Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess

Riddle on the name Elizabeth

in Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955)

I’m struggling with naming conventions at the moment – both the conventions of the late 18th / early 19th century when the characters in my book were alive, and the conventions I should use myself as a historian writing about them now.

The main character in my book is Walter Stevenson Davidson, whom I’ve discussed before (see tag). Walter was named after his mother’s brother, Walter (later Sir Walter) Farquhar, who was his godfather. Sir Walter’s wife Anne had the maiden name of Stevenson, so I’m assuming she was WSD’s godmother. I’ve come across this convention before, where godmothers’ godsons are given the woman’s surname as a middle name. So for instance Sir Walter’s daughter Eliza Farquhar was godmother to her cousin’s son, who was named George Farquhar Leslie.

Anne was a widow when she married Walter Farquhar in 1771, with 2 children, John and Elizabeth Harvie. John died young, but Elizabeth grew up and married Simon Halliday in 1787. As Elizabeth Halliday she features regularly in family correspondence and her husband went into partnership with one of Sir Walter’s sons. They were clearly well integrated into the Farquhar network.

So here’s the puzzle: Anne Farquhar went on to have 7 more children with her second husband, 3 boys and 4 girls, and the youngest girl, born in 1783, was named Eliza. I know that families used to recycle particular names, often reusing the baptismal name of a dead baby to ensure that a name survived if it had particular significance. And every genealogist knows, to their frustration, that a small set of first names are repeated endlessly within the family circle. But surely have 2 living daughters named Elizabeth and Eliza would be a touch confusing?

My friend Jenny Harrison, who is an expert on family history, tells me that families did often use confusing (to us) combinations of names within the family – perhaps a John and a Jack, say, or a Margaret and a Peggy. This doesn’t seem  satisfactory here though, because Eliza and Elizabeth are so clearly versions of the same name. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is called Elizabeth (Darcy), Miss Eliza (sneeringly, by Miss Bingley) and Lizzie (by the family). It’s very odd.

Jenny tells me that there was a particular convention at work in choosing family names, from generation to generation. When the rule worked perfectly (and of course it rarely did), the eldest son was named for the father’s father, the second son for the mother’s father, the third son for the father. For girls, the priority could be for the first daughter to take her maternal grandmother’s name, the second her father’s mother’s name, and so on.

In Walter Farquhar’s family this naming practice works only partially. The eldest daughter was named for his mother Catherine, but his eldest son was named Thomas Harvie Farquhar after Anne’s father and her first husband (unless, of course, the Harvie comes from a godmother somewhere whom I haven’t yet located). The second son, Robert, was named after Walter’s father; the third was called Walter.

The other side of this problem comes in the writing: how do you differentiate between generations of people, all with the same name? WSD was always referred to in his own time as Walter Stevenson Davidson (or W S Davidson) to distinguish him from his cousin Walter Davidson of Calcutta, but referring to him by all 3 names becomes a bit heavy going after a while. That’s why I use the abbreviation WSD for my own convenience, though I’d be wary of doing so in a formal paper. Amongst his business associates, who knew both men, he was referred to as ‘China’ Davidson to distinguish him from ‘Calcutta’ Davidson.

There’s another naming convention that I struggle with. Do I refer to characters by their first name, or surname, or ring the changes somehow? And do I treat men and women in the same way? This is a troubling issue for any feminist historian, made more complicated because our naming conventions are at odds with those of the past.

In WSD’s day, people called men by their surname alone, even – perhaps especially – within the family circle. Darcy is Darcy to his aunt and his cousin, and we wouldn’t even know what his first name was if not for his signature on that letter. Women, on the other hand, were called by their first name within the family – Jane, Lizzie – or more formally with a title – Mrs Bennet. Neither is satisfactory in a serious historical work, and using the surname alone indicates class (Hill is a servant). Nor will many people these days pick up the nuances of ‘Miss Bennet’ (Jane, the eldest) and ‘Miss Eliza’ (a lower mortal altogether in the complex family hierarchy that determined who sat closest to the fire, or walked into dinner first).

