As Shakespeare famously has it in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

In other words, it is the person, not their name, which is first and foremost.

But there’s no doubt that our names, and especially our surnames, become part of us, stitched into the inner lining of our existence. They are threaded through every aspect of our lives, from birth certificates to school registers, to passports, to utility bills, to driving licences and voter registrations.

I can lay claim to three surnames, which puts a huge question mark over my sense of identity – especially when the surname I have been known by all my life – Hulme – is illegitimate. More on that unfortunate circumstance later.

It’s worth recapping why we have surnames at all. It was a development, at least in England, that began in mediaeval times. There was a growing need for an identifier beyond a simple first name, which had persisted among Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse communities, but now came up against the Norman practice of using second names usually describing their most important holdings. It caught on among the English, and these second names eventually became hereditary.

Occupations, locations, appearance and nick-names gave birth to many of the surnames we still see today, including ones that centuries later can be traced to the region where they began. As Joslin Fiennes tells us in her fascinating book on the origins of English surnames, the name Jagger originated in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the ageing rocker has tracked his ancestry back to that area. Jagger was a local name for a pedlar centuries ago.

But surnames remain a fluid commodity for many reasons – because of criminality, either through deception or the life-changing need to enter a witness protection programme. There are stage names and pen names, or a simple desire to change one’s last name, plus adoption. And then there is marriage for a woman and the tradition of changing to the husband’s surname.

Dr Sophie Coulombeau, whose PhD thesis at the University of York focused on the relationship between naming and identity in late 18th century literature and culture, questions the practice. “For me, to adopt the surname of my partner and relinquish my own would profoundly affect how I think about my own identity,” she wrote prior to marrying.

A notable exception was the late singer-songwriter Chrissie McVie of Fleetwood Mac who disliked her maiden name of Perfect so much she kept her married name even after divorcing John McVie.

But there are indications that fewer women are deciding to change their surname on marriage – or increasingly opting to live as a partner and to keep their last name.

Then there are those whose surnames arose through violence. In the USA, there are black people whose surname links them indelibly to slavery. After emancipation, freed slaves needed a surname for all the reasons we take for granted today – to register as a citizen and to take part in civic society; to apply for a job or a military pension, perhaps. Many took the names of their slave owners – a psychological branding, if ever there was one.

But one man decided otherwise. He was Martin Jackson, who in a 1930s interview, recalled: “The master’s name was usually adopted by a slave after he was set free. This was done more because it was the logical thing to do and the easiest way to be identified than it was through affection for the master. Also, the government seemed to be in a (sic) almighty hurry to have us get names. We had to register as someone, so we could be citizens. Well, I got to thinking about all us slaves that was going to take the name Fitzpatrick. I made up my mind I’d find me a different one. One of my grandfathers in Africa was called Jeaceo, and so I decided to be a Jackson.”

He wasn’t, though, the ancestor of the late superstar Michael Jackson, whose family reportedly claimed Native American heritage as well as slavery.

The dash to change surnames has a later outing. Following the 2nd World War, there was apparently a rush by people urgently wanting to change their surname to anything but Hitler. And as a radio journalist who covered the Shipman murders and subsequent trial, I still get a jolt when I see that particular surname. If it’s any consolation to the innocent bearers of the name now associated with the country’s biggest mass murderer, the surnames Brady and Hindley don’t seem to carry the same emotional punch today – even to me, because prior to Shipman, these child murderers were – still are – the most notorious in the region where I grew up.

To lighten the tone, a quick diversion through the world of entertainment, where name changes were numerous. One example – that of Kirk Douglas – gives an insight into the social environment in the USA at that time, especially in Tinseltown. He was born Issur Danielovitch in upstate New York, the son of Russian immigrants. But he thought his name was simply too big to go on a marquee – and too Jewish. But he said he wished he’d kept his original name – it would have been more interesting.

As to pen names, the most famous and romantic belongs to Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, whose inspiration came from the method of counting depth on the Mississippi riverboats passing his home village. For a few short years, he realised his ambition of becoming a riverboat pilot – if only at cub level.

On another continent, the 1st World War, the one that set Hitler on his political path to conquest, war and the Holocaust, was to result in the most famous surname change in Europe…that of Britain’s royal family. In the third year of the war, the family changed from the obviously Germanic moniker of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.

And so to the surname Hulme, of absolutely no significance to anyone except my family, friends and associates; a name which saw its first utterance in circumstances which couldn’t be more different than that of the once triple-surnamed Windsors.

