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.