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From FHM issue 149

What's in a name?: Bailey

Most occupational surnames, such as Smith, Taylor and Wright, paint a picture of a forebear rising early, toiling away at his poorly-paid but respected work before retiring to a modest dwelling. A Bailey ancestor, however, could well have had a rather different life.

            The name seems to have arrived on the British Isles with William the Conqueror, in its original form of ‘bailiff’ from the Old French. From here came Bailey, Baillie, Bayliss and a number of other connected versions. Though the exact origins are uncertain, some suggest it comes from a word used by the Romans: ‘bajalus’, meaning burden, so showing that people of that name bore responsibility.

As a title, it came to describe a number of different jobs, including crown official, king’s officer, keeper of a royal household and sheriff’s deputy. On a feudal estate the bailiff was an important figure. Medieval records from the manor of Droxford show one as a free man being paid £6 per year – a fortune compared to the eight shillings that a ploughman would have earned. He lived in the manor house at the lord’s expense, working as a foreman to ensure the smooth running of the estate, and was thus a key man with a level of responsibility to match his wage.

            Most people with the surname Bailey will be descended from these old men of civic responsibility. In Scotland the word ‘bailie’ is still used to refer to an alderman. The forebears of others may have lived near the outer wall of a castle. The ‘motte and bailey’ is probably the best-known castle design, the bailey being the enclosed courtyard at the foot of the motte, or mound, atop which the castle stood. It is from here that the Old Bailey, England’s top criminal court, takes its name, as the street on which it sits follows the line of the City of London’s old fortified wall.

Recent surveys show that Bailey is the UK’s 64th most common name. As the maps (below) show, the majority of these people reside in England. Indeed, records for solely England and Wales put the name at 56th in the rankings. In the US it is the 60th most common surname.

In 1881 Telford, in Shropshire, was the top area to find a Bailey, while in 1998 it was Stoke-on-Trent in nearby Staffordshire. The maps highlight the fact that the highest concentrations of Baileys since 1881 have been found in the Midlands and the south of England.

A number of Baileys have brought the name to public attention. David Bailey CBE has been one of the world’s top photographers for the last 40 years. Born in London’s East End in 1938, he helped to define the city’s ‘swinging 60s’ phase, becoming the first celebrity photographer and working with the world’s most famous people. The main character in Blowup, the 1966 film about a London photographer by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, was based largely on Bailey.

Sir Donald Bailey (1901–1985) was the designer of the Bailey Bridge, considered one of the finest examples of military engineering. The individual parts of the bridge can be carried in trucks and it can be put together without any special equipment, yet can carry tanks across gaps 200ft wide. He was a civil servant in the War Office during WWII, when he showed one of the bridges he designed in his spare time to a boss. Such was their success, Field Marshal Montgomery stated: ‘Bailey bridging made an immense contribution towards ending World War II.’

            More recently, a number of Baileys have come to prominence. Donovan Bailey, born in Jamaica in 1967, was the world’s fastest man until 1999 and the holder of the 100m world record. He set the record time at the 1996 Olympics, where he won the gold medal for his adopted country, Canada.

            In the world of British entertainment there is Corinne Bailey Rae, a Grammy and Brit award-nominated singer (born Corinne Bailey in Leeds in 1979). Her first album debuted at number one in 2006 and was a big success in the difficult US market, reaching number four in the same year. Bill Bailey, meanwhile, is one of the UK’s most popular comedians. Born 1964 in Somerset, he has featured in numerous TV shows including the multi-award winning Black Books, while his stand-up comedy tours have been commercial and critical successes.

            Perhaps surprisingly, a product immediately associated with the name is something of a cuckoo. Baileys Irish Cream, a mixture of cream and whiskey, is one of the world’s most popular liqueurs, sold in over 130 countries with 2,260 glasses being drunk every minute of every day. The ‘R A Bailey’ whose signature adorns the bottle, however, is merely a myth – a name invented to provide the brand with a level of authenticity when it began in 1974. Genuine Baileys reading this should be gladdened, however, that their name is considered trustworthy and genuine.

These qualities can also be seen in one of cinema’s most beloved characters. Looking for a name that would suggest absolute decency, the makers of It’s a Wonderful Life decided to call James Stewart’s character George Bailey. In the 1946 Frank Capra classic, George is a good man driven to despair, then shown by an angel how much worse his home town would have been had he not existed to give it guidance.

With Bailey being so often chosen as a representative name for the trustworthy man, perhaps there is some essence that remains in the public mind of the strong and responsible public servant. A Bailey by any other name might not take charge so well?

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