The Two John Swanns — A Cautionary Tale and Reflection on Naming Traditions

This much we know for sure:

  • On April 21, 1850, Edward Voce (The Engineer’s nan’s 2x great grandfather) married a woman named Sarah Ann Swann at St. Margaret’s in Leicester.
  • Both fathers’ names are listed on the wedding, as well as their occupations. (I love it when they include that kind of information, although it would be even better if it were completely legible.) Both men are named John. John Voce is a farmer, and John Swann is a globe hand? Well, that’s what it looks like to me. Also, the Swann name is so poorly written, it was transcribed as “Swain.” However, if you look closely at the “n” in spinster, it looks very much like the ones in “Swann.”
  • Edward and Sarah Ann are listed as being 23, meaning they were both born around 1827. She lived at Woodboy Street, he at Wilton Street.
  • The marriage is witnessed by John and Louisa Swann.


Now we can find out more about Sarah Ann. Using, I located the 1841 census record for what appears to be her family, living at Bridge End, St. Margaret’s parish, Leicester. They are listed as John (35, frame worker), Charlotte (30), Sarah Ann (14), John (13), Louisa (9), Edward (7), James (5), Thomas (3), Charlotte (4 mos.), John Showell (30, frame worker), Ann Showell (60), and Mary Hilton (45). This ticks all the boxes. Not only is Sarah listed, she’s listed as “Sarah Ann,” consistent with her marriage record. Louisa is nine, which means nine years later, when Sarah is married, she’s just the right age to serve as witness along with her father. The family lives in the same parish Sarah Ann was married from. We don’t know who Ann and John Showell are, nor Mary Hilton, but they reside in the same household. GBC_1841_0604_0431
To climb the family tree a little further, we need to find out more about John and Charlotte Swann. We know they live in Leicester, but can’t be sure that’s where they are from because the 1841 census doesn’t give that information. Still, we know their approximate birth year, and that gives us a start.

Here’s where it starts to get a little weird. The 1851 census lists a John and Charlotte Swann in Leicester, but they live in a different part of Leicester, with different children. Google maps says Barrowden (their home) is only about 20 miles from Bridge End, Leicester, so this is possible. But Charlotte’s age is different. She’s shown as 48, rather than 40 as she should be from a census taken ten years later. And the children are Fanny, Elizabeth, and Henry, rather than the ones from the previous census. Surely at least Charlotte and Thomas would still be at home at ages 10 and 13, possibly even James at 15 and Edward at 17. So, this is probably not them, even though this John Swann is the right age. Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 6.56.44 PM
For a while, I had no luck finding an 1851 census for our John and Charlotte at all. But while writing this post, I broadened the age group for John a little further and played with the name a little more.
Voila! Here they are at Woodboy Street with their many children and Rebecca Wheatley, who is listed as “mother” and “widow.”
From this, we can find their marriage record, which, alas, does not contain the wealth of information Sarah Ann and Edward’s does. Screen Shot 2019-04-28 at 7.17.57 PMWe can also find the baptismal record for Charlotte, which names her mother Rebecca and gives us her father’s name, Thomas. Unusually for a baptism record, it also gives her birth date. S2_GBPRS_LEICS_102228429_00118And the 1861 census shows Charlotte listed as “wife” and “married,” with no John in sight, but five of her children.

From there, the trail goes cold for both John and Charlotte, leading me to surmise John died sometime between 1851 and 1861, and Charlotte followed sometime before 1871. I believe this because in 1871, Samuel is living with his older brother.

This family tree was actually fairly easy to figure out once I began looking at it more logically, i.e. realizing that children don’t usually appear and then disappear and others take their places within a ten year period. (I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but generally such children wouldn’t share the same birth years).

It’s quite likely the two John Swanns were cousins. In fact, I believe there may have been at least one or two more, all living within ten miles of each other. It was just unusual that two were married to Charlottes.

This happens because in England, as in many countries including America, there is a tradition of naming children for their grandparents and other family members, resulting in multiple people of a similar age in a small area being named the same. Complicating this is the fact that when a genealogist first begins research on a person, they often have only a guesstimate as to their age and birth year.

Family Tree Forum provides this information on naming patterns:

English and Welsh Naming Pattern …

First son was named after the father’s father.
Second son was named after the mother’s father.
Third son was named after the father.
Fourth son was named after the father’s oldest brother.
Fifth son was named after the father’s 2nd oldest brother or mother’s oldest brother.

First daughter was named after the mother’s mother.
Second daughter was named after the father’s mother.
Third daughter was named after the mother.
Fourth daughter was named after the mother’s oldest sister.
Fifth daughter is named after the mother’s 2nd oldest sister or father’s oldest sister.

While people didn’t always stick to the pattern, names were often used again and again. Occasionally, this can be helpful, especially if one of the names is unusual like Reuben or Honora, which turned up as “Anora,” her granddaughter Eliza’s middle name.

But don’t even get me started about the number of “John Wards” in Leicestershire between 1700-1800! I’m still figuring that one out!

2 thoughts on “The Two John Swanns — A Cautionary Tale and Reflection on Naming Traditions

  1. I might be able to contribute something.
    Leicester was one of the centres of the glove making trade in Victorian England, and what at first glance reads as ‘Globe hand’ may in fact be ‘Glove hand’. There were quite a few activities ancillary to the making of gloves which did not require the skill of a master glover, and people engaged in preparing and trimming the skins, cutting, dyeing, etc, might well be known as glove hands.
    Just a thought…


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