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This month it will be the 95th birthday of Darcy Dugan, who was born in Sydney on August 29 1920. Although Darcy was a career criminal who committed many armed hold-ups, he gained folk hero status as the most notorious prison escape artist in New South Wales.
Darcy spent 44 years in prison, with a death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, and made six escapes from custody in all. Legend has it that his trademark was to scrawl Gone to Gowings on his cell wall before each escape – Gowings was a popular department store, and in the slang of the time, to go to Gowings meant “to leave in haste”.
Dugan’s experience of prison brutality and police corruption led him to become a campaigner for prison reform: after being released he worked towards the rehabilitation of ex-prisoners. Darcy died in 1991, and his memoir Bloodhouse was published a few years ago, the manuscript only to be released once he and all his enemies were dead.
Another literary namesake is the author D’Arcy Niland, who wrote numerous short stories, and several successful novels, including The Shiralee, about a swagman on the road with his little girl, Buster. Niland knew this subject well, for he had wandered around rural New South Wales with his father during the Great Depression.
The writer was born Darcy Niland in 1917, and named after the Australian boxer Les Darcy, who had died the year Niland was born. D’Arcy Niland, a keen boxer himself, began researching a book about Les Darcy, which was eventually completed by his widow Ruth Park, and son-in-law Rafe Champion, both successful writers. As Darcy Dugan was only a few years younger than Niland, I suspect he was probably named after the boxer as well.
Darcy can be a variant of D’Arcy, an English surname of French origin: it comes from the village of Arcy in Normandy, which means “bear town”. In Ireland, the name Darcy is usually from the same source, brought over by the Normans. Occasionally it is an anglicisation of the Gaelic name O’Dorchaidhe, meaning “son of the dark one”, although this is generally anglicised to Dorsey.
Darcy is an aristocratic name, with the Darcy family of Yorkshire holding noble titles since the 17th century, although the family had been prominent since the Middle Ages. The 4th and final Earl of Holdernesse was Robert Darcy, an 18th century diplomat: he was said to have been the last direct descendant of the Norman barons still in the Peerage.
His daughter Lady Amelia married “Mad Jack” Byron, the father of poet Lord Byron. Their daughter Augusta Leigh is supposed to have been in a relationship with her half-brother, and bore him a child called by her middle name Medora, after a character in one of Byron’s poems.
Many readers will be reminded of a purely fictional aristocrat: Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Tall, dark, handsome, rich, and aloof, he both attracts and irritates the spirited heroine Elizabeth Bennet, but she learns that Darcy can be generous and noble-spirited (and has a gorgeous estate).
Mr Darcy has entranced generations of women, been depicted on screen by actors such as Sir Laurence Olivier and Colin Firth, and inspired modern works of fiction, including Lost in Austen and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Scientists have even named a male sex pheromone Darcin in honour of the romantic hero (it attracts female mice, not witty damsels).
Jane Austen is believed to have named Fitzwilliam Darcy after both Robert Darcy and William Fitzwilliam, 4th Earl of Fitzwilliam, an important 18th century statesman and one of the richest people in Britain. Perhaps she saw her hero as continuing the line of Norman barons, while also claiming some distant share of royal blood through his Fitzwilliam ancestry.
She was presumably not to know the scandalous direction the Darcy connection would take: it may amuse some readers to know that when Medora Leigh was born a year after Pride and Prejudice was published, she was baptised Elizabeth. This is just possibly not a coincidence – Augusta Leigh was a Jane Austen fan, and Lord Byron owned a copy of Pride and Prejudice.
Darcy has been used as a personal name at least since the 17th century, and originated in Yorkshire, influenced by the aristocratic Darcy family. It was originally nearly always given to boys, but overall, Darcy has more often been a girls’ name.
Australia is apparently the only country where Darcy is primarily a male name. From the 1900s, it is listed on the charts as a unisex name, and first charted as a boys’ name in the 1950s at #319 – around the time Darcy Dugan became famous.
It went off the charts altogether in the 1960s and ’70s, returning in the 1980s at #434, when Darcy Dugan was released from prison, and D’Arcy Niland’s The Shiralee was made into a mini-series. It then climbed steeply, making the Top 100 for the first time in 1997 at #77 (not long after the Pride and Prejudice mini-series). It never got any higher than its initial position, remaining in the bottom quarter of the Top 100.
Last year it dropped off the national Top 100, and the Top 100 in Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. It is currently #97 in New South Wales and #87 in Tasmania. Darcy is around the 400s as a girls’ name, but if you included variants such as Darci and Darcie would be somewhat higher.
Darcy joined the UK Top 100 for the first time in 2013; it is #93 for girls and rising. In the UK, 28 baby boys were named Darcy as opposed to 588 baby girls. Darcey is even more popular for girls in the UK, at #84 and rising – the ballerina Darcey Bussell (born Marnie Crittle) has been a major influence on the name. Darcey is one of her middle names, while Bussell is the surname of her Australian adoptive stepfather – her biological father was the Australian designer John Crittle, descended from the first free settler to Australia. Spelling variants make this name even more common for girls in Britain.
In the US, Darcy has not charted since the mid 1990s. It peaked for girls at #349 and for boys at #869, both in 1968 (the song Darcy Farrow was released in 1967 by George Hamilton IV, about a girl named Darcy; the same year the sci-fi novel Too Many Magicians was published, featuring a detective named Lord Darcy, so it was on the radar for both genders). Last year in the US there were 183 baby girls named Darcy and 12 boys, but if you include spelling variants it is even more overwhelmingly a female name.
With such manly namesakes as Les Darcy, Darcy Dugan, and D’Arcy Niland, you can see how this unisex name became all-boy in Australia. But is it possible for it to follow international trends and become a girls’ name in the future? In a word, yes. It is currently falling in use for boys while climbing for girls, and has never peaked higher than #77. Ashley peaked at #60 for boys, and became far more common as a girls’ name, so it’s happened before. In the meantime, this is a name that seems just right for either a Mister Darcy or a Miss Darcy.
Darcy received a creditable approval rating of 70%. People saw Darcy as cute and spunky (15%), cool and classy (12%), and romantic and dreamy (10%). However, 7% thought it seemed downmarket and lower class – as opposed to the 6% who saw it as yuppy and snobbish!
72% of people thought Darcy was better as a boy’s name, while 28% preferred it as a name for girls.
(Photo shows Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the 1995 TV mini-series of Pride and Prejudice)