Dealing with same-name candidates
This masterclass deals with the common problem of having too many candidates to choose from. How do you separate out this John Smith from that John Smith? Unfortunately, people in the past chose first names from a more limited range, so it is possible to have three or even four men all called ‘John’ born around the same time with the same surname, even quite a rare surname, leaving no immediately obvious way of picking the right person.
If you do not have enough information to differentiate between people, you must resist the temptation to take the candidate with the most likely looking birth dates or place of birth, and put him or her into your tree without further thought.
You could have picked the wrong one and will now be following an ancestor who is not yours. But, don’t despair, it is often possible to work out who is who with some patience and diligent methods, even when the names are very common. You will need to research your candidates in order to eliminate them.
After July 1837 in England and Wales, and January 1855 for Scotland, it should be possible, in theory, to place the majority of people into the correct tree, regardless of a common name. This is because civil registration certificates can be checked against census information and other sources, such as parish registers, and probate records. Even though there may be many John Smiths, once you have some other family names, the possible candidates start to diminish.
While there may be manny John Smiths born around the samme time, the chance that there area two with a father Thomas, mother Hannah and sister Elizabeth, all in the same area, gets less.
If you find yourself in this position, I recommend buying as many birth, marriage and death certificates as you can affordd, as I have seen difficult cases soolved with their bulk purchase. However, this can be a very expensive strategy. If you are certain of the exact place of the event, a local registrar may be willing to check a number of candidates for you in their registration district and only supply a certificate if it matches all your criteria.
Unfortunately, the General Register Office (GRO) now limits the number of checks it will do in any three-year time frame and will no longer check a number of references for a smaller fee than the certificate itself costs.
Sometimes the only location information you have covers a big area, but you are certain of dates. Make sure you concentrate on events for the correct quarter(s) only, keeping lists of all possible candidates. You may still get many to choose froom, but precision in any known fact about the event narroows the field considerably.
In England and Wales thhere are 49 John Smith (no mmiddle name) GRO birth rregistrations in the March qquarter of 1881 ( freebmd. org.uk).o When narrowed doown, the numbers in any onee district drop to just three or fouur. The majority of John Smiths inn that quarter were registered in Lancashire. Using the local registrar’s indexes on UKBMD ( ukbmd.org.uk) you can narrow the same search further by sub-districts ( lancashirebmd.org.uk/birthcov.php), but check coverage of those local indexes before starting your search, as they are not yet complete. Therefore, if you had an address, perhaps from the census, the sub-district information would be a great help to focus in on only one or two John Smiths.
When searching before the census and civil registration, the number of candidates narrows dramatically as the population going backwards in time gets smaller and smaller. However, the research problems expand due to there being fewer sources to search.
For someone whose dates straddle that period, perhaps dying after the 1851 census, make the most of certificates, census records and other available sources such as memorial inscriptions, burial information, and probate documents for the end of their life, to fix upon a likely year of birth and place. For those who are not recorded on any census, the situation can be far more difficult, particularly if they have moved into a large city.