That can’t be my ancestor because I don’t spell my name that way!

One aspect of genealogy that often catches new researchers out is the spelling of names, particularly surnames. They apply the modern unchanging view of spelling onto the lives of their ancestors: they assume that because they spell the name in a particular way, that their ancestors names will always be written that way too.

That assumption is wrong. Your ancestors names will be written with a variety of spellings.

As rule of thumb, the further back you go, the more likely the name is to appear with different spellings, but as we shall see in the following example, sometimes you don’t have to go back that far at all.

My paternal grandmother’s father, Frederick Thomas Harden, was born in December 1893 and lived until 1978, only just before I was born, yet his official birth certificate has the wrong spelling of the surname, that is as Harding rather than Harden.

Below is the main data from his birth certificate, which was registered in early-January 1894:

Birth of Frederick Thomas Harding. General Register Office: M1894 West Ashford volume: 2a page: 806

Every other document on which Frederick is recorded has the spelling Harden, including: his baptism at Great Chart in early 1894, his first and second marriages, the registration of his death, census returns, the 1939 register and his WWI army service records.

This particular case is most likely due to an administrative copying error; the records issued by the General Register Office are copies of the registers held by the local registrar. Perhaps the registrar George Galloway Taylor had rather messy handwriting. Frederick’s mother’s maiden name was also wrong on this document; written as Matthews here, the more usual spelling was Mathis.

There are two ways to consider different spellings, firstly there are deviants, these are strange spellings which are more likely due to a single copying error. The other are variants, which are where the name appears in many records with a different spelling. This example, at least at this point in history, is more of a deviant.

Birth Places on 1841 Census?

The 1841 census wasn’t the first taken in the United Kingdom, but it was the earliest to record the names of every individual and the earliest to survive in a form that is of widespread use to genealogists. Earlier censuses (1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831), either survive as statistics only, or for a few parishes there are drafts used to calculate the numbers involved, such as lists of households, often in the miscellaneous documents collectively termed parish chest records.

Compared with later censuses, that of 1841 had some big limitations:

  • Ages of those over fifteen were supposed to have been rounded down to the nearest multiple of five years, although this wasn’t always applied. For example, if someone was recorded as 30, and assuming that they knew their age accurately, this implied that they could be nearly 35, and so nearly five years older than their age as recorded would suggest.
  • Relationships within households weren’t documented, and so what looks like a father, mother and children, might not actually be that, for example, the children might be a visitor, niece, or nephew.
  • Only one given (no middle names) were supposed to have been recorded.
  • Exact places of birth weren’t written, only if the person was born in the same county that they were then living was stated, or if they were born in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland or foreign parts.

Whereas the first few points can often be recreated from other records, if the individual died before the next census was taken in 1851, the place of birth is the hardest to recreate.

I look through a lot of censuses when undertaking research, and I have come across one institution that did record places of birth. This was the Upper Trinity Ground, Deptford, which were almshouses for merchant mariners. The enumerators had also tried to use exact ages, rather than rounding down, and written the places of birth across the final two columns, which usually just had a “yes” or “no” in them, so for around 100 individuals, this detailed information survives. As these were almshouses, many of the inhabitants were quite elderly, one of them, Naomi Thompson, was 87, so born about 1754, and stated to have been a native of Great Yarmouth. What is also lovely about these records is that they can often be tied in with the Trinity House Calendars, made by the Society of Genealogist, which give further details [].

By using these two sources, I managed to trace a client’s ancestor back to Whitby in Yorkshire—many people have the same person in their online trees, but have assumed wrongly that he was from London and consequently have completely the wrong lineage before him.

Seven Sins of Genealogical Research—(1) Copying online trees

The major family history websites make claims of how easy it is to research your ancestry. Whilst it is true that you can `just type in a name’, often what you then get is heavily based on what other members have researched in the past. The quality of this varies from very good, to complete fiction; the issue is how do you know if it is reliable or not?

As a professional genealogist, I often get asked to start with work that clients have done on one of these websites, and so I have a lot of experience with looking at members’ trees and then obtaining proper proof to see that it is correct. I have to say the majority of these trees have major errors in them. By that, I mean that they contain a mistake and are following the wrong family, at least on some branches.

