Author Topic: Understanding Family History Documentation - Some Notes  (Read 58091 times)

Offline Biker

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Understanding Family History Documentation - Some Notes
« on: Tuesday 28 February 06 20:37 GMT (UK) »
Some Notes on Documentation - Variations, Anomalies and Oddities ...

Although I’m no expert, I’m often asked about ‘oddities’ we all find in doing our genealogical research, so I’ve put together a brief overview of things we might find and hopefully provide a little help in understanding/interpreting some records …

This is not a guide per se, but notes on what I’ve discovered in my own research, feedback from others and some research that has been done into various elements of family research.  While this is totally unscientific and not meant to sway research one way or the other nor discourage,  I hope it is of help in perhaps explaining some of the oddities everyone comes across from time to time in doing their family history research …

Birth Year/Age

It is not uncommon for an individual’s actual birth year given on the birth certificate to vary from the age given by the individual on documentation such as marriage certificates, census entries, death certificates.  It is relatively common for ages to vary by several years (in some cases much more) between actual birth year and the information provided for the census.  While it may be guesswork to try to understand this phenomenon it is worth noting in a general manner that an individual’s actual age was perhaps less significant than it is now.  Beyond that there are some reasons which are generally thought to be fairly common 1) misunderstanding between the individual and the enumerator 2)  ages being purposefully ‘adjusted’ where there is a significant age difference between marriage partners 3) to disguise illegitimacy of children 4) age ‘adjusted’ to adhere to, for instance, marriage laws.

Birth Place

It is not uncommon for birth places to be confused especially in larger urban areas.  Individuals providing information for, say, the census were unlikely to know anything about parish boundaries and gave their birth place as they understood  it.  In such cases,  it could be where they grew up, rather than their actual place of their birth.  In an age of great geographic mobility, many were born and then were baptised or spent their early years in a nearby parish or perhaps even far from their place of birth.  In more rural areas, individuals often give the nearby largest town as their place of birth when perhaps they were born in a village nearby.

It is therefore not unusual for an individual to give their birthplace as a 1) a neighbourhood name 2) a sub parish name 3) a parish 4) a county 5) a landmark or institution (e.g. a hospital) 6) the nearest larger town.  The information provided can also change from census to census.  In addition, it appears fairly common that individuals would give their place of birth as the place they were living at the time of the census; one can only guess that in response to the question of birth place, the person would probably have said ‘around here’ or ‘here’ or ‘locally’.


There are two main areas of confusion - name spellings and names given and recorded on documents.

Names appearing on documents such as censuses, marriage certificates and the like were recorded as given by the individuals concerned.   It is not surprising with the relatively high illiteracy rates of the 19th century, influx of immigrants and those from rural areas that names were often recorded ‘wrongly’ with sometimes a slight variation on the original or, in some cases, an Anglicised version of foreign names.

Names recorded also vary in some cases from the individuals actual birth or baptismal name.  In some cases, short-forms of names (especially first names) or nicknames are used.  Also, it is not uncommon that middle names are completely absent from some documents, especially the census.  More elusive for the researcher are documents where a completely non-factual name is cited – as in some fathers’ names given on birth or marriage certificates.


Although many people continued in the same occupation for many years or even a lifetime, experience and research has show that for some, a complete change of occupation was not unusual – there are numerous possible reasons for this, economic necessity, opportunity etc.  This appears to be more common with those migrating from rural to urban areas during the industrialisation period although some urban dwellers also changed occupation as necessary.

Occupations on documentation – especially those of the father on marriage certificates – do sometimes tend to be confusing/erroneous.  Whether this is a lack of understanding of the father’s actual occupation, a matter of status to inflate the father’s occupation or a mere error is difficult to know, but it is not uncommon to find an occupation that is at variance with the actual occupation of the individual concerned.

In addition to the above, it is worth noting that understandably with such a wealth of information, varying literacy of both the individuals being recorded and those recording data that there are errors of all sorts!

Having said this, verification and cross-verification is of course an essential part of genealogical research.

If anyone has anything to add, please PM a Moderator …

Biker   :)
Census information is Crown Copyright

Offline suegill

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Re: Understanding Family History Documentation - Some Notes
« Reply #1 on: Tuesday 28 February 06 22:44 GMT (UK) »
I came across this in Family Chronicle magazine.

Census records.
Census enumerators were not required to verify any of the information given to them and were not required to actually speak to the individual the information pertained to.  Any individual living in the household, neighbourhood, etc. could provide the data.  since many individuals were illiterate the census taker had to spell the names as he heard them, phonetically, with no way to verify the actual spelling.  many individuals didn't know how old others in their household were, since actual age wasn't really important until child labour laws, drivers licenses, etc. came into being.

Census information is Crown Copyright, from

Alker - Aspull, Hindley
Marsh - Atherton
Blain - Atherton
Gill - Atherton
Hogg - Loscoe, Crich
Harrison - Heanor, Ruddington
Earnshaw - Heanor
Cope - Heanor, Loscoe, Mapperley
Daykin - Heanor, Loscoe, Mapperley