Accuracy of Family History Records

In fact, some family history records are notoriously inaccurate.  The records themselves may contain errors, but even when the records themselves are correct they may have been transcribed incorrectly.  Census records, and even official birth marriage and death records, frequently provide inaccurate information which needs to be born in mind whenever you use any of the family tree resources to research your family tree.

People frequently lied about their age on official family history records. Official documents often reflect expected social norms rather than the reality. For example, in many areas it was expected that a husband should always be older than his wife, but it was also expected that the differences in ages should not be too large.  In the event that a wife was older than her husband, it led to the wife understating her age and her husband overstating his.   In the event that the husband was many years older than his wife, it led to the husband reducing his age and his wife increasing hers, and in the event that the wife was in their early teens it led to the wife increasing her age to a more acceptable age.

Ages of adults on census returns are notoriously inaccurate in some years because they are rounded down to the nearest 5 years. For example, someone listed as 20 may be any age between 20 and 25, and that is assuming the person concerned told the census person the right information in the first place. The ages of children aged 15 or below were not rounded down so it is more likely that these ages were correct, but still by no means certain.

Places of birth may be wrong on census returns and should not always be blindly accepted as correct. Sometimes the person may not actually know where they were born even though they knew where they grew up, so it became easier for them to state the place they grew up as their place of birth.  County and town boundaries also changed.  Someone could be born in a town in one county, but the same town could be in a different county at the time of another census.  Sometimes the fact that registration area may cover several towns causes confusion.  You may have been born in one town and had the birth registered in another (and been baptised in a third town).  In various census returns you may find the given town of birth as any of these alternatives.

Illiteracy was a problem on family history records because many people could not read or write. Forms were distributed to every household in advance of the 1841 census which the householder was instructed to complete.  This would have proved to be impossible if the householder couldn’t write, and if the householder couldn’t read then they wouldn’t have been able to read the instructions. This resulted in forms being completed by children (if they could read and write) or on collection by the census collector (who would have been in a hurry or who simply misheard).  One good example of this is Bertha Helen Upton, whose middle name was written as ‘Ellen’ instead of ‘Helen’ on a couple of census returns.

The 1939 Register is sometimes hard to read. Registration took place on the eve of the Second World War, but it was constantly updated and amended until 1991.  Until 1952 (when the wartime National Registration ended) it was a legal requirement to notify changes of name, so women had to notify their change of name when they got married.  The Register contains many instances where a woman was first listed in her maiden name, but the maiden name was subsequently crossed out and replaced by her married name.  In the event that a woman was widowed and remarried twice, the original entry would have been altered twice, and the original entry may not be clear,

Wherever possible we have tried to overcome these difficulties by using more than one source of family history records on the Underwood Family Tree website.