I have had clients say to me that a lot of other people have the same information, and often this is the case. However, sometimes the more people that have copied the information, the less reliable it actually is. I think it is because those that copy a lot tend not to be as careful with the research and so the errors get propagated in a similar way that fake-news spreads. On many occasions, I have had a situation where perhaps 20 members have concluded one thing but 2 members have concluded something else, and it is very often the minority that are correct!

By all means, use other members online trees as a resource, but be very wary of the information that they contain; Do not assume that they are correct, even if a lot of people have the same information, and always verify the details yourself. And please do not perpetuate the misinformation if you aren’t sure, then mark the fact as questionable in your tree. Avoiding the next sins will help you make sure your research is accurate.

It’s a small world…

It’s surprising how often little coincidences appear when I do research for clients. I am usually working on about 5 to 10 clients work at one time; two of the projects I am working on at the moment both have links with Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire… And both clients had ancestors who lived in Pill Road in the town.

The Accuracy of Online Family Trees (Places)

This is the second in my series of posts about the perils and pitfalls of relying on other peoples’ online family trees.

In the last post I commented about some of the issues to be aware of in relation to dates. I will now look at some of the dangers signs in regard to places.

  1. No places stated for an event. If a record has been found that proves a piece of information, it will almost always show where the event had happened. For example, to know that someone was baptised on a particular date, the source is probably a baptism register for a particular church, and therefore, it should follow that we know where the baptism took place. There are always exceptions (for example, a family bible might give dates but not places), but these are likely to be the minority of pieces of data on a family tree. If an online tree you have found generally only has dates and no (or very few) places recorded on it, the chances are that the researcher hasn’t diligently gathered the information, or at least not documented it, and so be dubious. They may have just copied the information from elsewhere.
  2. The people move about-a lot! Our ancestors did migrate and move around, and sometimes by long distances, although short migration, of perhaps a few miles, was far more normal. I have seen examples of online trees where someone seemed to dart around the country, with each child being born in a different part of the country, hundreds of miles apart. Whilst this might have been a true reflection, more often than not, it is a case of mistaken identity, and many different people with the same name have been merged as the same person in the tree. If you see a lot of movement, try and as yourself: “How does the researcher know that all these are the same person?”
  3. The records don’t survive, or haven’t been indexed. It isn’t easy to detect this on an online family tree. It is quite common to find that the places in a family tree will suddenly jump from a parish where the family had been for a while to somewhere else. The reason being that the researcher failed to find any earlier records of the family in that place. This could quite legitimately be the case, although there are three common other explanations…
  • The records don’t survive earlier for that place. Parish registers are one of the main sources for baptisms, marriages, and burials, but their survival varies for each parish. If the records haven’t survived, your family won’t appear to exist, but could have been in that place all along.
  • The records haven’t been indexed any earlier. They may still exist in an archive where they have been deposited, but a researcher only working online hasn’t found them simply because the records aren’t online.
  • The name doesn’t appear in quite the way you expect it to, for example, a spelling variation. In s recent project for a client, I was researching their Elstrop ancestors. However, in earlier records, before about 1820, the name was recorded as Healstrop. Phonetically the names are very similar, an H often being nearly silent in English, but the computer algorithms use by online family data providers weren’t smart enough to consider these to be the same, so searching for Elstrop didn’t show up results for Healstrop. This could have lead an inexperienced researcher to think the family weren’t there. By searching the original records, page by page, reading the original handwriting, name variations like this can be detected, and the family progressed back further.

The Accuracy of Online Family Trees

I do a lot of work for clients that have found an online family tree, such as those on Ancestry or MyHeritage, and so I am often asked to use these as a starting point. I have therefore seen a good many over the years, presented in this series of blog posts are some of my observations about where people make mistakes, and how you can get an idea of how accurate what you find might be.

Firstly, I am not completely against the sharing of genealogical data online (if there are safeguards over data about living people), although I do personally keep my trees private—I have had people take the data that I have spent many hours carefully researching, and then tagging on complete nonsense. Therein lies the problem: the data they contain is only as good as the research skills of the person that created them, or that blindly copied them, and carried on adding to them.