Which brings me back to the curse of too many Elizabeths. At the moment I’m writing about society in early New South Wales through the eye of a small group of middle aged women: Elizabeth Macarthur, Elizabeth Marsden, Elizabeth Paterson…. Are you beginning to pick up a pattern here? Around the time these women were born in the 1770s, Elizabeth was clearly a very popular name. Governors Bligh, Macquarie and Darling also had wives called Elizabeth.

So thank goodness for diminutives. I know John Macarthur called his wife Elizabeth, whereas Samuel Marsden and William Bligh called theirs Betsy / Betsey. Governor Darling’s wife was Eliza, as was Elizabeth Macarthur’s goddaughter Eliza Kingdon, who was possibly named after her. John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s granddaughter was Bessie, while a grandniece, daughter of Hannibal Macarthur, was known as Libby. Stay tuned for Beth, Betty and Lisa.

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13 responses to “Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess

  1. The variant “Isabella” of Elisabeth was very common in the north of England. My mother grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and was Isabella Newton Hetherington, known as Ella, and her mother was Ellen and her father and brother were Thomas Hetherington. Her paternal grandparents were Thomas and Isabella Ann Newton, and there are hordes of Thomases, Isabellas and Elizabeths in all parts of the family tree. Isabella Ann Newton had a sister Elizabeth, and their mother was born Elizabeth Tulip, later Elizabeth Spark. Thomas Newton’s parents were Thomas and Isabel, and Elizabeth Tulip’s parents were William and Isabel. So both of Isabella Ann Newton’s grandmothers were Isabel.

    • Thanks John. Yes, Isabella and Elizabeth are related in Scotland too. And as you say, in any particular family you get hordes of a few big standard names – that’s why it’s so nice to occasionally come across a Hannibal or Cassandra 🙂

  2. John Knight

    In May 1875 at St Ann’s church in Newcastle upon Tyne, Lancelot Chicken Tulip married Dorothy Isabella Usher. Despite having a lot of Newcastle relatives surnamed either Tulip or Usher, so far I have not been able to establish a direct connection with Lancelot Chicken. His father was also Lancelot Chicken Tulip.

  3. Throughout my work on Elizabeth Macarthur, I usually refer to her as Elizabeth rather than as Macarthur. Or sometimes Mrs Macarthur when I need to mix things up a little. This is less about being unduly familiar and more about the difficulties of distinguishing one Macarthur from another on the page. I plan to include an early note about this very issue.
    As you say in your post (a very enjoyable one, thanks!) many of Elizabeth Macarthur’s friends were also called Elizabeth. I can work around this by using their last names and their nicknames (as I’m sure you do too) but I feel for your problem with two Elizabeths in one family.
    Elizabeth Macarthur also had two sons named James (the first died very young) so again I just carefully work around it, referring to ‘baby James’ for example. But it’s easier for me because baby James necessarily only appears for a paragraph or two. Good luck!

  4. Thank you, MST. I’m reading Hazel King, Elizabeth Macarthur and Her World (1980) at the moment, and your comment sent me back to check what she called her. It’s ‘Elizabeth’ – but what really strikes me is that I had to check. I think we internalise the character we are reading about on the page, and don’t really notice all that much, just as long as it’s not confusing, and not too jarring. When Anne Summers wrote about Maria Rye (1829-1904) in Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975) she called her ‘Ms Rye’. That feels anachronistic to me, though it probably suited the 1970s.

  5. I’m researching a woman called Isabella Fyvie Mayo (1847-1914). English born of Scottish father and maternal grandparents. Fyvie was her maiden name, not a given middle name, and she retained it, without a hyphen, after marriage. So I too have problems knowing how to refer to her. Most options seem far too familiar – she always signed herself in full including her surname, even to close friends, although on a postcard Fyvie just might be abbreviated to ‘F’. Omitting Fyvie is therefore denying her an identity she deliberately retained, but it does result in a mouthful. More often she abbreviated Isabella to Isa, but I have never found her only signing as this. Interestingly, the 13th child of a friend (b. 1892) was christened Isabella Fyvie Brebner. Fyvie was a common surname in north-east Scotland where the family lived but this child was definitely named after Isabella Fyvie Mayo as her name was officially altered shortly afterwards to Isabella Mayo Brebner. I had not thought of my Isabella as being the godmother, but that is highly possible, so thank you for the suggestion.

