The man with two names
John Davidson was a policeman who, like many others, became a private detective. But why did he use two surnames?
The life of John Davidson is fairly well documented. Born in Greenwich in 1857, he started his working life working for a poulterer in his early teens before joining the City of London Police. By his mid 20s, he was a detective constable, in his 30s a detective inspector. He served 25 years, before retiring on his police pension, and like many other police pensioners, changing career to become a private detective.
John’s advert in the St James Gazette of 17 May 1904 (via British Newspaper Archive)
Unlike those who advertised their skills working on divorce cases, Davidson called his agency 'The Banker's Security', highlighting his specialism in working for the banking industry to make financial enquiries. He lived in various parts of London, moving from East London to South, and then further east to Leyton, before settling in Hampstead, where his wife ran the Railway Tavern. He worked as a private detective certainly between 1904 and 1907, having an office in the City of London (at London Wall in 1904; at Coleman Street by 1907).
So much is known. It's also known that his wife was named Elizabeth, and that he had 11 children, of whom I’ve traced nine: Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Henrietta, John, Sarah, James Nicholls, Harold Samuel, Fanny Blandford, and Florence Adelaide. I even know what he looked like. But what of his earlier life? And why can't his children's baptisms and his own death be found? The answer is that he was not always John Davidson.
All of the censuses record him under that name, and they all record his parents as being Henry Davidson, a mariner who was at one point in the Royal Naval Reserve, and tailoress Mary Ann. Both his parents were from London; in later life, his father became a foreman at an iron works in the city. Yet when I found John Davidson's marriage entry, it was not under this surname. Instead, I found that he married Elizabeth Nicholl in the city of London on 6 August 1876 under the name of John Donovan. He was still working as a poulterer at this time, at the age of 20, and his father was listed as Henry Donovan. This was not a mistake; when his parents married at Greenwich in 1854, the marriage entry was for Henry Donovan and Mary Ann Mahony.
John Davidson, from The People, 15 January 1905 (via British Newspaper Archive)
The adoption of Davidson as a name was not consistent; although the censuses and press adverts record John as a Davidson, his son Harold's full name - according to his 1916 marriage entry - was Harold Samuel Donovan Davidson, and John's name was given as John Coppenger Donovan Davidson. All of his children were registered under the surname Donovan, but with middle names of Davidson, apart from youngest child Florence, who was the only one registered without mention of the Donovan name. When John died in 1915, his name was given as John D[avidson] Donovan, despite decades of being known as John Davidson.
It seems that at some point between 1854 and 1861, Henry Donovan adopted the surname of Davidson. This was probably an informal change - hence his son marrying under the name of Donovan, and his death being registered the same way. Where two names were used, the legal surname was put before the adopted one, thus referencing both names under which family members had been known.
Why this change was made, though, is not clear. It was unlikely to be the Jane Austen-type scenario of a family member leaving money to Henry on condition that he alter the family name to that of his benefactor; this was a humble family unlikely to have rich relatives. Perhaps, given the Irish origins of both John's parents' names, it was felt better to adopt a more English-sounding name in order to hide their origins and avoid any anti-Irish prejudice - although London was a melting pot of nationalities, there could still be considerable prejudice towards certain peoples.
But ultimately, I still do not know why the family name changed - perhaps I could do with a private detective, such as John Davidson himself, in order to find out.