In this post, I will look at some of the “danger signs” with an emphasis on dates and places, that suggest the data you have found in an online tree is probably wrong, or at the very least, questionable.

  1. No exact dates: for example, a year only. Sometimes an exact date cannot be found, and so a date might be an estimate, or based on an age at a known point in someone’s life. This should really be the rarity and is usually a sign that someone hasn’t found a record that proves what they are looking for. Even if this is the case, the date should really be expressed as approximate, for example “about” or “circa”, to show that it is such. Most genealogical software (including Ancestry’s online tree) can handle this sort of ambiguous date.
  2. The wrong kind of dates: Prior to 1837 in England and Wales (1855 in Scotland), it is more usual to not have an exact date of when someone was born. There are always exceptions, but for most ancestors the closest date we have is likely to be the date of their baptism. Whilst a baptism usually occurred within a few days or weeks of a child’s birth, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes parents would have a few children baptised on the same day—in a family baptism—the older children possibly being several years old. A similar phenomenon occurs with burials and deaths. Before the start of civil registration, it is more usual to have date of burial—probably only a few days after the death—than it is to have the exact date of death. If a tree has only birth and death dates for people born or died before 1837, then be warned that the author probably doesn’t know what they are doing.
  3. Not allowing for the Julian Calendar: Prior to 1752 in England and Wales (1600 in Scotland), the Julian Calendar was in use. Under this, New Year’s Day was not 1 January, but 25 March (Lady Day) So March was the first month. Out of interest, this is why some months sound like numbers, but they don’t match with their current numbering: September (Sept is seven in French, but September is the 9th month); October (An Octopus has eight legs, but October is the 10th month); November (Novem is nine in Latin, but November is the 11th month); December (Decimal is ten, but December is the 12th month). The consequence is that between 1 January and 24 March, the people at the time would have considered the year to be one less than we now would. For example, if we found a baptism of an ancestor born on 14 February 1600 (as shown in the original register), this would be in what we would consider 1601, and therefore, by convention in genealogy, we would write the date as 14 February 1600/1 to make this clear. To the best of my knowledge, the Ancestry tree doesn’t support this kind of dating, so it is unavoidable to correct the date to one form or the other. However, sometimes an amateur has not properly interpreted this date. For example, it would be quite possible for a child to be baptised on 31 December 1700, and buried on 1 January 1700, i.e. the following day, which is better expressed as 1 January 1700/1. When the British Empire switched to the Gregorian calendar (which replaced the Julian Calendar), an adjustment was also needed to bring the days back in line with the equinoxes. The Julian calendar didn’t allow properly for leap years, and so had been getting out of synchronisation for nearly 1800 years since it was introduced in 45BC. Therefore, in the British Empire, 2 September 1752 (a Wednesday) was followed by 14 September (a Thursday), with the lost ten days adjusting the calendar back to where it should have been. Obviously, if an online tree you have found showed that someone in the British Empire was born on 5 September 1752, be very wary of the accuracy. Further information can be found about the Julian Calendar on Wikipedia.

In the next post I will continue to look at some of the danger signs to look for in online trees.

Sophisticated Use of the Census

The following is based on some research I did for a client during my work as a professional genealogist. It has been reproduced here with his permission. I would never disclose details about a client’s research without their permission to do so.

It does show some advanced techniques that are sometimes necessary to overcome brick walls in research, even when ancestors used different surnames.

The research concerns Charles Stratton (although the name is sometimes recorded as Strattion). It was already known that Charles had married a lady named Mary Lewis at All Saints, South Acton, on 14 September 18911. The entry of the marriage from the parish register recorded that Charles was then age twenty-seven, a bachelor, a labourer, the son of Charles Henry Stratton, also a labourer.

Taking the above information at face value, he was probably born about 1864, and so we could reasonably expect to locate him on the 1871, 1881 and 1891 census returns. Yet, he could not be located on any of them. Charles died in 1896 before the next census after his marriage was taken.

