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Red Herring Hints

One of the joys of using a genealogy website designed to help you make your family tree, is that most of them will provide hints as you enter information.  It’s becoming more and more useful, as more people start researching their family tree and add information, the reliability of the information will, in theory, become more and more reliable.  There are exceptions though.  I want to warn you to beware hints unless you check them out thoroughly, however good they look.

A case in point is the family I have been looking at for a friend.  Her ancestor, Thomas Pidsley, is born in 1842, a farm labourer son of a farm labourer in Topsham, in Devon. He appears on the census returns for Clist St George with his parents, John and Mary Pidsley in 1851.  His father is a farm labourer, born in Topsham, and his mother is born in Exmouth for all but one census which shows her as born in Littleham.

I couldn’t find a suitable birth on Ancestry, and so tried Find My Past, which had a transcription of a baptismal record for 13 March 1842.  Thomas was baptized at Sowton, the son of John Pidsley and Mary.

John Pidsley and Mary are very unhelpful in that they give very different ages across the span of census returns.  Sometimes Mary appears to have been born around 1798, sometimes around 1803.  It is the same woman throughout, born in Exmouth, about two or three years younger than her husband, but the ages on the census vary quite a bit (a problem I’ve had in other areas of this family tree).

Now, with a name like Pidsley in most places, you’d be fairly sure that you were dealing with the right person.  However, in this region of Devon, Pidsley is not such an uncommon name.  There are no less than three John Pidsleys married to Mary in this area at this time.  But I believe there are clues to whether we have the right person.  Ancestry is quite sure that the father of Thomas is married to Mary Ann Parnell, and throws 15 hints at you when you add Mary to the family tree.  Looking at the other family trees on Ancestry which link to this family, it is easy to see that they have all adopted Mary Ann Parnell for their trees, except some of them have adopted a birth in 1807, and some of them have adopted a death in 1878.  Both are wrong, and so is the marriage.  Let me explain my reasons why….

Firstly, John Pidsley is a farm labourer.  Mary Ann Parnell is the daughter and sister of highly-educated doctors.  That’s the first reason.  It isn’t absolutely impossible for an illiterate farm labourer to marry a middle-class woman, but it is vanishingly rare at this time and place, when social status was rigidly fixed.  There is another John Pidsley in the area, who describes himself as “gentleman”.  I would suggest it is much more likely that John Pidsley, gentleman, married Mary Ann Parnell than John Pidsley, farm labourer did.

Secondly, the marriage suggested is in 1830, and yet most of the people with this marriage in their trees, have children born before 1830. This is entirely possible of course, but if I find children born in a family before the date of the marriage, I usually look to see if there is another marriage which would apply to the couple.  In this case there is.  It is also a lot less likely that a well-educated family would allow their daughter to live with a man she was not married to.  If Mary Ann Parnell were the bride in this case, she would be a lot less likely to have children born before the marriage.

Thirdly, the tradition in England is that the marriage of a couple will be in the bride’s home parish. Mary is fairly consistent in saying on the census returns that she is from Exmouth.  There is indeed a marriage of a John Pidsley and Mary Philips in Withycombe Raleigh with Exmouth at All Saints, in the right time period – 28 November 1819.  The bride and groom make their X marks.

The problem is, that nearly everyone who has looked at this family has adopted the Mary Parnell marriage for their ancestor, and the more people have adopted it, the surer Ancestry’s algorithm has become that this is the right marriage.  Consequently, new people getting to this point in their Pidsley tree will be offered the Pidsley-Parnell marriage, and it will look like a sure thing, because so many people before them have selected it. The more adopt it, the surer it looks.

I said above that those people who have adopted the marriage, have also adopted the wrong birth or death for Mary Ann Parnell.  Some of them have adopted a child born in June 1807 as “their” Mary Ann Parnell.  But there is a death in 1815 of a Mary Parnell at Stoke Damerel in Devon.  It may not be the same child, but it is a very big coincidence that there is a death logged at 8 years five months old on 13 November 1815 which tallies exactly with that birth.

The people who have adopted the 1878 death of Mary Ann Elizabeth Pidsley have clearly not checked the memorial to her which says she was the wife of the Reverend Pidsley.  It’s highly unlikely that a farm labourer would have risen to Reverend status, but even if he had, the name is wrong.  Unreadable on the monument, but definitely not John and wrong. And he never says he is anything but a labourer on births and census returns.

This means that the parentage of Thomas Pidsley is a jumble of misinformation, which Ancestry is serving up to new researchers every time they put in the birth of Thomas Pidsley, farm labourer, married to Elizabeth Henson. There is one other marriage in the region which could just possibly be the John and Mary of the family.  There is one in 1818 that could be the right one.  It also makes it difficult to know how to ascribe the “floating births” which appear on the registers of Sowton, where this family lived, but don’t appear on any of the census returns. There are three John and Mary Pidsleys that may or may not be the parents… although we can discount John Pidsley, gentleman, and Mary nee Parnell from those which describe the father as a labourer, I’m quite sure.

So beware hints you haven’t checked out.  And use your logic and discernment when checking them!

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