The vast majority of families prior to the 19th century children were only
given a single Christian name, although multiple names slowly worked its way
down the social structure, with most multiple names, when they started to
become common being among the middle and upper classes in the mid-nineteenth
In the vast majority of cases a child was named after a relative, and most families would include a son with the same name as the father, and another with the same name as the paternal grandfather (if different). This can lead to very confusion situations as the following idealised example, with three sons per generation, will show.
Let us assume that a Robert has three sons, the first called Robert (after his father), Charles (after his grandfather) and James. These children all grow up and marry and have the following children as follows:
Robert 2 has Robert (after his father) and Charles and James (after his uncles)
Charles has Charles (after his father), Robert (after his grandfather) and James (after his uncle).
James has James (after his father), Robert (after his grandfather) and Charles (after his uncle).
This results in a generation with three Roberts, three Charles, and three James all of about the same age and when they marry the next generation will include nine Roberts, nine Charles and nine James - again all of about the same age, and as many girls were called Elizabeth or Mary - there may well be identically names couples of about the same age ....
This naming fashion can be very helpful where one of the Christian names is uncommon. For one Devon family with a locally comparatively common surname I have details of 35 male births between 1600 and 1800. The given names were Elias (10), John (10), William (9), Thomas (4) and Robert (2), while names such as Edward, George, James and Henry never occur. In looking at the records one can be almost certain that if a family contains an Elias they are related - and I found no examples in the area which were not. At the same time families with the same surname and several sons were given names different to the above invariably proved not to be related.
However the fashion can be a pitfall for the unwary or a barrier to further research. For instance the 1851 census shows that two John Ivory's, both described as aged 50 and born in Kimpton, Herts, were living in adjacent farm houses in the 1851 census with their families. Because they were living next door to each other it is very easy to spot the potential for confusion - but if they were living in different villages it would be very easy for an inexperienced genealogist, looking for an ancestor called John Ivory born about 1800, to pick up the wrong one. A Victorian family tree including some of my ancestors and drawn up by someone who would have known the family includes another example which would have needed very careful checking to spot. It shows that Abraham Devonshire married Ann Rolls in Bicester in 1751, and when she died he married her cousin, Ann Rolls. I haven't checked (shame on me) but undoubtedly the baptismal register (if it survives as they were non-conformists) shows a continuous series of children born to Abraham and Ann without any indication that the mother has changed.
Unfortunately the situation can become impossible. A case in point is the Gibbs family in Winslow, Bucks, where Robert GIBBS married Sarah SUTTON in 1700 and had six sons called Robert, Richard, William, Thomas, John and Stephen, all of whom survived to adulthood. While they each had different numbers of sons all were names either called Robert, Richard, William, Thomas, John or Stephen, and by 1800 the were many identically named GIBBS in the area. Unfortunately it is impossible to find out which was which, because several branches of the family became non-conformists at a chapel whose records have not survived ... While it is possibly to make a reasonable guess that someone's great grandparents were Robert and Sarah, the records are too defective and ambiguous to be able to be certain about the intervening generations.
The lesson is always be on the look out for the possibility that the person you found in the IGI or other sources may not be your ancestor but an identically named cousin of about the same age.
A number of the examples in "Right Name, Wrong Body" are due to possible confusion between cousins with identical names and similar dates and places of birth. The complexity of cousin marriages is illustrated in Who is related to Who?
For an example showing how this information can help see:
Page updated November 2007