A search in the General Register Office Index of Births for boys named Charles Stratton (and variants) failed to show any particularly promising matches. However, there was a baptism of a Charles Stratton on 12 June 18642, at St. Stephen Shepherds Bush, Hammersmith, which had been located by way of the extensive London area parish register collection available through Ancestry. This boy was recorded as the son of Charles and Mary Ann Stratton, of 5 Williams Cottages, Latymer Road. It wasn’t yet confirmed that this was the correct baptism.

Even with the above, it was not possible to locate the family on the above mentioned census returns under the name of Stratton or variants. Locating them on the census really was the best chance of being able to follow the family back further. Or at least eliminate the 1864 baptism as incorrect.

I therefore did what I would call an advanced census search. By this I mean that I searched for all boys named Charles (no surname was specified), born about 1864 in Hammersmith, whose parents were recorded on the census as Charles/Henry and Mary Ann. You would be surprised how few matches this sort of search brings up.

There was one entry which stood out on the 1861 census. This was for a family headed by a Charles and Mary Ann Smith, who had a son named Charles, then age seven, born in Hammersmith. They were living at 1 Charlotte Terrace, Hammersmith3. Also in the household were some younger siblings, including a daughter Elizabeth, then age just two months. A search in the General Register Office Index of Births did indicate that there was a girl named Elizabeth Stratton whose birth was registered in the area in the first quarter of 1871.

A copy of the birth certificate for this Elizabeth Stratton was obtained4. She was born on 19 February 1871, at 1 Charlotte Terrace, Hammersmith. Therefore proving that the Stratton family had been recorded on the 1861 census as at that address as Smith. This girl’s mother’s maiden surname was Fisher, and when a search was done in the General Register Office Index of Births (the newer version as re-indexed with mother’s maiden surnames), Charles’ birth stood out. His birth had been registered as John Charles Strattion.

So why should the Stratton family appear on the census as Smith? There was a small possibility that it was a transcription error by the census enumerators. The pages of the census that we now see (1911 excepted), are not the forms completed by the household themselves, but they are summary books copied up from these returns. Copying up is a process in which errors can creep in. So, if the householder had poor handwriting, perhaps Stratton had been read as Smith. This is however quite a wild error.

The Stratton family were found on the 1871 census, again as Smith. This time they were living at 13 Manchester Street, Kensington5. The head being recorded as Henry Smith (using his middle name). I would speculate that the household had intentionally chosen to conceal themselves by using the surname Smith rather than Stratton.

The above represents some of the barriers that can meet genealogists in a complicated case, even in the Victorian period: surname spelling variations, use and substitution of middle and first names and using completely different surnames!

  1. Parish Registers of All Saints South Action, Register of Marriages 1873-1918, page 73; London Metropolitan Archives: DRO/56/13
  2. Parish Regosters of St. Stephen Shepherds Bush, Register of Baptisms 1850-1895, page 69; London Metropolitan Archives P80/STE/3
  3. 1871 Census for 1 Charlotte Terrace, Hammersmith; The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO): RG10/66 folio: 78 page: 34
  4. Birth Certificate for Elizabeth Strattion; General Register Office, Births in the Quarter Ending March 1871, name: Strattion, Elizabeth district: Kensington volume: 1a page: 173
  5. 1881 Census for 13 Manchester Street, Kensington; TNA: PRO: RG11/34 folio: 70 page: 7

General Register Office Adds Search Facility for Historic Births and Deaths

On going to carry out a routine client order this morning, I noticed a change to the General Register Office website. It would appear that the General Register Office have added the facility to search their own copy of the index. Importantly, and only having had a cursory look, their index seems to add the ability to look at mother’s maiden surnames prior to 1911, and ages at death prior to 1867. Both or which will significantly ease ordering of a correct certificate.

It would appear that you have to be a registered user and signed into the site to see the index.

I am guessing the data is from the aborted digitization of vital events (DOVE) project, so I am guessing was indexed from the originals, rather than the old indexes.

This could prove a great help to many family mysteries, and saved wasted time and money ordering the wrong certificates.

Is this the start of access to non certified copies from the historical indexes?