Names hold power.
Our personal names are vectors, co-ordinates by which we locate ourselves in time and space, relationships, culture and more.
I’m still bearing the names I was given at birth: Alice Mary Bulmer.
It’s not a very harmonious collection of names. For much of my life, I haven’t felt particularly fond of any of the pieces.
Although these days I’m embracing Alice.
For me, holding onto my birth names has been a piece of consistency, an anchorage in the Alice in Wonderland experience of my life.
In particular, the name Alice feels like a challenge I was gifted by a fairy godmother. I’ve written about it here. Keep reading and I’ll explain the Bulmer part.
Not carved in stone
We think of names as being a legal fact, carved in stone, but that’s not the case. Names can change. They’re very fluid. Also, there’s a lot of cultural variation around names.
There are pen names, like Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot. Stage names, like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Lorde. Professional names. Anglicised names. And then, lots of different ways of spelling names.
There are people on both sides of my family history who changed their surname in the 19th century.
Before 1700, my Welsh ancestors didn’t use surnames at all. They were “John ap Hugh” (son of Hugh) and “Hugh ap John” etc. I don’t know what the women did. In the 18th century the family surname consolidated into Hughes. It may have been part of the process of getting the Welsh into English governmental systems.
You might think Susan O’Meara sounds more romantic than Sue Bulmer. But my mother wasn’t much of a romantic. And she had a professional reputation as Sue Bulmer. Including having a giant fruit bat named after her! Here’s that story: The family bat.
My friend Melissa Hackell took her husband’s surname, and then changed back to her birth surname, because it felt better that way.
Matthew Bannister and I have been married for more than 25 years. He didn’t expect me to take his name. He thinks it’s an outdated custom. However, plenty of people obviously don’t agree with him.
Bannister is slightly more euphonious than Bulmer. But it’s still an old Norman name, and I’m more of a Celt.
The only person who has ever told me that they have a problem with this is my very conservative aunt.
A name that feels right
I know people who’ve changed one or both of their names, to something they like better.
My friend Kirsty told me she changed her surname because she was sick of being Smith. Margaret Silverwood went through a few name changes before settling.
Scout Wilkins was given the name Nancy by her parents. Scout suits her so much better. She’s a wilderness guide, coach and naturalist.
My cousin Anne Denman changed her surname from Bulmer to another family name, to celebrate our spirited great-great grandmother, Charlotte Coostriah Denman. I’ve written about this woman of character here.
All the Mary’s
Mary is my middle name. It’s a family name on my mother’s side. Sue’s older sister is my Aunt Mary. She’s still going strong in her 90s. Their father’s older sister was also Mary Hirsh.
In my mid-20s I acquired more Mary’s in my life, with my bonus step-grandmother Mary O’Meara Pepper and her grand-daughter Mary. Here’s my piece about Grandma Mary.
Bulmer is an English name that dates from the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century. Bannister is another old Norman name.
According to my father, Ralph, Bulmer probably started out as “Bulmere” – a lake where bulrushes grow. But Wikipedia claims it means a lake frequented by bulls. My dad’s explanation makes more sense to me, but who knows?
I don’t think Bulmer is a very elegant name.
Many people in Aotearoa-New Zealand aren’t quite sure how to say it. For your information: the “Bul” is pronounced like ”Bull”.
The other really annoying thing about Bulmer is that helpful spellcheck bots change it without asking me. Bummer!
There are a couple of very small places in England called “Bulmer”. Blink and you’ll miss the signpost.
If you google Bulmer, you get all sorts of glorious and not-so-glorious historic events. Bulmers owning this and that, Bulmers getting knighted, Bulmers meeting gory endings for being on the wrong side of a political crisis.
There are even some historical Alice Bulmers.
But I’m not related to any of them.
A can of worms
There were Bulmers in and around Durham, in north-east England, in the 1700s. From there, they spread out around England and across the world.
In the late 19th century one branch of Bulmers became rich by brewing cider in the West Country.
My grandfather, Kenneth Julian Bulmer, was posted to Hereford by his bank because it was presumed that he was one of the “cider Bulmers”. He was happy to be associated with notable local entrepreneurs. But he was always vague on the exact family relationship.
I’ve studied the charts, and here’s what I found.
Kenneth Bulmer’s father, Julian Ralph Bulmer, was a seafarer who travelled the world on sailing ships before he settled in Holyhead and married a local woman, Caroline Hughes. He was the captain of the mailboat between Holyhead and Dublin for many years.
My grandfather’s youngest brother, John Rubens Bulmer, became the family historian. In the mid-20th century my Great-Uncle John put considerable effort into researching the Bulmer family tree. Only to find that the tree was planted in a pretty shallow hole.
In our branch of the family, the Bulmer name went back precisely one generation!
According to Great-Uncle John’s family ancestry research, we were Bulman up till the mid 19th century. I can imagine his chagrin at discovering that the ancient and glorious Bulmer name originated with his paternal grandfather, Thomas William Bulmer.
Thomas’s father had been John Rubens Bulman, and Uncle John traced the Bulman line back several generations to Durham. Where Bulmers also come from.
Presumably Thomas was after a Norman-sounding name, that came with famous ancestors and only involved changing two letters. I’d prefer not to think he was on the run from the law. He was an exciseman (a kind of tax collector in his era).
It’s okay to change
There’s nothing wrong with changing your name. As long as you’re not doing it to avoid taxes or for some other illegal purpose.
I think the Bulmans just wanted to sound a bit posher.
My mother’s Swedish grandparents changed their name from Erikson to the much grander sounding Nordendahl when they migrated to the United States in the late 19th century.
My husband Matthew’s ancestors have been rock-solid Bannisters ever since 1066, through ups and downs in the family fortunes.
But we don’t have to stay with the names we were gifted at birth.
My son Albert announced when he was seven years old that he wanted to change his first name, to something more normal. I guess being Albert was a bit of a challenge for a little kid. (Sorry, Albert!) He’s now 27. I think he’s changed his mind.
I do think that my so-called Bulmer ancestors could have been a bit more imaginative.
Cumberbatch? Fotheringay? Hathaway?
Nobody with the Bulmer surname has ever been a rock star. Or a movie star.
Also, it would have been better for the spellcheck bots.
I’m a creative life coach for mid-life women who are passionate about music, but struggle to find a musical niche that feels truly aligned and rewarding, and doesn’t lead to endless cycles of burnout.
Find out more about me here: About Alice.
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