Use of Aliases - an OverviewEdit This Page

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Historical Use of Aliases in the United Kingdom

While no brief article can cover this subject thoroughly - entire books have been written about it - an overview of the use of aliases may help researchers discover connections within their families. Particular problems often arise in identifying some individuals because many families changed their surnames, used patronymics, and had more than one living child with the same given name. "Cadet" branches of families also existed, with the same surname(s), further confusing records.

What properly constitutes an alias? The Online 1911 Encyclopedia says: ALIAS - (Latin for "another time"; or "otherwise") a term used to connect the different names of a person who has passed under more than one, in order to conceal his identity, or for other reasons; or, compendiously, to describe the adopted name. The expression "alias dictus" was formerly used in legal indictments, and pleadings, where absolute precision was necessary in identifying the person to be charged, as "John Jones, alias dictus James Smith." The adoption of a name other than a man's baptismal or surname need not necessarily be for the purpose of deception or fraud; pseudonyms or nicknames fall thus under the description of an alias."

In this definition, the presumption seems to be that an alias was primarily used to conceal or disguise an identity; quite the opposite case was true in earlier times, when the intention seemed to be to legally identify one individual from another.

The period during which aliases were most used in the U.K. coincided with the development of surnames, approximately 1460 to 1650, and continued to be used for much longer periods, even into the 1800's. The practice seemed to originate in the southern areas, and slowly moved northward; in 1575, John Vovvel alias Hooker, gentleman, published "Order and Usage of keeping the parlement in England" in London. 74 years later, in 1646, a genealogist/curate in Yorkshire wrote "surnames are just settling into common usage in this section of rural Yorkshire, and parish records contain many alias names."

By the 1500's, the practice of using alias surnames was sufficiently established for them to be recorded in official documents, as evidenced by frequent mentions in various registers, wills, and very importantly, in manorial court documents. The Ireland Tenures Act, 1662, refers to "Dame Jane Chichester, alias Itchingham, wife," and in Foxe's "Book of Martyrs", "Catherine Finlay alias Knight" was included.

The use of aliases seem to fall within one of five basic reasons:

1. Retention of patronymics. During the 16th century, many men were reluctant to abandon ancestral names, and consequently retained the forenames of their fathers or grandfathers as surnames. For example, William HARRY of Luxulyan, Cornwall, in 1547, was described (in a legal document) as William HARRY alias WATT - Watt being his grandfather's forename. These practices were not limited to "the gentry" who, because of land interests, made limited use of patronymics. According to John Chynoweth's book, "Tudor Cornwall", in the 1569 Muster Lists for St. Ives, 41% of the able-bodied men thus mustered had the forenames of their fathers as surnames.

2. Retention of topographical reference points - especially in relation to a manor or place name from which some families derived their surnames. A case in point is that of John RICHARDS of Bosavarne (1547), who had a son Thomas BOSAVARNE (1570), who had a son Martin THOMAS alias BOSAVARNE(1620).

In the 16th century, it was not unusual for a farmer to be born and grow up on a particular farm, and be identified by that name; i.e., John Thomas Penhall, son of Thomas Penhall. He would then marry, and either buy or rent another farm, and become John Thomas Trehair; lastly, as a prosperous farmer, he moved to a much bigger farm, and became John Thomas Stackhouse, of Stackhouse.

3. Commemoration by descendants of a marriage to a heiress, or to a member of a "socially superior" family.

4. Illegitimacy. For example, John Reskymer had an illegitimate son with Margaret Gerber named John Reskymer alias Gerber. In later generations the son may well have been baptized as John Reskymer Gerber which, as with the use of an alias, served the purpose of publicly proclaiming his parental origins.

5. Rights of inheritance, and other economic reasons.

In the days of copyhold land, a persons' entitlement to land was only recorded in the manor court rolls. Deeds as they are known today, did not exist. The only "proof" one had that one owned particular land was in the "copy" rolls held by the manorial clerk. If a woman was widowed, and later remarried, the children of her first marriage often took the name of the step-father. But, to maintain their right to their inheritance, they would use the step-father's name as an alias. There were variations in this practice. In one well-documented case circa 1558, William Camborne married Elinor Wilton Paynter, a widow with seven children, and adopted the surname of her first husband, becoming William Camborne alias Paynter of Trelissick, St. Erth. Their descendants used both Camborne and Paynter, with the use of Paynter eventually completely overtaking the use of Camborne within three generations.

In some cases, persons legally changed their names to obtain an inheritance from a line in their family which was in danger of "dying out." For instance, a man would take the name of his maternal uncle to become his legal heir.

Of course, aliases might be used in cases of adoption, as well.

It must be kept in mind that not everyone in a particular family used the same, or any, alias, and an alias might be used by someone who married into the family, not just those born into it. The use of particular aliases could be a long-lived practice; in one known case, the alias was maintained for 221 years.

Fortunately, the use of two (or more) surnames sometimes appear in wills, the benefactor wishing to be unambiguous about the potential beneficiary. Manorial records, and, later, land records may also be sources of information. Spelling, however, was fluid, and most frequently records were in Latin.

By the mid-1800's, the practice of using aliases had diminished to the point of obsolescence, except in the criminal classes, and as noted in the definition first given, court cases where it was paramount to identify an individual.

As for forenames, persons were often given the fore-names of their godparents. In the 1550's when five Erisey daughters in one generation were baptised, four of whom were given the name of one godmother. Many families gave multiple children in the same generation the same, or almost the same, forename For instance, Marianne Symons, Mary Ann Symons, Mary Anne Symons, and Mary Symons were all baptised circa 1815-1830, born to the same parents. Only one died in childhood.

During the early 1800's, it became fashionable to give the paternal grandmother's name as a second given name. It can greatly benefit a researcher when a family used that name for several generations, as was frequently done. Often these names reflect two or more of the above factors, which become additional bonuses. The maternal grandmother's maiden name was also used in this manner, but less frequently.

It is always worthwhile to investigate "middle names" as possible maiden names for a mother or grandmother.

In all these cases, use was made of the names to distinguish a particular line, or family, from another, and to tie the family to the maternal line as well. It always benefits a researcher to keep in mind that names found in the census which don't agree with baptismal records are not necessarily a mistake - they could reflect an alias.

As Jim Thompson, a Cornish genealogist, has said "These aliases or nicknames can often help with genealogy, or more often defy attempts to figure them out until more research is done. My grandmother was born Catherine Berryman, but was always called Katie Clinch, and later, Old Katie Clinch. The Katie bit was self-evident, and later the old bit was logical as she lived to be 104, but Clinch was a mystery until I obtained some old large-scale maps and some help from a person well acquainted with the area. She was born at Polmanter, according to all family lore, but there on the map near Polmanter was a tiny lost hamlet of "Rough and Clinch". When I did finally get her birth certificate, her birthplace was listed as "Clinch"."

While the use of aliases may seem to be a plot to discourage genealogists of future generations, it can be a fascinating, if not perplexing, topic for all genealogists to study.

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  • This page was last modified on 13 October 2010, at 17:03.
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