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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 14.

Week 14 – Check it out.

This week’s prompt could (should?) be a mantra for all genealogists and family historians, whatever their level of experience, from the total neophyte to the longstanding professional.

A few examples, mainly from my own extended family research.

1. Faulty memories

Anecdotes and memories of family members (especially older ones) are priceless in building up a picture of recent ancestors and putting flesh on the bones of our family history, but memory can err at times – a child perceives things differently from an adult, to start with. Apart from that, older memories can be unconsciously transformed over time, rather like a game of Chinese Whispers. When I started researching Dad’s family, he told me that his mother was in service as a teenager with a family called Straw who kept a grocer’s shop and had a daughter called Agnes. I found Gran on the 1901 census, and everything matched – except that the family surname was Hey!

At a more general level, someone who moved home as a small child in the 19th century may genuinely not have known where they were born and presumed it was where they grew up, leading to incorrect details on census returns: if they can be located earlier with their parents, there’s a much greater chance that age and place of birth will be accurate.

2. Tall tales

Some family stories seem feasible at first glance, but when you actually check them out you wonder where on earth they came from! My maternal grandmother provided several such anecdotes which all proved wide of the mark.

Story: my 2x great-grandmother’s husband was paid off to marry her, and the true father of my great-grandmother (born 2 months after their marriage) was the politician Charles Stewart Parnell. I have no idea where this came from unless it was an attempt to explain the short lapse of time between marriage and birth. (Having said that, she had given birth to two illegitimate children prior to her marriage, so to be honest her respectability was already shot.) Her husband is named as the father on my great-grandmother’s birth certificate and DNA matching links me definitely to his family, so I wrote the Parnell story off – admittedly a little reluctantly! – as fantasy.

In general, the father of an illegitimate child is far more likely to be someone from the mother’s social circle than a local nobleman or the son of her employer. Yes, sexual exploitation undeniably happened, and obviously shouldn’t be trivialised or dismissed by any means, but it should be kept in proportion.

Story: Gran’s aunt ran off with a man who had an act on the music halls with doves – she emphasised that it was all very tasteful, which I’m afraid led me as a Brit of a certain age to think inevitably of Kenny Everett in character as Cupid Stunt. (Google it – I’m sorry.) However, the girl in question actually died at the age of 3, and I’m at a loss to explain how such a detailed story grew up. Did Gran (or whoever told her the story) confuse two different people? It seems a very strange story to be a total invention, but I’ve found absolutely nothing in the immediate family to explain it.

Story: Granddad’s grandfather, a keen sportsman, died following a fall from his Penny Farthing bicycle during a race. Plausible on the face of it, except that the death certificate gives his cause of death as tuberculosis and doesn’t mention a fall even as a secondary cause. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Penny Farthing story is untrue – it may well be a case of conflating two unrelated events, where over time the fall became linked in the family’s mind to his death.

All the examples above were comparatively easy to check out using civil registration documents, cemetery records and so forth: others are more a case of using wider information and common sense.

3. Historical and geographical anomalies

Anomaly: Some of my Swiss husband’s family lines in the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel are documented back to the 15th century, but a couple of very distant overseas relations who got in touch via our website told us most emphatically that they originally came from France as Huguenot refugees – “we’ve always known that”. We tactfully pointed out that the family was living in Switzerland long before the Reformation, let alone the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, but even so one contact refused to accept that their family story could possibly be wrong and broke off contact with us.

More generally, not all French (or French-speaking) Protestants were Huguenots! For example, the emigration of Huguenots to London is well-documented, but the famous Huguenot Church in Threadneedle Street was also attended by both transient and longer-term French-speaking residents who understandably preferred to worship in their own language and in a form familiar to them.

Anomaly: Some time ago I found one of my ancestors mentioned on someone’s personal website. The author had found birth records for his parents in the early 1700s which – as she pointed out herself – meant they were aged just 8 and 10 when they married. (Not to mention that the mother must have conceived her first child at barely 11.) Yes, at this time there was no minimum legal age for marriage in England and Wales, but common sense should really have pushed the author to look past the first homonyms she found: there are far more likely possibilities in the immediate locality!

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753 established the minimum age for marriage as 14 for boys and 12 for girls, and this remained the case (with some minor variations) until 1929. However, marriage at a very early age was the exception, rather than the rule, so apparent child marriages should ring alarm bells and need to be thoroughly verified. In my own extended family, as well as the research I’ve done for others, the youngest brides I have found were aged 16 or thereabouts (one might still have been 15) and the youngest grooms 17.

Anomaly: In one branch of my family, I have a couple who both grew up in the same Shropshire village and had a string of children there from 1854 onwards. There is no obvious marriage record locally, and multiple online trees identify them as a couple of that name who married in Manchester (over 80 miles away) in 1849. However, the only source cited is the GRO index and the names are reasonably common ones: moreover no one appears to have noticed that the couple were recorded as unmarried and living with their respective parents in Shropshire on the 1851 census! Our ancestors were more mobile than we tend to assume, but even without the census record I would be looking for much more concrete proof of a marriage quite so far from home and with no other family connections there.

4. Unchecked mayhem

Unfortunately, anyone who has researched their family history to any extent will have come across online trees which demonstrate the result of adopting uncritically every “hint” or potential “related record” on different genealogy sites and copying unquestioningly other researchers’ trees. If the information isn’t verified as outlined above, the resulting mishmash all too often merges couples with the same names, ignores biological and geographical impossibilities, and even has individuals married to multiple partners simultaneously. Of course, a well-researched online tree can provide valuable information, especially when sources are documented, and site hints can point to interesting possibilities, but even these should be double-checked systematically if we want a result which holds water.

In short: check it out – and record your sources!

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