When I’m beavering away at reading Census returns as part of my researches into family history, I often find myself wondering about the event as it actually happened, as well as occasionally puzzling over what was recorded. Were my relatives co-operative or (as I suspect in at least some cases) a bit bolshie about officialdom poking its nose in?
It can’t always have been easy for the enumerators or the enumerated. There were surely many conversations conducted through closed doors, or on the doorstep in inhospitable weather, and/ or with rising irritation on both sides. Even something as simple as having a head cold, or having some teeth missing may have had a bearing on what was heard and recorded. Either or both parties may have been tired, hard of hearing, had an accent the other found difficult to understand, or simply misunderstood the question asked or the answer given. William Meades the stone mason always gives his place of birth as Oxford/ City of Oxford until 1901 when it suddenly becomes Chipping Norton (which is probably correct). Admittedly not that far away, but a sufficiently different response to be surprising. I’m sure that sometimes the question about birthplace was asked or understood to be not ‘where were you born?’ but ‘where are you from?’ – potentially rather different, especially if you’d moved area.
If you add to the complications the larger households ( often including step relatives, in-laws, extended family, and lodgers/ visitors) and the fact that the 19th century respondents were not at all accustomed, as we are, to having to give name, place and date of birth on a regular basis, then it’s no wonder that mistakes were made. William Meades had at least twelve children by two wives (the first of whom died at 32) and lived in at least three places, Oxford, West Ham and Lowestoft, so I’m not entirely surprised that the odd inconsistency creeps in. In an age when personal possession of certificates was unusual you would also be dependent on other people to tell you your correct birth information – and if one or both parents were dead, that simply might not be possible. As I doubt many people bothered to keep a record of things like children’s date and place of birth (or even full names), that’s even more room for variation. I don’t, incidentally, agree that most ordinary people were absolutely illiterate before about 1870, as is often confidently stated. Signing a mark rather than a name when a birth, marriage or death is registered is sometimes cited, but all this demonstrates is that the vicars and registrars at least sometimes made a tactful assumption – and you probably wouldn’t question their authority. Many people knew enough to write their names and read a newspaper, at least, though obviously the standard varied enormously.
All this is without the later mistakes made in transcription, of course – understandable in some cases, though not all. Even if you write Jemima Dunnett as something that looks like ‘Gerunia’ (and it does), it’s never going to be likely that her daughter will be called Manuel (Hannah, actually). But some of it is uncommonly hard to decipher: I always remember an editor’s comment, admittedly about earlier church registers reprinted by the Harleian Society: “the chirography and orthography at this period are both infamous” and feel it’s sometimes equally applicable!