New to family history

What’s in a name?

When you first start studying your family tree, it is tempting to stick with the spellings of names that you are used to. In my own case, I stuck to Clarke with an “e” whenever I looked for my Clarkes, and Dickins with an “i” because frankly I got bored with looking at so many pages about Charles Dickens, the author, but also because I assumed that literate people with an unusual spelling for a name, would use the same spelling down the centuries.  I soon learned that I was wrong about that.

There are a number of influences at work here.  For names before the end of the 18th century, people were fairly relaxed about the spelling of their names.  As I have often remarked, even the very literate Shakespeare used seven different spellings for his name.  You have to be open to phonetic spellings of any names before 1800.

For the nineteenth century, people did begin to stick with whatever spelling was usual for their surname.  But those who were not literate at this time were at the mercy of the people registering an event in their life, whether this was the local vicar or the registrar, or yet the person who was given the job of registering births and marriages and deaths in the early years of the official system, introduced in 1837.  Strangely, some of the people given this job were illiterate themselves.

Thus, a family with a lot of people who make an X instead of signing their name, may find their name changed by the person making the record.  In some recent research, I found a William Songhurst registered as Longhurst in the official record of his birth, which name he was stuck with for anything official from then on.  While the rest of his family continued to use Songhurst, he had to develop an ambiguous signature which could be either Longhurst or Songhurst on official documents, like his call-up papers.  And probably spent the rest of his life explaining the situation.

In my own family tree, I was puzzled for years by my ancestor Harriet Georey whose name did not appear to exist anywhere except her marriage record.  With some help from people on RootsChat, and the fact that she was born in a small town in Hampshire, King’s Somborne, I realised the name was Geary and not Georey, and found her birth.  As for the Clarkes, having been so sure that “my” Clarkes always used an e, I only got as far as my great grandfather who used Clark and Clarke interchangeably – as did nearly every Clarke back from him.  It seemed to have been random, which version they used.  I’m fortunate that they used fairly unusual first names in the family, including Johnson, Theodore and Phyllis.

So learn from me!  Do not make assumptions that exclude people with different spellings of names, and think about your ancestors and their accents.  In one tree I found that someone born with the name Pidsley was registered as Pitsley, another as Pigsley and another as Pittsley.  It pays to think about how the name sounds, and to look at all the variations when you are searching.

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