Sunday, 15 January 2012

What's in a Name : Part One

The more I delved into my family tree, the more names I uncovered. These names swim around in my head constantly and I love boggling my family with lines like, "You know, Thomas. He was the son of William who was the son of Joseph; son of Thomas, son of Thomas..." You get the picture. Rifling through parish registers and civil registration I have spent countless hours eagerly looking up and discovering a myriad of names; some common and some not-so-common. Back in the heyday of baptising children with the names William, George, Thomas, Henry, John and Robert there were some ancestors who were keen to stand out and be different. They chose names like Josiah, Percy, Zachariah, Horace, and Barney. Or how about Japhet or Bussey for something even more original? My ancestry has those names too. Were they the historical equivalent of the twenty first century's Blue, Suri, Apple and Sunday?

Three names in my ancestry have struck me as particularly unique, and this blog (in two parts) is about those names. These are not just unique christian names, these are surnames given as middle names. I have uncovered each of their origins except for one: Goodall. This surname appears to be a more common surname in the county of Yorkshire. This ties all too perfectly with the fact that this particular ancestor was actually born in Yorkshire, as were both of his parents. But why he was given this name as a middle name has not yet been determined.

Then we come to the two surnames in my ancestry, given as middle names, which I have researched successfully. There is a fascinating World War One story behind one name, and it is rather powerfully detailed, so I have decided to honour it with a separate post. Part one therefore is for the name: Gowen.

In 1990 I remember visiting with my Mum who had just received her grandfather's birth certificate in the post. The middle name of the father was given as Gowing. We thought this name was very peculiar, but there it was on paper and in records so it had to be correct, right? Then my Mum ordered the marriage certificate of her grandparents and discovered that the groom's father's middle name was Goarne. We tried our best to pronounce it correctly but in the end we were convinced it had to be misspelt. Nobody would have the name: Goarne. Would they? It was shortly after this time that my Mum took an early retirement from genealogy and I was busy conquering the world of working, marriage, and paying off a mortgage.

When I came to my senses and matured rather more significantly, I took up my Mum's family tree challenge and I haven't looked back since (Ironic to say that really, considering that looking back is exactly what genealogy entails!). Subsequently, the names Gowing & Goarne challenged me, daring me to solve its indecipherable mystery. I looked up a marriage entry in the GRO indexes and found this time that it was spelt Gowen. I was so confused! His birth certificate proved the same: Gowen again! Okay, I said, where on earth does that name hail from?

As I progressed with genealogy and discovering all sorts of anecdotal titbits I found out that, among many other curious "habits", giving the mother's maiden name as the first-born child's middle name was quite a popular thing to do in Victorian times. So now all you genealogists out there are thinking that Gowen was this chap's mother's maiden name? Well, no it wasn't. Sorry, you're all wrong. It wasn't until many headaches later, when researching his mother's paternal side of the family in the census returns and parish registers that the name Gowen stared out at me from a dimly lit computer screen. There it was; the mother's paternal aunt! She had married a chap by the name of John Gowen.

Abit of mindless, trivial history for you: John Gowen was born in Yarmouth in the county of Norfolk (I have just looked up his baptism; he was baptised 240 years ago on January 10, 1772). In 1796 John Gowen married Sarah Bunnett and they lived in Holt, not far from Sarah's sister Eliza and family. John Gowen was a Bricklayer and Plasterer by trade and you can find his name listed in many Directories such as Pigot's & Kelly's.

The name Gowen has been passed down from my g/g/g-grandfather William Gowen Preston to his first-born son. This son died in infancy and so his second-born son was also named William Gowen Preston (a photograph of him is at the bottom of my previous post). This son grew up and named his first-born son William Gowen Preston...and so on, down the line.

Coming soon to a blog near you: part two of my mysterious middle name hunt...

Incidentally, John Gowen's father's name was William Gowen! :-)


  1. I enjoyed this article in particular Debra. I have the name Goodall among my family trees and found they originated from Derbyshire via Nottingham - just a stones throw from Yorkshire. I'm looking forward to episode two of this article :)

  2. Thank you so much Ann, I'm really glad that you enjoyed my post. Part two should be up soon (I hope!) xx

  3. Hi Debra, I love reading family history stories and have found many interesting names too. My great grandfather was given his mothers maiden name which made certain people easier to trace and my gran Zilpah was named after her aunt who died young. We did wonder where the name had come from and now we know.