Examples of surname variant spellings

This is the third in a series of post on variant spellings of surnames. Today, I will give some examples of variants I have encountered to illustrate how different they can be. These are all from projects where the evidence is clear that the variants do relate to the same family.

  • Goodrum or Gooderham
  • Gibson or Gipson
  • Oram or Horam or Whoram
  • Elstrop or Healstrop or Heelstrop
  • Doughty or Daughty or Dufty
  • Dew or Dow or Doe

Particularly troublesome amongst name variations are those where the initial letter changes (like Oram/Horam/Whoram). This is because some of the computer algorithms used to help search computer databases often aren’t clever enough to pick-up on this kind of variant, and this is why looking at original documents is useful—by looking page-by-page at a parish register, it encourages the researcher to consider if the name written down might be a variant. On many occasions in my work, I have been able to progress a family back further by looking at an image of a document itself, not relying on a computer database or index.

Why are names sometimes written wrongly?

Carrying on from my post last week about spelling variations of names—particularly surnames—it is worth considering why a name might be written differently than what might be expected.

Phonetic spellings

On many occasions, it wasn’t even our ancestors who wrote their names down. The name would have been said to a scribe, and the said scribe would have been the one who wrote the name down. For example, if a couple wed at a church, the bride and groom would have spoken their names and then those would have been written in the register by the official conducting the ceremony. From 1754 in England and Wales, the bride and groom should have signed their names, but you will often find that these were simply crosses, described as their marks, i.e. they couldn’t write their names. On many occasions, they wouldn’t know how to read their names either, and so would have no idea if the name was written “wrongly”.

A local scribe, marrying a local couple, would probably have a better idea of how the name was written than if one of the parties were from further away. The different accent and unfamiliarity to locally occurring names means that if an ancestor moved a long way that the variations can be quite extreme, or may have been modified into a name that the scribe was more familiar with. A non-local accent could also change what the scribe thought they heard.

Copying or transcription errors.

This happens when someone couldn’t read what was originally written and so an error was introduced. That someone might be a modern transcriber or indexer, trying to make the best out of a poor quality image or damaged document. This is what often occurs with indexes and why you should always look at the original document rather than relying on an index. The copying error might have happened much closer to the event. For example, what we see today for censuses prior to 1911, aren’t the original forms completed by our ancestors, but they are compiled lists created by the enumerators from the said forms. Whenever something is copied, errors can be introduced.

There are of course of reasons too, but the above probably cover in excess of 80% of name variation occurrences, at least for non-permanent and not deliberate changes.

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 [https://search.findmypast.co.uk/search-world-records/british-mariners-trinity-house-calendars-1787-1854].

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.