A few years ago, I went round to a friend’s house, to find her father-in-law, someone I’d never met before, was visiting. Her husband had a missing finger on one hand, and I noticed that her father-in-law also had a finger missing. I clumsily made mention of the fact and said I hadn’t realized it was hereditary. “Yes,” said the father. “Hereditary stupidity!” It turned out that both had lost their fingers in accidents, and it was not hereditary at all.
The longer I look into family history, the more I am struck by the way in which certain things run in families that you might not expect. I have recently done some research for a friend, where time after time, her ancestors married, had one child and then the father of the family was killed or died shortly afterwards. In several families that I have studied, there’s a history of men disappearing, and returning after 20 years to their families.
It’s odd how often there is a history of non-heritable events which run together. In my own family, my great grandfather was retired from the army due to a problem with his leg. My grandfather had an accident as a young man and had problems with his lower legs for the rest of his life, and his brother lost a leg to diabetes. My own sister had an unfortunate accident a few years ago, which has left her with pain and problems with one leg. We also have a run of marriages which involve minor girls of 16 marrying older men. I suppose this may have a slight inheritable angle: if a parent marries a young woman of 16 and makes a success of the marriage, they are more likely to consent to their own daughter marrying young.
These are interesting to note, but aren’t the sort of patterns which are useful to genealogists. Often it is the use of certain names which are most useful in deciding whether one family or another is a likely candidate. If a grandmother has an unusual name, Laetitia is one in my family, and that arises a couple of generations later, it is a clue, but not evidence, that might give slightly more weight to one record than another.
In Scotland, there is a traditional system of naming, which involved giving the grandchild the first and last names of a grandparent as their first and middle names, which can be both a boon and a problem to family historians. It does make it a lot easier to know that you will be looking for an Alexander Dair as the grandparent when working back; but if Alexander Dair has six grandchildren called Alexander Dair Cochrane, for example, and especially if they all live in the same town, it can make sorting out one from another when they marry a complete tangle.
Even in England, surnames are often used as middle names for children. Sometimes this can be very useful, as it is normally the maiden name of the mother which is used as the middle name of a child, and that can help trace a marriage. However, there are occasions when it is very difficult to ascertain the reason for the addition. I have an ancestor who named his first son George Robey Dickins. That much is very clear; his mother was a Robey by birth. But his second son was named Herbert Baggaley Dickins. In nearly 30 years of searching I am yet to find out the reason why. I can only assume that there is a Baggaley connection I have yet to discover, or that it was the name of a godfather or godmother and adopted to honour them.
Of course, there is the other type of name which runs in the family, one which is very obstructive for genealogists. I’m talking about the families who think it is a good idea to name their son with exactly the same name as the father, and the grandchild with the same name again. In my own family the names John and Thomas Dickins are swapped around every generation for centuries, so that the first-born is called John in one generation and Thomas the next. Again, when all the children in a family adopt the same name for their first-born son, it makes sorting out the John Dickins from the John Dickins a nightmare!
You may even encounter the same name in the same generation. Although it seems strange to modern sensibilities, families often gave a subsequent child the name of one who had previously died. Thus, a Charles who died, will be followed by a Charles that lived. It can cause confusion over birth dates if you aren’t aware of this tendency to recycle names for children following on.
I did hear of one family where all the male children were named William, after the father. I’m not sure how they overcame the problem of everyone responding when you call out “William?” It is said that most of the accidents in hospitals which occur, happen because people of the same name are being treated in hospital at the same time, and so the advice for anyone having responsibility for naming a child nowadays, is to either give them unique names, or to give them at least three forenames, to minimize the chances of confusion. And it will have the added bonus that it will make family history easier for the generations to come, too.