I was born on February 14, 1945, in the final throes of the 2nd World War. The tiny two-up and two-down terraced house in a Stockport back street was my birthplace and first home. It had a brick-built lavatory at the bottom of the yard by the side of the Anderson shelter, a tin bath hanging on the outside wall near the back door, and piss pots by the side of the beds. The cold water sink in the tiny kitchen stank. And from memory, two families, perhaps even three, crammed themselves into No. 7 Buckingham Street. There simply wasn’t enough suitable housing at the end of the war, thanks to enemy bombing, a climbing birth rate and slums, and this led to crowded living conditions. It is probably why I came to be infected by impetigo and developed pneumonia as a toddler.

My 18-year-old mother had married a local lad, Walter Hulme, in the autumn of 1944 when she was pregnant with me. A short time into the marriage, Walter found out that he couldn’t be my father. His parents had worked out that Walter, a war-time sailor, was away at sea when my mother became pregnant and persuaded him to walk out of the marriage. It was an event that produced laughter in my exceedingly cynical family whenever they recalled the story of Walter going out to buy a loaf of bread one day and never returning.

They also made sure that Walter’s name went on my birth certificate as my father. That name is now impossible to remove, as a birth certificate is an historical record and would need DNA tests and possibly a court case to take Walter Hulme’s name off my certificate. As my mother, father and Walter are now dead, nothing can be done. The law is really designed to deal with alteration requests near to a child’s birth.

My mother, who had given birth to another son four years previously at the age of 14, maintained her deception as she carried on life as a single parent. My half- brother was cared for by grandparents during our early years.

At around the age of two or three, I was put into care for a month or so while my mother headed south to a new life with a man who already had children. Was he widowed or divorced? I never found out. My mother came back to take me down to Dagenham and her new life. Had she parked me to collect later, or was it a change of heart after abandoning me? Again, I don’t know. It never arose for discussion. The fact that I was in care was only confirmed by a relative when I had reached my 70s.

As a boy I used to ask my mother where my dad was because as I grew older I saw that all the other kids on our council estate had fathers. But I was always fobbed off.

To my regret, I never attempted to visit Walter Hulme, who was living in another part of my home town. It was always made plain to me that he was the villain, the man who had abandoned my mother, and to associate with him at all would be a betrayal. I wish I had talked to him because I would have learned the truth so much earlier.

But I grew up, began in journalism, married my wife Ann, had children, took up archery – an abiding passion – and simply got on with life.

I was in my mid-forties and having a cup of tea with an elderly family friend in her tiny flat when my life was tipped upside down. Ann was sitting by my side as we sipped our tea. Without warning or preamble, our elderly friend suddenly said: “Your father was a GI. His name was John Bell and he came from Texas.”

The phrase “stunned silence” is a tad overworked. But the cliché is apt. I was speechless. I had no idea that my father was an American soldier. But why had our friend decided to reveal this family secret now? I never got an answer to that, but I am eternally grateful to her. She died a few years later and could have taken her knowledge to the grave.

I faced my mother with this new information. Our relationship was strained and awkward and was about to get worse. We sat down in her kitchen and I asked her to explain who my father really was. All I got were tears. And one more piece of information. “He was taller than you,” she said. I’m a small guy, and that verbal stiletto stung.

It would take me 25 years to finally identify my American soldier father, long after my mother had died. I approached an amazing UK organisation now called GITrace, who help people like me trace their soldier fathers in the USA. This is when I found out that a major obstacle lay in my path.

It was bad enough that I only had a name and a state for my father. But in 1973, a fire which raged for 24 hours destroyed many of the military records being held in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. All the records were on paper, pre-computer, and with no back-up. It was a national disaster, and would take archivists many years to source replacement records from wherever they could.

But the biggest obstacle was one I didn’t even know about until recently….my father had used a false name in his brief affair with my mother.

I gave up my search many times and thought I would go to my grave without ever finding out who my father was. A senior archivist at the NPRC with the rather wonderful name of Dr Neils J Zussblatt, tried to help, as did a military researcher in the USA, who worked for me pro bono.

It was 2015 when I began reading about DNA testing, which was now becoming affordable. This was the route I was going to take – a last throw of the dice. If this didn’t produce a result, I would give up my search. I was heartened by the fact that my focus was the USA, where many more people were testing.

The genealogists at GItrace advised me to take an autosomal test, more popularly known as a family-finder test because it can link to many cousins and closer, both male and female.

After taking the test with Ancestry, information unfolded remarkably quickly in contrast to those barren years of finding nothing. I first of all confirmed my American heritage through a second cousin who had tested. Then I discovered that my family were the Edwards from Detroit.

They were a large family – seven brothers and three sisters, all by now dead. The brothers had to be whittled down to just two because of age, death, and the lack of military service in World War Two. After a false start where military records were obtained for one of the brothers who had served in England during the war but who proved to be an uncle, the genealogists at GItrace obtained military records for the last remaining brother.

