Tuesday 20 August 2019

Indexing Concerns

As an Online Parish Clerk (OPC) for four Devon, England parishes, I have occasionally been asked about the data I have collected and used and how to go about searching for ancestors. Of course, experience in family history studies helps as we all learn things over time through reading and asking questions ourselves.

Just this week I was asked by a family researcher, Ron, about how to distinguish between two individuals named Richard Hillson, both born in Cornwood parish, Devon, in 1812. One of them was his 2nd great-grandfather but he was not able to tell from the information he had who, Richard’s parents, his 3rd great-grandparents were. Ron’s 2nd great-grandmother was Eliza (nee Horton).

The couple and their family had been found on various censuses and on indexed lists on FamilySearch, but telling which one came from which family was confusing. Ron contacted the Churchwarden for Cornwood parish who looked up the baptisms and basically confirmed what was on the indexes. She then directed him on to me. It appears he had not yet found my own OPC webpages.

One thought Ron had was that perhaps one was baptized as Hilson and the other Hillson and the spelling might be a way to tell them apart. FamilySearch showed the two different versions of the surname for the two Richards, information apparently taken from transcriptions of the England, Devon, Parish Registers, 1538-1912.

But when I looked at the images of the parish register pages, I found that both were baptized as Hillson. One Richard was baptized on 1 August 1812 to James and Elizabeth Hillson; the other was baptized on 11 October to George and Elizabeth Hillson.

All the censuses for the two Richards show Cornwood as their birth place, so that narrowed down the searching somewhat. But, as we all know, census records frequently have problems with spelling of names, both surnames and forenames. Indexing in general among most databases is replete with errors, so care must be taken in identifying individuals. It is the main reason why I decided to obtain copies of all the parish registers in my OPC areas and transcribe them and the censuses myself, with the help of several volunteers it should be noted.

Richard and Eliza married in 1837 and are shown on all censuses from 1841 to 1901 living in Cornwood. The family consistently was shown as Hillson. Their nine children were all baptized in Cornwood although two of them were recorded by the Vicar as Hilson.

Richard Hillson and Mary Jane Lumley married in 1838. They were shown living in Cornwood in 1841 (as Hillson) and in Plymouth Saint Andrew in 1851 (as Hilson). Ancestry shows the family as Helson on the 1851 census, further complicating the search. The couple had four children in Devon, one born in Cornwood and three in Plymouth. By the mid-1850s the family had moved to Ontario, Canada where they had one last child in 1856. Mary Jane died before 1861.

Back to the problem of which family Ron’s 2nd great-grandfather had come from: I told him how I thought he might find the right connections, even with the indexing problems, by looking at certain family data and records:

1.      First, he should be careful with indexed spelling. Both Richards were baptized as Hillson, so FamilySearch was wrong on that count. Both married as Hillson as well, so some of the census information was not recorded correctly.
2.      Naming patterns in Europe and the British Isles in past centuries often resulted in children being given the names of grandparents. Thus, he might expect one Richard to have a son named George and one with a James, after their respective fathers. The bride's father might also be there, along with her maiden name as a second name of some children. The Richard who married Eliza did have a son named James, born 1853 but no George. They also had a daughter names Fanny Northmore, born 1841, and a son named Philip Horton, born 1858, probably after their maternal grandparents. The other Richard did not have sons with either name of James or George, so that was not much help.
3.      Marriage records in England and Wales after September 1837 show the fathers' names of both groom and bride. If Ron was to obtain the 1838 marriage record for Richard and Mary Jane it should likely demonstrate who Richard’s father was.

With this information I believed that Ron would be able to identify his 3rd great-grandparents and hopefully move on to finding ancestors even further back. What is important is to look at copies of the actual records, especially those from parish registers and not necessarily accept information that is second-hand from indexed sources.