Skip to Content

Mind your language

Bill

25 August 2012

6:00 AM

25 August 2012

6:00 AM

In 1911, bakers and dustmen were more likely than most to be called Bill, or at least William, according to one of those family genealogy companies, Ancestry.co.uk, which has been rummaging in the census for that year. My impression 101 years later is that Bills are rarer than Williams, Wills or even Willses. Prince William is certainly not a Bill.

Not all Bills were of the burgling classes even a century ago. Bill in P.G. Wodehouse’s song (written in 1917 and reused in Showboat) may be an ‘ordinary man’, but the author also used the name for at least two peers of the realm and a millionaire. He seemed oddly fond of the name.


In the fairly early school novel Mike (1909), Wodehouse names the school fast bowler Billy Burgess. In Psmith, Journalist, serialised in 1909, Billy Windsor is an American newspaperman. The next year, in the short story, ‘The Man Upstairs’ (1910), an impoverished artist going by the name of Alan Beverley is really a millionaire called Bill Bates. In Uneasy Money (1917) Bill is Lord Dawlish. In the story ‘Bill the Bloodhound’ (1917), the hero is really called Henry and falls for a girl called Alice; in Bill the Conqueror (1924), the hero is also in love with a girl called Alice. In the novel called, in England, The Coming of Bill (1920), a surprising satire on eugenics, Bill is the baby. In Ring for Jeeves (1953), William Egerton Bamfylde Ossingham Belfry, 9th Earl of Rowcester, is known as Bill, except when he acts as a bookie, when he is known as Honest Patch Perkins. But then, in the fantasy world of Wodehouse, Uncle Fred is the 5th Earl of Ickenham, whereas in the 1911 census it was a more than averagely common name among postmen.

In the decade after the 1911 census, William Nicholson (was he ever a ‘Bill’?) made the hero of his book Clever Bill a cymbals-playing toy guardsman called Bill Davis. A boy born in Hanover as Gunter Keese in 1933 took the name Bill Davis when he came to England aged 16. I wonder if he had Nicholson’s book in mind. He certainly sank himself in Englishry, editing Punch for a decade. But Private Eye still laughed at him as ‘Kaiser Bill’.


See also

Show comments
Close