Tuesday 5 January 2016

More Informants’ Mistakes…

In my last post I stated that I did not have any birth certificates that contained an error since the information was almost always given by one of the parents. I was, of course, thinking of my own family records. I had forgotten the story told to me by a friend who had a very big problem with her own 1930 birth registration that was not resolved until, as an adult, when she went to the courts to get it fixed.

In her own words, this is what transpired: “My mother chose my name, likely because of my grandmother’s Irish background. My father registered me, but he was not sure of the spelling and registered me as Mary Irene. My mother didn’t know under what name I was legally registered until I was required to prove my name and date of birth in order to obtain a marriage certificate [in 1949]. In 1979, I had my birth name legally changed to Eileen Mary Anne as I had been known all my life.”

Eileen’s birth certificate also indicated her father was 44 years old when he was actually 53. She told me her dad believed that his age, along with other personal information was no one’s business but his own and “quite cavalierly picked any number when answering an age-related question.”

Another friend, Bronwyn (the one whose son asked the questions about her for his passport application, described in my last post) recently messaged me with more stories of funny things that happened with documents for her family. I suspect I may hear from others about this subject in the future as well. Anyway, here is what this lovely Australian lady related to me (with no offense intended to any region, ethnic group or nationality):

“Re: birth certificates. Until modern times many of them were so wrong – once again, but not always, because the husband went to the Court House/Registry to give the advice verbally. . . Adding to the confusion of verbally given information were the accents. Have you ever heard what someone from Tipperary sounds like? I can’t understand a word! Devon, Yorkshire, Highland Scots, Germans – the bloke behind the counter can be forgiven! I have an Irish great, great, grandmother who has her surname written 13 ways on official documents. It took me years to work out her name was Kerin. These are some of the spellings: Cairn, Cairns, Kern, Carn, Kearn, Kearns, Kerrin, Keron – and it goes on.

My mother went through life saying ‘My name is Nell, no it is not short for Ellen/Eleanor/Helen.’

Grandma told us the story often. They lived in a small western New South Wales town where they were the only grocers, so were known by everyone. Mum’s father went to the Court House to register her birth. They probably chattered and her father was asked, ‘What did you have?’A girl, we’re calling her Nellie.’ He had left home to register the birth as Ellen (after her mother) and Patricia (because she was born on St Pat’s Day), but the certificate says Nellie. She never owned up to the Nellie part and insisted she was plain Nell.

Worse is that of my second cousin Jack. I asked why I could not find him in any record. He told me that his farming father was asked to register the birth at the Court House when he went into town. All the Walsh men are 6 foot plus, very impatient and who, though they may have been many generations Australian, still have the Irish attitude to bureaucracy – never tell ‘em nuthin’, never explain! According to Jack’s mother the conversation at the Court House went like this:

Alan Joseph Walsh’
All the other questions were answered, then. . .
‘Your name?’
I’ve bloody told you my name.’
No you haven’t, you gave me the child’s name.’
We’re calling him Jack and I haven’t got time to buggerise around here.’

He left and Jack’s registration was left as Alan Joseph.

(“bloody” and “buggerise” are not considered swear words – even my eloquently-spoken father used them all the time)

My grandmother wasn’t blameless either. Her eldest son, John William [was a] religious Brother teaching in New Guinea when he was captured by the Japanese, tortured, and shot as a spy. There are three small monuments/memorials to him in Papua New Guinea/Australia all with the name John William Roberts. I couldn’t find anyone of that name born, so sent for the certificate of John Clarence Roberts. Somewhere between the registering of him and arriving home grandma forgot what she had named him! Her signature was clearly on the form.

My suggestion to people is: believe most of what the Scots and Welsh say, much of what the English say, and use a barrel of salt, rather than a pinch of salt when dealing with the information given by Irish and Irish/Australian. A generalisation, but very often true! “

These stories are funny when told much later but the situations must have caused the individuals concerned some degree of difficulty, as they did Eileen, in trying to prove their identities in later life.

Bronwyn also had another illustration of errors on death certificates. Her “grandfather, a Police Detective Inspector who should have known better, got two things right on his father-in-law’s death certificate. He gave the bloke his right name and that he had a daughter Ruby (his wife). He had the names of parents wrong, the country of birth wrong, the number of children wrong (two had died before he knew Ruby), no idea of the name of the man’s wife nor where they were married. There was not much else he would get wrong!”

Thanks to Bronwyn for these lovely Aussie stories.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.