He­len Os­born dis­cusses the re­li­a­bil­ity of the records we all use and of­fers ad­vice on avoid­ing some of the pit­falls that can arise

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Ex­am­in­ing the re­li­a­bil­ity of re­sources

Some of­fi­cial and le­gal records are in­tended to be used to prove iden­tity, sta­tus or le­gal own­er­ship con­cern­ing an in­di­vid­ual at the time the records were cre­ated. This in­cludes birth, mar­riage and death cer­tifi­cates (but not the in­dexes to them), some court records, bap­tism and mar­riage records from parish reg­is­ters, pro­bate records, mar­riage bonds and al­le­ga­tions, deeds and land trans­fer doc­u­ments, and Poor Law set­tle­ment cer­tifi­cates and ex­am­i­na­tions. They are not free of er­rors or in­ten­tional de­cep­tions, but they score highly as ev­i­dence of events in a per­son’s life, and should al­ways be taken se­ri­ously un­less dis­proved.

Other his­tor­i­cal records were not gen­er­ally cre­ated with an in­di­vid­ual per­son in mind, but are con­tem­po­rary and pro­vide good ev­i­dence that they were in a cer­tain place at a par­tic­u­lar point in time. They in­clude records of tax, the census, trade di­rec­to­ries, mili­tia lists, and many other con­tem­po­rary list­ings. They don’t tend to suf­fer from out­right de­cep­tions (ex­cept the census), but might have er­rors.

Con­tem­po­rary news­pa­per re­ports come into a spe­cial cat­e­gory of their own, be­cause al­though they are an his­tor­i­cal source, there are many ways a reporter could have got the facts wrong. Fam­ily no­tices can also have er­rors with names and dates.

Di­rect ev­i­dence comes from the stated facts in the records, and in­di­rect ev­i­dence is what you can in­fer from it. For ex­am­ple, you might in­fer a birth date from a bap­tism. Di­rect ev­i­dence is stronger than in­di­rect ev­i­dence.

Pro­bate and wills

Some of the most re­li­able a nd ac­cu­rate di­rect ev­i­dence com mes from pro­bate doc­u­ments. Even the na­tional pro­bate cal­en­dars, a de­riv­a­tive source, are gen­er­ally highly ac­cu­rate as to name, ad­dress and date of death of the de­ceased.

A will may pro­vide a large amount of fam­ily de­tail, but may not men­tion n ev­ery­body. Ad­min­is­tra­tion s are good ev­i­dence for the name and ad­dress of the ad­min­is­tra­tors of pro­bate – if they are rel­a­tives, this is use­ful – and, of course, for the amount of the es­tate. Pay care­ful at­ten­tion to the date the will was writ­ten and the date it was proved. If your an­ces­tor is named in a will, it means they were alive at the time the will was writ­ten. It does not mean they were alive when the will was proved.p While the will is di­rect ev­i­dence of the in­ten­tions of the tes­ta­tor, you may have to use in­di­rect ev­i­dence to make the most of the clues within it.

Ev­i­dence from court records is likely to be ac­cu­rate as to name, place and dates, al­though it could be lack­ing re­li­able ev­i­dence of other aspects. For ex­am­ple, it is known that many crim­i­nal As­size In­dict­mentss do not con­tain an ac­cu­ratte place of birth for the ac­cu­used. As to whether or not thee ev­i­dence put be­fore the coourt was ac­cu­rate or not, yyou will have to draw your oown con­clu­sions.

Civil reg­is­tra­tion ccer­tifi­cates gen­er­ally gi­ive good ev­i­dence of re­laa­tion­ships, ad­dresses, names and ages, but have to be used withh cau­tion. There are er­rors on cer­tifi­cates, some of them made by the lo­cal reg­is­trar, some added by the Gen­eral Reg­is­ter Of­fice (GRO). Beware of those is­sued by the GRO in mod­ern hand­writ­ing; th­ese are ones where the mi­cro­film copy of the orig­i­nal is hard to read. There are many pit­falls with birth cer­tifi­cates; birth dates may be in­ac­cu­rate by some weeks and the mother and father may not nec­es­sar­ily be mar­ried. Age at death on death cer­tifi­cates is of­ten in­ac­cu­rate, but nor­mally only by a few years.

