Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Lies, Damn Lies and Genealogy

As we say up north, Martha Lydia seems to have been a bit of of a lass! She was the illegitimate daughter of Margaret who later married Joe, and had three illegitimate children herself before marrying Bill, with whom she had another six children. Whilst the details which follow relate to England, the principles are generally applicable.


One point to remember is that although registration started in 1827, it was voluntary for births and deaths until 1875, so the absence of a certificate is not unusual. For births it is also possible to give a child any name one likes. Our Martha Lydia used her own surname ie. her mother's maiden name, for her first child and that of her step father for the next two. However, She did marry using her own name and left the father's name blank, unlike another illegitimate relative who decided to invent a deceased father when he got married.

In the great English tradition of telling officials what one thinks they would like to hear, where there was a disparity in ages between the couple, or maybe one of them is a little too young for marriage without parental consent, then some age adjustment was perfectly acceptable. Whilst talking about ages, an age at death is that which the reporter of the death thinks it is, which need not necessarily be the chronological age.


A census provides an excellent opportunity for the head of a household to demonstrate their creativity. To come back to Martha Lydia, her stepfather came from a very religious family and it simply would not do for illegitimacy to be 'exposed' on a census return! This was resolved by giving the children the same surname as his, and describing them as "son" and "daughters". It was only after Joe died that Margaret recorded the true relationship.

Ages on censuses suffer from many variables, there are those whose increasing age is not related to the passage of time, and others where an accurate disclosure would reveal an illegal act. In particular, during the mid 1800s there were the Factory Acts which increased the minimum working age and restricted the hours of work. Naturally, the age of working juveniles had to comply with the law.

During the 19th century, divorce was the prerogative of the rich, bigamy was not uncommon, and clearly did not show on censuses. Even where there was no bigamous marriage partners would be recorded as a spouse, or maybe a 'housekeeper'. It was, of course, incumbent on all to maintain Victorian standards of morality.

Armed Forces Registration

Surely the details given on registration for service in the armed forces will be accurate? Well, no, especially during the first world war. At this time there was much peer pressure to serve 'King and Country' and there are many recorded instances of people enlisting and inflating their age in order to be eligible to join up and serve overseas.


Even excluding those so called genealogists whose aim to to prove that they are descended from royalty, rather than to establish the truth, personal family trees must be treated with extreme care. Genealogist may well publish trees in which they clearly state that a relationship is a probability rather than an established fact, but by the time it has been copied and recopied by those who exercise less care this probability has been transcribed into the definitive family history.

With respect to censuses the images which we see, prior to 1911, are transcriptions and are, therefore, subject to both enumerator's and transcriber's errors. Certificates are written by an official, who might be ecclesiastical or civil, and particularly during the period when illiteracy was high the spelling of names is likely to be phonetic.

© Ron Ferguson 2010