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Journey # 13: What's in a Name?

The great-grandparents on my grandfather's side were Joseph Henry Lowe and Georgina or Georgiana Dawson. I knew when they were married (online records). I had them in the census reports with their children. I even knew their fathers' names from the marriage certificate I'd ordered and received. Georgiana's father's name was George Dawson, and Joseph Henry's father's name shown on the certificate as Henry Lowe.

But Henry Lowe was a complete dead-end — not because there were no Henry Lowes in the records, but because there were too many.

Why were there so many Lowes? And I'd found a lot of people with the last name Pickles. Why were these so popular. I decided to do some research. What I found was surprising. During the time England began tracking people for tax purposes, there were no real last names. They needed a way to identify and distinguish between all the different Johns, Henrys and Samuels in England. The tax collectors began to identify people by what they did for a living or by where they lived.

In Yorkshire at least, the top of the hill was called the "pick" of the hill. People who lived at the top of the hill might have the designation "Pick" added to their name: John who lived at the top of hill became John Pick-hill and eventually John Pickle or some similar derivation depending on what the person himself determined was suitable.

A person who lived at the bottom of the hill, or in the low country, was often referred to with Low. So John who lived at the bottom of the hill or in the lowlands became John Low, which evolved into Lowe and other derivations, again, based on what the person himself preferred. This is why you can have so many people with the same name in one area and none of them are actually related to each other in any way. This is not the only explanation for a name, but it is one explanation and certainly one that could apply to my ancestors and why those names were so popular in a particular area.

And this may be why I found literally dozens of Henry Lowes in Lancashire, which is where Joseph Henry was born. As many as six were the right age to have been JH's father. But I had no idea which was the correct one. There were also numerous records for Joseph Henry Lowes born in that area, so I wasn't even able to narrow down the choices to order a birth certificate to learn his mother's maiden name.

So I started researching all the names to narrow down the suspects. I set up a spreadsheet for all the Henry Lowes and tracked them through the census reports from 1841 through to 1911, but I couldn't find a Henry Lowe as the father to a Joseph Lowe that fit the details I had. Again, I had Joseph Henry confirmed in all censuses after he was married, but nothing from before. I couldn't find a Joseph Lowe that fit into my family prior to the marriage certificate issued in 1875. He must have existed. He said to the census takers that he was born in Bury, Lancashire — and that was consistent in the 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 census. I could find records for him with each of his children's births and finally a death record in 1919. But where was he before 1875? There was no family in the 1851, 1861 or 1871 censuses (anywhere in England) with a father named Henry and a son of the correct age named Joseph.

I decided I needed to order his birth certificate, so I started calculating. Again, I used a spreadsheet and calculated back from each census using the age he was. I combined that with the age he was at the time of his marriage and narrowed the period down to late 1849 through to early 1851. I found only one Joseph Lowe born in Bury, Lancashire in that period. The record was for early 1851, so I ordered it.

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