I suppose it is with having an unusual name myself that I have always been interested in names. Certainly having an unusual surname has been an asset in searching for my family tree. I recently fictionalised a search for family history in my genealogical mystery, my novel, ‘Radwinter’. Thomas Radwinter is in search of his ancestry and has little difficulty at first because there was only one person in the earliest records he could find, the 1841 census, with his surname.

These days it is so much easier to undertake genealogical research because of the internet sites available, some of which are free, and also the on-line community who are so willing to help and support research, and share their own results. I have had great help from others researching the same surnames as I have been looking for, and I have even found a distant cousin who now lives in the USA.

Even if your surname is not that unusual, as Thomas Radwinter’s was, there are many ways to trace your ancestors, if you have a date of birth, if you have a place of birth, or if you have an ancestor with an unusual first name.  It is sometimes helpful to remember that people in the past were not always as literate as they are now, and names might be spelled in a variety of ways; my own great-grandmother was Lois, Lowis, Lowes, and Loise on different documents. Some census enumerators found regional accents challenging, and if the person they were recording did not know how to spell their own name, then you might find a name can be written in different ways; I found Susannah spelt Susanner, Sousan, Sussanna in a series of census returns!

Thomas Radwinter discovered that his own ancestor had been Taras Radwinski when he arrived in England in the 1830’s and anglicised it to Thomas Radwinter… My character Thomas was delighted to find out that his distant ancestor had the same name as himself.  Name changes can happen for more reasons than the one Thomas discovered, and not only as a woman marrying might take her husband’s name. Sometimes a child would take a step-father’s name, sometimes a family for some unknown reason will change its name, or sometimes there is a very good reason for a name-change. My family were Jewish and in the 1840’s they changed their name from Moses to Walford, much more English, and maybe, in those days, more acceptable.

When tracing ancestors, the same first name can crop up again and again, and that can help pin down an elusive family member. I was stumped in searching for a someone called John… However, I knew he had an aunt and a grandmother named Drusilla, so when I found a man named John with the right surname for my ancestor, and he had a daughter called Drusilla, it seemed to fit. I did further research and was able to confirm that I had the right John!

One of the delights of genealogical research is the unusual names you come across, and the waves of name change are fascinating. Names I think of as very old-fashioned, and associated with elderly relatives of my grandparents generation, are now fashionable again, Ethel, Maud, Sidney, Wilfred… you will find children with these names in many nursery-schools! Names that Thomas Radwinter comes across in his researches include Wulfwin, Guthroth and Frodo!

I’m sure not many people have hobbits in their family, but paying attention to names can help solve many genealogical puzzles!

© Lois Elsden 2017


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