They were military hospital records – and they proved crucial. Allan Russell Edwards was his name, and it showed he had served in the 837th. Ordnance Depot Company, an ammunition supply unit which was part of Patton’s Third Army.

I possess an extensive list of all the US military units stationed in Stockport in 1944. And there it was, a long way down the list – the 837th. The unit had been stationed in Stockport during May and June that year, part of the build-up towards D-Day. June, 1944, was the month when my mother became pregnant with me. Put that information next to the genetic link I had established with the Edwards family – I had found my father at long last.

We would never meet because my father died in 1964 just short of his 44th birthday. A few years after his war service he began to develop MS and eventually died from its effects. But thanks to an extremely helpful half-sister living in northern Michigan, I’ve learned that my father was a handsome guy. A framed photograph of him in uniform is among my most prized possessions.

American soldiers would have seemed glamorous to working girls like my mother, with their accents, well-made uniforms and money to spend. But my father, who had already married in the USA and had a small daughter, my half-sister, had the good looks, too.

I’ve been told that war-time soldiers often used false names to protect themselves. Obviously, my father failed to use a condom – the ultimate protection.

So he went to war in Europe with no idea that he had made my mother pregnant. All she had was a false name to remember him by – and eventually, me.

After the war, my father sold real estate. He was known for his honesty and was a good talker. His favourite piece of music was Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, and he liked apple pie with cheese rather than cream. He also loved roses.

But the piece of information that my half-sister shared with me showed an unexpected and wonderful link with my father and an older brother. I’ve written poetry for much of my life and my son, Andrew, writes poetry, too. My father also loved poetry and would sometimes write poems in letters home. His older brother, my Uncle Dale, was his high school poet laureate and would go on to meet his future wife in a creative writing group. So there was the source of my own writing and poetry.

My half-sister is also creative, having been a painter and ceramicist for many years. We’ve not met, unfortunately. For medical reasons, long distance flight would be too risky for my wife, and my sister lives in a remote part of Michigan, making travel that bit more difficult. A lone trip by me to see my sister is out of the question. I also have a half-brother four years younger than me and still living in Detroit, but he prefers not to communicate, so there will be no meeting him, even if it were possible.

But I now know who my father was, and that is something I find almost miraculous. I’m a science nut, and I revel in the fact that it was the science of genetics that was the key to identifying him.

And now comes the plot twist. When I first decided to use genetics in the search for my father, I began with a Y test – a male-only one – in the naive belief that because I was searching for my father, this was the right route to take. The test was done with Family Tree DNA, based in Houston. As I was searching for a Texan, I thought that using a Texas-based company might be helpful.

What I uncovered would send me down a blind alley, even though that test result was absolutely solid. It showed that I belonged to the Cartmill male line. That’s my third surname, by the way. I also thought it was my father’s surname until the later autosomal test proved otherwise.

The American Cartmills trace back to three brothers living and farming in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. This version of the name is strongly linked with Armagh in Northern Ireland, so it would appear the American Cartmills were Irish immigrants. But the origin of the name is English – from the parish of Cartmel, once in Lancashire and now Cumbria. It looks as if the Irish Cartmills were plantation immigrants from England.

My best guess is that generations ago a Cartmill boy was adopted or otherwise accepted into the Edwards family – and he is my ancestor. I cannot find any trace of this happening. It is not something that is recorded unless it is a noteworthy family where the integrity of the male line comes into play. I’ve been told by a genealogist it is a mystery impossible to crack without any records.

But I’ve not shared this finding with my Edwards male relatives. I’m still very much a stranger to the cousins I’ve been in touch with. The fact that I belong to the Cartmill line could be taken as evidence that I don’t belong to the Detroit Edwards at all. The autosomal test, of course, shows that I do. I will have to leave it to my cousins to take a male-only test – and why should they? They are Edwards – what reason do they have for investigating their male line?

The Cartmill to Edwards switch – at least as it applies to my line – is what genealogists call a non-parental event, where a child ends up using a different surname from their biological father. The irony of this label has not escaped me, because that is what I am – the consequence of a non-parental event.

As you can see from my by-line, I’ve adopted Edwards as a second surname which I use in my writing. I could have dropped my Hulme surname altogether but at this late stage in life it would have been too disruptive and troublesome. The Cartmill name will have to remain in the record, unused by me, even though it is my true surname.

It’s appropriate to end, given my heritage, with the echo of a line often attributed to Shakespeare but belonging to another author entirely – Sir Walter Scott, from his epic poem, Marmion. Allow me to misquote it: “Oh what a hidden lie we leave when by a soldier’s love conceive.”

David Edwards Hulme, 2023.