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From FHM issue 148

What's in a name?: Richardson

Patronymic names – those deriving from a father’s first name – are by far the most common sort of surnames in the UK. McDonald and FitzGerald are interesting examples of this type of name, with the ‘Mc’ and ‘Fitz’ being Gaelic and anglo-Norman terms respectively meaning ‘son’. More common derivations are Johnson, Nixon, as well this month’s featured name: Richardson.

This particular patronymic was one of the many names brought to England by the Normans following the conquest of 1066. Its root – the name Richard – has Germanic origins and is composed of the elements ‘ric’, meaning powerful, and ‘hard’, meaning hardy or brave.

There are numerous diminutives and variations of Richard, the most common of which is Dick. The popularity of the name is clear in the phrase “Every Tom, Dick and Harry”, which uses three of the most common male English names to mean pretty much everybody. Although it is hard to attach a definite date to the first usage of this phrase, there is some evidence to suggest that its first use can be dated back to the early 19th century or even earlier.

Dick as a diminutive of Richard has led to other associated patronymics, such as Dixon, Dickens, Dickenson and Dickson.

The earliest found mention of the name Richard in the UK was in 1067 in Cheshire, where the man in question was the son of Hugh d’Avranche, the first Earl of Chester. It appears in its Latin form, ‘Ricardus’, many times in The Domesday Book, and it was further popularised by Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199), who had inspired people with his impressive military exploits. Even following the crises and defeats of the two successive kings of the same name the popularity of the name does not seem to have waned. By 1276 it was already in use as a surname – the Oxford Hundred Rolls for this year name a certain Mr Thomas Richard.

Researching the name’s geographical distribution throws up some interesting finds. For example, whereas the name Richards is most common today in Cornwall, South Wales and the Midlands, there is a stark absence of the name Richardson in Wales and the South West, as well as in the London area.

The statistics from 1881 display a very similar distribution of the name, although there were fewer Richardsons in East Anglia in those days. Figures from both 1881 and 1998 show a proliferation of the name in the north, especially Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumberland, as well as a noticeable lack of it anywhere north of the Scottish borders. The area found to have the highest proportion of Richardsons in 1881 was Carlisle, whereas by 1998 this had moved slightly eastward to Durham.

Richardson seems to be a name that is synonymous with stars of the stage and screen. Two of the most famous thespian Richardsons are Joely and Miranda, who many falsely believe to be sisters. Joely, star of Mel Gibson film The Patriot, and cult television series Nip/Tuck, is in fact part of an showbiz dynasty, being daughter of Oscar winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, and sister to successful theatre actress, Natasha Richardson. Miranda Richardson is perhaps best known for her role as Queenie in Blackadder II, although she has starred in a host of other television programmes and films, including Empire of the Sun in 1987.

In the early 20th century, Lewis Fry Richardson contributed significantly to the world of science by discovering the Richardson Number, a parameter used to predict the occurrence of fluid turbulence. Surrey-born Tom Richardson (1870–1912) set similar high standards in the world of sport, and has been hailed one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. Going even further back we discover the novelist Samuel Richardson who was writing his highly popular works, including Pamela (in 1740) and Clarissa (in 1748).

Another famous namesake, who many modern Richardsons may prefer to keep quiet about is Charlie Richardson, the leader of the Richardson Gang, who rivalled the Kray brother’s gang in South London in the 1960s. As well as committing fraud and theft on numerous occasions, they were notorious for the brutality they showed towards their enemies. Members of the gang, including ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, frequently pulled out teeth with pliers, electrocuted their victims into unconsciousness, and nailed them to floors.

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