Have you ever wondered how to record an ancestor’s name?
Here’s the basic rule:
Record the person’s name as it appears the first time it was registered
This will be the civil birth registration, or if the birth precedes the introduction of civil BMDs in 1837, then we record the name as it was written on the baptism register.
That’s quite straightforward, but this is an issue with a lot of twists in the plot! Today I want to look at two of those twists that will affect all of us as we carry out our research.
Recording women’s surnames
Although traditionally the convention has been for the woman to take her husband’s name on marriage, the name we record on our family trees doesn’t change. No matter how many times a woman marries in real life, it is her birth name that should remain on the family tree.
What if we don’t know her maiden name?
Since we work backwards in our genealogical research, we often come across a woman with her married name before we learn her birth name. In the following census document, we see John S Pollitt, his wife Mary A Pollitt and their children Herbert and Marion. If we agree that this is our family and we accept the record, Ancestry will add to our tree not only the record and source reference but also the family members. Mary A will then appear on our tree as Mary A Pollitt.
But Pollitt is Mary A’s married name. To find her maiden name we need to look for the marriage between John S Pollitt and Mary A. Or we could look for the mother’s maiden name on the birth registrations of the children. Any of these will show us that her birth name was Loversidge; and this is the name by which she should be shown on the family tree.
Recording a woman with an unknown maiden name
What if we can’t find any records to evidence a married woman’s birth name? This isn’t uncommon, particularly for women in earlier centuries. I have eight women in my own tree whose maiden names I haven’t been able to find. So how do we deal with this?
Trust me – the following are NOT good solutions:
- Leaving the surname blank
- Writing Unknown, Unk, N/K or similar
The reason for this is that if you want to search for your ancestor Jane N/K, you may well find you have several of them, and can’t work out which is which.
When I was first trying to come up with a solution to this, I found this online discussion and the summary at the top of the page useful. Drawing upon this, the method I now use is to type (___) m.Bloggs. i.e. three underscores in parentheses, followed by m. and the surname of the husband. Your ancestor might have this ‘surname solution’ just for a while, until you track down her maiden name, or she might stay that way for ever. Decide what system appeals to you. As long as it works and you’re consistent, then any system is as good as the next one.
Illiteracy, accents and surnames
Another issue we’ll all come across is changing spellings of surnames in the birth, baptism or other records. Although by the end of the 19th century, literacy was widespread and spellings settled, prior to that the name was often recorded by a clerk who listened to the informant and wrote down what he thought he heard, using a spelling he thought made sense.
This can result in some unusual spellings, but we can always add explanatory notes.
Here are two quite different examples from my research:
- My 10xG grandfather seems to have been a Flemish weaver who came to this country in the 16th century fleeing religious persecution. In his marriage record his surname is Drakopp. His son John’s baptism records the surname as Dracoppe. For John’s son’s baptism (also John) the name recorded is Drackupp, and his son Nathaniel’s baptism has the spelling Draycupp. His daughter Jane, my 6xG grandmother has the spelling Dracupp, and there this surname leaves my direct line. The change of spelling at each generation isn’t a problem. In fact it tells its own story, partly to do with accent and partly to do with a gradual anglicisation of the name. It almost certainly indicates illiteracy, since if these people could have written they could have chosen to maintain a consistent spelling of their name.
- A young lady in my tree was registered with the rather grand name Hinnis Amelia Virginia Lavyn. When I first saw it I assumed Hinnis was a Germanic name, but then I noticed that the child’s grandmother was called Annis. The birth was registered in Leeds in 1848 by a mother who was brought up in London, and the clerk, his ears attuned to the local Leeds accent, clearly wrote what he ‘heard’! This is a strange case because the name is clearly a mistake. Some of my distant cousins researching this line have changed the name to Annis or Annice. I’ve chosen to record the name as it was registered but add (Annice) in brackets. Perhaps all this confusion was why the little girl grew up using only her second name, Amelia.
So, there are some common issues around recording surnames. Next week we’ll look at name changes of a more decisive nature, and how to deal with them.