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