  6. Thanks so much for these thoughts – really helpful. I’ve struggled with it all myself – when I was writing Elizabeth/Elysabeth Woodville, I had to grapple with her having two living sons both called Richard, five Margarets at Court, and no less than THREE Edward-Prince-of-Waleses. There’s a lot for sticking to all-fiction historical fiction: then you can do what you like.

    I agree that readers won’t always get the nuances of Miss Bennet vs Miss Elizabeth, but some will consciously, and there are always subtle things you can do to reinforce/clarify it for the others.

    Another issue, though, is writers who aren’t aware of their own defaults: American women might combine maiden name and married name when they marry, but English/British women absolutely didn’t. Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t become Elizabeth Bennet Darcy, for example …

    • Thank you. I agree absolutely about the problem of not recognizing our own defaults. It’s something I constantly struggle with, and we can probably never get it quite right. Interesting about the American convention – I wonder whether it came from Scotland, as with LRM’s Isabella Fyvie Mayo?

  7. I can empathise. I’m currently writing about a fellow named Joseph Bufton. I’m used to simply calling him ‘Bufton’, but he has a father and brother (both named John) who play a part in the story too, and I don’t really like switching back and forth between ‘Joseph’ and ‘Bufton’ in the middle of a piece.

    As you say, it is even trickier with women, especially when they’re all called Elizabeth!

  8. Michael Richard

    If I could add to the naming question.
    I have an interesting issue in my wife’s family, where in the late 18th century/early 19th century, there was one family where there were 4 children called John McLean, all alive at the one time. To confuse matters, a daughter married a Jonathan McLean.
    Records in the Scottish highlands are poor before the mid 1800s and this family had absolutely defied sorting out, in spite of many attempting to do so over 50 years.
    I visited the area in 1991 and was lucky enough to find, with the aid of a local GP, a related octogenarian still living in the vicinity, who sorted the whole thing out for me in 30 minutes and from memory.
    I asked him how on earth people managed to keep track. His reply was that just because it didn’t make sense in English, I shouldn’t assume that it did not make sense in Gaelic. (He was a monoglot Gaelic speaker and I had the local GP as my interpreter). In Gaelic, surnames weren’t used, but rather paternal and grandpaternal patronyms. So in Gaelic, the names were in fact different.
    The answer was similar to that of your family history friend. The first son was named after the father’s father; the second son after the mother’s father; the third son after an uncle who had emigrated and thus who would likely never be seen again. If you remarried, you started again at the beginning. These conventions were still operating in the highlands in the 1950s. Interestingly, the same convention applied to an illegitimate child, so there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who the father was!
    So in this family, where both grandfathers were called John and where the first wife died and he remarried a woman whose father was also John, the obvious outcome was four sons called John.
    I asked him how people told them apart. His reply was that the oldest son was always called Big John and the next Little John. Big John might be 5’2″ tall, he was still always called Big John.
    Apparently with this particular family, once they started speaking English rather than Gaelic, the family differentiated them by using the names Jonathan, John, Johnnie and Jock. Unfortunately for the family historian, all official records use the name John for everyone, leading to confusion. But for a local relative, there was no confusion at all.

  9. Hello – I’m late to the party but I have a Elizabeth/Eliza issue in my family research too. In 1803 my relations Edward and Elizabeth had a daughter Elizabeth. They then had a space of around 15 years (which I can only guess at being due to the Neopolionic Wars as we’re English) after which they had a boy named Edward followed in 1822 by another daughter who they named Eliza. The first daughter Elizabeth was still alive and married shortly afterwards – she’s my direct line. The baby Eliza died at one year old. I’m still confused by this and more so because of the long gap between children but I’ve not found any other explanations other than that is just what happened. My relations would not have been literate so perhaps the names sounded different enough but in keeping with the parents’ names. They certainly don’t seem to have thought out of the box. I’m embarrassed to say my name is also Elizabeth!! Ugh.

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