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My ancestor is missing

Kevin Poile

That’s not my ancestor. He spelt his name differently!

Most folk could neither read nor write until the latter part of the 19th century. Before this time the spellings which appear in parish registers were the vicar’s or parish clerk’s spelling of a name he had been told. So you will often find two branches of the same family in neighbouring parishes apparently using a different spelling and may find spellings changing in the same parish when a new vicar or clerk is appointed. Unless otherwise requested we will normally try to include all likely spelling variants when carrying out searches in our Search Service.

That’s not my ancestor. His age is wrong!

An age is not an easy thing to remember. It keeps changing every year! Nowadays we are used to knowing our date of birth, since we so frequently get asked for it on various forms. So calculating our age is a simple matter of subtraction. Our ancestors were not plagued with frequent requests for their date of birth, and even if they knew this, subtracting it from the current year to get an age, would be beyond their powers of arithmetic. So when asked their age, they guessed, based on how old they “felt”, and often got it wrong. In such cases you usually find a slowly accumulating error. Another source of “error” can arise when an ancestor marries. Here you can find a sudden step-change in age, where clearly one party has deliberately lied about their age to their prospective partner. Usually this happens when there is a significant age difference between the partners. Each will tend to lie to bring their claimed age nearer to that of their partner.

Ages recorded in burial registers for adults, are particularly unreliable. The person who would have been most likely to know the true age is now deceased, so the age written in the register may be no more than a guess on the part of the parish clerk.

Why is my ancestor’s record not in the Parish Register? Why is it in a Bishop’s Transcript?

Starting in 1598, the incumbent of each parish was required every year to make a copy of all the baptisms, marriages and burials recorded in his registers for the past year and send this to the Bishop. These records, known as “Bishop’s Transcripts” (BT) have often survived and can be used to augment the data from Parish Registers (PR) . Most frequently they can provide data for periods where the Parish Register has now been lost or is unreadable. However they can also be used for cross-checking data from the registers and wherever possible the data in our transcripts and search indexes has been cross-checked in this way. You might think that since the BT was a copy of entries in the PR, any discrepancies between the two must be due to errors made in the BT whilst copying from the PR. Sadly this is not always the case. There is evidence from handwriting and inks used, that in the early registers, incumbents often wrote up their PR entries in one large batch from some “rough notes” possibly at the same time as they wrote up the BTs. So for example you will occasionally find an entry in the BT that is completely absent in the PR. More frequently there are small differences of spelling or of detail between the two documents, suggesting that the original rough notes may have been very abbreviated and the incumbent or his parish clerk was relying to some extent on memory when writing out the final versions.

The principle snag with BTs is that for each parish the BT for a single year was on a small slip of paper. This is the form in which they have been kept. So the BTs for a parish consist of lots of slips of paper bundled together. With this sort of arrangement it is all too easy for individual slips, or indeed a whole bundle, to have got lost over the years. So BTs tend to be a resource with rather frequent gaps. However if the original registers have been lost they are certainly better than nothing! For Oxfordshire Parishes, the OFHS book “Oxfordshire Parish Registers and Bishop’s Transcripts” by Colin Harris is the definitive description of what PRs and BTs have survived and where they are now to be found.

My ancestors are on FamilySearch/Ancestry/other website. Why can’t you find them?

Many websites have records from two sources – transcriptions of original records such as parish registers and user-submitted trees or documents. The former are generally reliable. The latter are not.

Often, user-submitted information with no original source indicates that the submitter has been unable to find any original record of the event and so has made a guess about it!

Since 2012 the FamilySearch website starts by listing transcribed material, under the heading “Search Results for Historical Records”. Submitted material is only displayed at the foot of the page under the heading “Search Results from User Submitted Trees”. Unfortunately it has now become far less intuitive to find out details of the actual source used. To discover the source, you must first make a note of the “source film number” Now go back to the opening page of the FamilySearch web site. Immediately below the title for “Discover Your Family History” click the entry for “Catalog”. On the screen that appears, select “Film Numbers” from the left hand “Search” drop-down box. and in the right hand “For” box enter the film number you noted down above. Now when you click on “Search” it will reveal the actual source material used. It is rather more tortuous than on the old version of the site but you get there in the end!

Ancestry trees are notoriously unreliable and all “facts” in trees should be checked. Often people copy another person’s tree but fail to check the facts or to update them if the original tree has changed.

My ancestor was born in 1720 but I can’t find the record in the parish register for that year

The present-day Gregorian calendar, in which the new year starts on 1st January, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1538. Prior to that, the Christian world used the Julian calendar in which the new year started on Lady Day, 25th March. Britain, in common with many other Protestant countries, was initially unwilling to adopt this “papish change”. It was only in 1752, following Lord Chesterfield’s Act that Britain officially adopted the Gregorian calendar and this was the first year in which New Year’s day fell on 1st January. (In the same year the 11 days from 3rd to 13th September were omitted, to correct for the accumulated errors of the Julian calendar).

What does this mean for family historians? After 1752 there is no problem. Prior to this date, the days between 1st January and 24th March would count as one year in the Julian calendar and a different year in the Gregorian calendar, so there is scope for confusion. Although the official changeover happened in 1752, it was already apparent that the new calendar was more sensible, so in some parish registers you will find the new calendar in use before 1752. In some cases just a single year will be given, but it is obvious from the sequence in the register that the year number is being changed on 1st January. In other cases both forms of the date will be shown, most often in the form “1749/50”, for dates between 1st January and 24th March. You will also occasionally find such dual dates appearing on tombstones, as in an example commemorating William COTTLE of Oriel College, who died in his 19th year and was buried at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on 5th January 1714/15.

Why are records missing between 1783-94?

In 1783 the British government passed a Stamp Duty Act to help pay for the American War of Independence. In particular a tax of 3d was to be paid on every entry in a parish register. The incumbent was empowered to collect this tax and entitled to keep a small proportion for his trouble. However paupers were exempt from paying the tax. The tax was deeply unpopular and was finally repealed in 1794.

There was little people could do about burial entries. The dead had still to be buried. It is possible that the act led to an increased number of so-called “common law marriages”. However it is in baptisms that the consequences of the act are most visible to the family historian. Some couples simply did not bother to baptise their children, so you are more likely to encounter “missing baptisms” whilst the act was in force. Some of these children may be found being baptised “in a batch” after 1794 but in other cases baptisms are never recorded for them. (My personal suspicion is that religious beliefs were satisfied by a surreptitious splash of Holy water, but no register entry was ever made).

Another effect, seen in some parishes where the incumbent was clearly on the side of his parishioners rather than the government at Westminster, is that whilst the act was in force, a large number of entries in the burial register may be recorded as being “paupers”, whilst entries in the baptism register are recorded as being the children of “paupers”. (At Leafield for example between April 1787 and November 1790, of 59 baptisms, all but 8 were for “paupers”. The practice stops suddenly at this point. Presumably the government noticed!) So if you find your ancestor baptised or buried as a pauper during this period, do not shed too many tears for the family’s plight. They were probably not in penury, they just had an obliging vicar!

The death registration says he was buried in Chipping Norton but I can’t find it

See the answer to the question on Oxfordshire Registration districts

Comments about this page

  • According to the Census 1921 my entire family is missing except for my grandfather Disney Perry Perou who has been renamed Daisy Perry Peron. If I want it corrected I would have to pay.

    By Richard Perou (18 January 2022)

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