by circumstance and tempered with laughter. We laugh a lot. We take no nonsense and we don’t suffer fools.
My mother, grandmother, great grandmother and assorted aunts and distant cousins: all of these women had a huge impact upon my life, and upon my personality. I wonder what the collective noun for a group of Lydias is? A library? A lushness? A stroppiness?
I am Lydia Jane; my name shaped me. I grew into it, and I manifest so many of the traits of those women from whom I inherited it. I wear my “Lydianess” as a badge of honour. Finally, I feel I have earned the right to bear that name and to take my place among the women who bore it before me.
But where did it come from? What was the origin of the name and why was it so important in my family? My grandmother and great great aunt (more of whom below) often used to tell me stories about their ancestors. “Tell me about the olden days Gran, when you were a little girl”.
Aunt Lydia Webster (you can see a theme developing here) in particular had some wonderful tales. She was a formidable woman, described in her obituary in the Scotland Herald as “a teacher, political activist, sportswoman and poet”, and it was she who told me the tale of the first Lydia, whose story had passed into family folklore.
The mythological Lydia was rumoured to be the daughter of the Duke of Northumberland’s steward, and therefore fairly well to do. Against her family’s wishes, she had married a schoolteacher who turned out be something of a ne’er do well – he was a drinker and a gambler, and was killed in an accident at Newcastle Races, leaving her penniless and with a squad of children. Her family had disowned her when she married; after her husband’s death, they pleaded with her to go back to them, but she refused, and died in poverty.
It’s a nice story, like something out of a Catherine Cookson novel – every family must have one similar in the far and distant past. Her surname was unknown; in truth she probably never actually existed. Her tale had grown in the telling over the years and with each successive generation. It was simply a family fable.
This story had always appealed to my romantic nature, and I had long wanted to get to the bottom of it. About 12 years ago, I decided to research my family tree. At that time I worked in a lovely light and airy office in Newcastle city centre, a stone’s throw from Northumberland Street and opposite the city library which housed a huge collection of parish registers and ancient records. Every lunchtime I would trot over the square to the library, armed with a notepad, and spend an hour or so poring over microfiche records and musty old parish registers.
If you’ve ever attempted to investigate your family history, you’ll know that it becomes an obsession, each minor discovery, each new name or significant date a milestone along the road which connects us with our past. Great great grandparents, even great great great grandparents – that bit was easy. I even have photographs of them all, four generations (including two of the Lydias) all stood together. The eldest, born in 1852, the youngest (my grandmother) born in 1921. Stern, calm, strong, bossy, but with a twinkle in the eye and the trace of a smile, I see myself in my great grandmother, Lydia Clyde.
The further back in time I travelled, the more sparse the records became, and the chances of discovering the mythical first Lydia became increasingly remote.
Except it wasn’t a myth.
It’s all true.
Lydia Trafford was born in the tiny hamlet of Acklington Park, near Warkworth in Northumberland in 1783, the only child of Ralph Trafford and Margaret Patterson. Trafford is not a Northumberland name – its origins are in Lancashire. Ralph (born around 1757, place unknown) died 6 months before Lydia was born, at the age of just 26. Another young man from the village was buried the same day and I wondered whether Ralph and this young man had been involved in some tragic accident, or even a fight, or succumbed to some virulent disease. Lydia was baptised in the ancient parish church of St Lawrence, where her father had been buried, on 16th November 1783.
On 12th January 1804, Lydia married …yes you guessed it, itinerant schoolteacher William Muter from Monkwearmouth. The Muters were originally from Bamburgh up the coast, and lived within sight of the magnificent castle. They had at least 6 surviving children, including Margaret, the mother of my great great great grandmother , Mary Ada (Mal) Smart (she is the matriarch in the 4 generations photograph). Little more is known of Lydia’s life except that she died in the mining village of Cowpen near Blyth in February 1857 at the grand old age of 76. Her husband, the feckless William, had died years before. She never did go back to Acklington Park.
My Aunt Lydia Webster knew Lydia Trafford’s granddaughter Mal Bamborough ( nee Smart)– she was her grandmother.
I knew someone who knew someone who knew Lydia Trafford, a woman born when England was ruled by George III. How wild is that?
My very identity has been shaped by this woman, who was born almost 200 years before me, a woman of such strength and character that so many of her female descendants were given her name. She was the first Lydia of the line; I will be the last.
“From our ancestors come our names, but from our virtues, our honours”
If you’re interested in writing about your name or any other aspect of your family’s history, you might find my brief e-guide helpful. You can get HOW TO WRITE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY here.
MY BOOKS (NON-FICTION / HISTORY)
The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017)
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story (publication date Summer 2020 – now available to pre-order)