Mar­riage cer­tifi­cates are the most likely to con­tain mis­in­for­ma­tion. Giv­ing a younger or older age is com­mon, par­tic­u­larly if there is an age gap be­tween bride and groom, or if one of the par­ties is un­der 21. Oc­cu­pa­tions of fa­thers tend to get ex­ag­ger­ated. Do not as­sume that be­cause a father is named on the cer­tifi­cate with an oc­cu­pa­tion, he was def­i­nitely alive. The fact that the cou­ple are mar­ried doesn’t mean that they did not have an­other spouse alive else­where!

Even with their many prob­lems, the vast ma­jor­ity of cer­tifi­cates are ac­cu­rate enough to pro­vide you with a good start­ing point. If you find dis­crep­an­cies, check against other sources, and don’t for­get to look in parish reg­is­ters to see if bap­tisms and buri­als pro­vide an­swers.

The census is more prob­lem­atic than pro­bate or civil reg­is­tra­tion. Ver­bal in­for­ma­tion given to the enu­mer­a­tor may have been wrong, the enu­mer­a­tor may have been un­able to read the householder’s hand­writ­ing, or un­der­stand an ac­cent, was de­lib­er­ately led astray or just made an hon­est mis­take.

The method of census form col­lec­tion and their tran­scrip­tion by teams of in­di­vid­u­als gave a good ba­sis for over­all sta­tis­tics about the pop­u­la­tion, but leads to many er­rors on an in­di­vid­ual level. Some fam­i­lies couldn’t read or write, may not have clearly un­der­stood in­struc­tions, or been re­luc­tant to give ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion.

Of all the pri­mary source doc­u­ments that peo­ple are found in, the census is the least re­li­able ev­i­dence of age or place of birth. Nor is it good proof of le­gal re­la­tion­ships. Step-re­la­tion­ships are of­ten in­cor­rectly stated, and there are many a ‘ hus­band and wife’ on the census who don’t ap­pear to have ever mar­ried. How­ever, it is good ev­i­dence of ad­dress, and oc­cu­pa­tions of adults. The census def­i­nitely needs to be used to­gether with other sources, to ver­ify facts.

Parish reg­is­ter en­tries are no­to­ri­ous for pit­falls, but it would be rare to find that the event be­ing recorded did not ac­tu­ally hap­pen. Names are of­ten spelt a lit­tle dif­fer­ently than you might ex­pect, and there could eas­ily be mis­takes with names of par­ents or spouses in the reg­is­ter.

Record-keep­ing prac­tices were gen­er­ally bad, so you have to bear in mind that the cler­gy­men made mis­takes, but if an event is in the reg­is­ter then, ex­cept for rare cases, you can be sure it hap­pened. If you can’t find some­one, then this may be ev­i­dence that they were not recorded in the reg­is­ter be­cause they were else­where, or it may be that they were missed.

Sur­pris­ingly, me­mo­rial in­scrip­tions can also con­tain er­rors as they were of­ten put up some years af­ter a death and mis­takes are made as to date of death or date of birth, as mem­o­ries fade. How­ever, they are usu­ally very solid ev­i­dence of the name and any fam­ily men­tioned. Al­ways seek to check the dates on any me­mo­rial in­scrip­tions with an­other record.

Ev­ery sin­gle source has its own pit­falls, it could con­tain cler­i­cal er­rors, or false in­for­ma­tion, but de­lib­er­ate de­cep­tion is rare. It is al­ways a good idea to seek out a num­ber of dif­fer­ent records to cor­rob­o­rate against each other.

The census is more prob­lem­atic than pro­bate or civil reg­is­tra­tion


Pro­bate doc­u­ments are usu­ally a re­li­able and ac­cu­rate record of ac­tual events; wills can pro­vide a large amount of de­tail about a fam­ily but may not men­tion ev­ery­body

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