52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 15.
Week 15 – How do you spell that?
This week’s prompt immediately struck a chord with me, as I frequently have the impression that my married surname is “von-Allmen-I’ll-spell-that”. (And in spite of that we still get letters addressed to “Van Allan” and worse!)
One of the first things I learned when I started researching family history was that even our reasonably educated ancestors didn’t consider spelling terribly important, and that their names frequently varied slightly without any consequence on different records: Esther/Hester, Ratcliff/Radcliff, etc. As for our illiterate ancestors, they were at the mercy of the vicar, registrar, or whoever else wrote down their name on their behalf! Over time spellings gradually became standardised, particularly as schooling became universal, but by then some of the odder “variant” names had become established in their own right.
Some strange spellings seem to sprout out of thin air, like the first example below, while others can be explained by migration to an area where the name was uncommon, or where the original accent was hard for the locals to understand. Here are three brief examples.
Matthew Warrington was born in Leeds in 1813. The surname Warrington (from the town of the same name) was fairly common in the north of England, but for an unknown reason, by the time Matthew married my 4x great-aunt Anna Maria Goodwin in Bridgnorth in 1837 he was signing his name as “Wharington”. All their children’s births were registered as Wharington or Wharrington, and by the following generation the spelling had become irrevocably fixed as Wharington. No other member of Matthew’s immediate or extended family used this spelling, and as far as I have been able to establish, all modern-day Wharingtons are descendants of this one couple - and are hence my relations.
William Barrass was born in 1836 in Hazel Grove, near Stockport. In fact, I can’t be certain that the spelling used at his baptism was the original form of his surname, as the family is very elusive on the subsequent census returns, but when he finally resurfaces in Hull in 1863, he signs his marriage record as “Baross”. This is the spelling used from then onwards by his family – and only his family. Mind you, William had an original approach to spelling: on the 1871 census he gives his place of birth as “Assle Grove”!
My final example comes from my husband’s maternal family and speaks strongly to the language geek in me. In 1712 Jaques Huguenin (born 1678) left Switzerland with his wife and at least two young children and joined other families from the canton of Neuchâtel on an incredible journey across Europe to settle in a distant part of what was then East Prussia and is now in Russia. Over the next couple of generations as their children and grandchildren integrated and intermarried with the local German speakers their surname was transformed by the authorities who wrote down phonetically what they heard. I have to say my favourite variation is Igneâe, but the name finally stabilised as Igney or Ignay. This may seem light years away from “Huguenin”, but in fact if you pronounce the original surname with a French accent and imagine hearing it as a German speaker it makes perfect sense – trust me!
I have written a little more about the background to this crazy emigration story on our family website, but it really deserves a blog in its own right!
Names have always fascinated me, and although I’ve tried to stay on topic here by limiting myself to spelling changes, this has reminded me of so many cases I’d like to write about. Wouldn’t you like to know why Ullrich von Allmen was known as Louis, for example? Or why Dad’s cousin Edith was known as Dolly? Maybe I’ll try and slip in some extra blogs in between the 52 Ancestors challenge…