The Clapham Sect and the naming of children


Sir Joshua Reynolds’ famous portrait of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire and her daughter, another Georgiana, illustrates the eighteenth-century practice of naming children after their parents

There is a strange scene in the William Wilberforce biopic, Amazing Grace, in which Wilberforce, ground down by the apparent hopelessness of his cause, is considering giving up the battle for the abolition of the slave trade. However, he is held to his campaign by the encouragement of his wife who talks him out of his depression, promising that their next child will be a daughter, and that they will call her Emma. This is peculiar in two ways. Firstly, to the best of our knowledge, Barbara Wilberforce was no particular enthusiast for abolition; she had married the man, not his cause and would probably not have been sorry if he had retreated into private life. Secondly, the Wilberforces were very conventional in the naming of their children. ‘Emma’ was not a family name and it is most unlikely that they would have given it to one of their daughters.

These are the children of William and Barbara Ann Wilberforce:

William (named after his father)
Barbara (named after her mother)
Elizabeth (named after her paternal grandmother)
Robert Isaac (named after his two grandfathers, Robert Wilberforce and Isaac Spooner)
Samuel (the future ‘Soapy Sam’, bishop of Oxford; named after Samuel Thornton, the banker and Member of Parliament and Wilberforce’s second cousin)
Henry (named after Henry Thornton, Samuel Thornton’s younger brother)

If they had had another daughter, it is a reasonable guess that they would have followed convention and named her Sarah, after Wilberforce’s beloved sister. If another daughter had followed, she would have probably been named Ann; it was Barbara’s second name, as well as being the name of her sister, and of a little sister of Wilberforce’s, who had died in childhood and to whom he had been deeply attached.

When Wilberforce first met Barbara Spooner (in Bath in April 1797) he was struck by her Christian name, though his journal does not record why this should be the case. Popular in the seventeenth century, it had become a comparatively rare name by the eighteenth. Barbara was the seventh in her family to have been so named. The first Barbara was the daughter of Viscount Fauconberg and the wife the royalist martyr, Sir Henry Slingsby, who had been beheaded in 1658. Barbara Wilberforce’s daughter, born in 1799, was therefore the eighth. Young Barbara died of tuberculosis in 1821, breaking the line of Barbaras. However, when Wilberforce’s younger daughter, Elizabeth James, gave birth to a daughter in 1832, she named her Barbara Wilberforce James, a tribute to her father and her dead sister. It was clearly important to the family that the name did not die out.

Barbara Wilberforce the elder was a great stickler for the family tradition. When her son Robert named his son (born in 1833) William Francis (Wilfranc for short), she was a little annoyed that he did not have Robert, the name of his paternal grandfather, as one of his names, though this was somewhat unreasonable of her as he was named after his maternal grandfather, Archdeacon Francis Wrangham. Their second son was called Eddy, suggesting perhaps a deliberate break with the family tradition.

When it came to names, Wilberforce’s friends in the Clapham Sect followed more or less the same practice: the eldest son named for his father, the eldest daughter for her mother. Zachary Macaulay broke somewhat with this tradition when he named his eldest son, the future historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, after his mentor and brother-in-law, the Evangelical landowner and MP, Thomas Babington. He seems to have disliked his own name, saving it for his youngest son, Charles Zachary. The Macaulay’s fourth daughter was named Hannah More Macaulay after her godmother, Hannah More.

Henry and Marianne Thornton also followed the practice of giving their children family names. Their eldest daughter was another Marianne, and their eldest son was named Henry Skyes (his mother’s maiden name) Thornton. A daughter, Lucy, and a son, Watson, were  named after Henry Thornton’s mother, Lucy Watson. However,  the Thorntons also introduced some more fashionable and exotic ones for their younger daughters: Isabella, Sophia, Henrietta, Laura. Interestingly, no daughter was named after Marianne’s mother, Dorothy Sykes, even though the two had had a close relationship – I suspect this is because the name was thought to be too old-fashioned. Where fashion clashed with family piety, it looks as if, in their case at least, fashion won out! Perhaps this is a sign of changing times, and parents were feeling increasingly free to exercise personal preference when it came to choosing their children’s names


5 thoughts on “The Clapham Sect and the naming of children

  1. This is a particularly interesting entry for me as the naming patterns described here are widespread – perhaps even common (though I did not know this until beginning a study of the maternal ancestors of the Bronte children, enabled by the Bronte Society). I had noticed the practice in my 18th century family who emigrated to the American colonies, but thought it just a family trait. Now I realise that it is a two-edged sword in genealogical terms, both helping to identify members of a kinship circle, and confusing the similar finds of kin who share the same forenames, making identification difficult. Several of the Clapham Sect come into my study through kinship, Methodism and evangelicalism, and I am very appreciative of your weblog!

    • You’re so right about the confusion! I worked on two William Wilberforces, two Barbara Wilberforces, two Marianne Thorntons and my copy editor kept telling me how I needed to try to differentiate them more. The Brontë maternal ancestry sounds so interesting – usually the research focuses on the Reverend Patrick rather than his wife. It’s interesting that you have good records of your ancestors. I hope your research continues to be fruitful.

  2. Anne – I am finally coming to the end of my writing up of the Branwell-Carne material and preparing the final manuscript – oh the blinking footnotes!! I will send you some preliminary info if you send me your e-mail (or perhaps I will find it. You are listed in my bibliography. Melissa

    • Aarrgghh! So sorry, Melissa – I haven’t looked at my posts for two years and now I see your very nice request. I suppose it’s much too late for me to be of any use to you and I can only apologise for my extreme (though inadvertent) discourtesy. I hope your publication has been successful in these very difficult times.

  3. Dear Anne – The Bronte book appears to have done quite well considering the pandemic & all (I do hope you have survived so far without damage, except perhaps to the psyche). It was published as BRONTE TERRITORIES: CORNWALL & THE UNEXPLORED MATERNAL LEGACY 1760-1860 at the tail end of 2019 and still has plenty of space & reference on-line. Academic books have not fared well in terms of sales due to the closure of libraries and the universities, but the Bronte stories continue strong, and the reviews/notices have all been good. There is a fair bit in the book about the Wilberforce network and anti-slavery campaign with special reference to the Carnes, Thorntons, Henry Martyn, Patrick Bronte & their connections. If you email me your postal address (Melissa Hardie, Hypatia Trust, Trevelyan House, 16 Chapel Street, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 4AW, I will send you a review copy, just for your information. In the end you r website did not make it into the bibliography as planned (I am not sure why not, though there something of an hiatus at the end with the index which is not as comprehensive as I set out to make it. Thanks for your note – it would be nice to meet you at some point though I am now getting rather old for travelling about. All best, Melissa

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