Never Trust a Document
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To begin at the beginning [spot the quote]: NEVER TRUST THE WRITTEN WORD
Why? Because all too often it’s the product of what somebody wants to hide or change; or the product of some official’s poor hearing, poor sight or inability to interpret handwriting. Occasionally, it’s wrong because somebody innocently believes something untrue.
Of course, there are occasions when documents are entirely correct – but since you can’t know which are these Golden Oldies, it’s always best to be sceptical.
You can, of course, trust me on this…..completely…..oh yes…….
I’m planning to share some of the frustrations I’ve had interpreting the documents we all commonly use – those models of probity [ *scornful laugh* ] the census returns and BMD Certificates.
Next to the irritation of having Welsh ancestry and most of my branches being Jones or Davies, lying documents are my worst frustration as an amateur family historian, and they account for a big part of my tears and shouting and occasional hurled folders.
I thought I’d start with the Birth Certificate of my Great-Aunt Ceridwen, born in the South Wales valleys in 1882 to a poor but devout Calvinist Methodist family.
And here it is:[*dream-shimmy to cert. arriving a few years ago*]
Aunty Ceridwen’s grandson Colin sends me this certificate, and I immediately [ no fool me ] spot some oddities:
1] it’s the only Birth Certificate I’ve ever seen with an amendment.
The birth was registered by Ceridwen’s mother Martha on 24 July 1882, but she returned to the Register Office ten months later to have the spelling of the surname changed from ‘Harries’ to ‘Harris’.
Fair enough, I hear you cry. Except that I have the Birth Certificates for other of Martha’s children and she is quite happy to spell the family name both ways…….in fact, the family didn’t settle on the ‘IS’ spelling as a definitive until some time later. So why, in this one instance, did she make the effort to change a spelling which she used happily three years later for her next-born? ‘Tis mystery all, as Charles Wesley wrote and Martha would have sung regularly …….
2] Ceridwen’s forename is spelled ‘Cerydwen’ on the Certificate, which is wrong. So why didn’t Martha get this changed on her second visit?
3] the birth-date is shown as 13 June 1882, but I have other family information which shows Ceridwen’s birthday as 11th June
Colin and I do some thinking.
I send Colin an entry from the diary of Ceridwen’s sister Myfanwy:
Colin thinks Myfanwy may have been mistaken in the day of Ceridwen’s birthday in 1961.
I send Colin Myfanwy’s diary entry for 1962:
I send him the entry for 1963.
Colin agrees that we now know Ceridwen celebrated her birthday on the 11th, not 13th, of June. As backup, I’ll just translate the phrase “Sasion Genhadol yn Llanelli” – “Mission Assembly as Llanelli” [the town where Ceridwen was living]. Why am I bothering to tell you that Myfanwy went to a chapel meeting before visiting Ceridwen on her birthday? Because I am keen that you should realise Myfanwy wasn’t the sort of woman who would encourage her sister to believe she was celebrating her own birthday on a bogus date. Oh no, she was a very straight-forward lady with an enormous respect for the truth [by this, I am not casting aspersions upon other sisters out there – though I do have a flock of sisters of my own, and know what tricky little devils sisters can be, on occasion].
So – why did Martha tell Mr Scale the Registrar that Ceridwen was born two days after her actual birth?
I expect you are ahead of me – yes, it’s the six-week rule. If a baby’s birth is registered more than six weeks after the event in the UK, then there is a financial penalty – and Martha was poor. Going to register the birth six weeks and one day after it occurred, she shifted it backwards two days, and brought it in at five weeks and six days.
Colin and I are pleased with our detective work. But what about the mis-spelt ‘Cerydwen’ and the fuss over the surname? From here, all is speculation – but a very human story, I believe.
I have already mentioned that Martha was a Calvinist Methodist, and by all accounts a woman full of moral rectitude [which didn’t stop her trotting to the altar six months pregnant, but we’ll let that pass…..]. So I think she would have gone home from the Registry Office wracked with guilt about her lie, and after ten months her nerve broke and she went back to see Mr Scale the Registrar and confess her wrong-doing. Like Mary after the birth of Jesus, she kept all these things in her heart – but I imagine her ruminations left her feeling rather less contented.
And when she returned to the Register Office, why didn’t she carry out her plan of confession? Maybe when she began her tentative “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake…” [ because nobody starts this sort of conversation with a bald ‘I’ve told a lie’ – there’s always a soft opening], Mr Scale made some remark about the seriousness of mistake-making….and she took fright and clutched at the surname as a way out of her dilemma.
I’m sorry for Martha, because of course what she might have done, if she’d been a more experienced liar, would be to point out the genuine mis-spelling of ‘Cerydwen’ for ‘Ceridwen’. But I think she was in too much confusion to think straight, and just didn’t think about that at the time – and of course, she wasn’t going to go back a third time to get it sorted, was she?
I don’t think Colin is entirely convinced by my flight of fancy – but he’s not a woman or a Methodist or an occasional liar.
I, on the other hand…….
One footnote: Many years ago, Myfanwy told me that when Ceridwen applied for her Old Age Pension, she was surprised to be told that her ‘official’ birthday was later than her actual birthday. Myfanwy was incensed that the government had cheated her sister out of two days’ pension.
As a family, we try to steer clear of officialdom; you can never trust ‘them’. Stick to your sisters, I say.
About Elaine Banks
My ancestry is mainly Welsh, though I live in England now. When you meet an Englishman, he asks, "What do you do?" but when you meet a Welshman, he asks, "Who do you belong to?". The Welsh have an atavistic need to slot you into the tribe. I have taken up genealogy in my retirement, mainly because it allows me to sit down for long periods of time, whilst drinking tea and eating digestive biscuits. While I could do this staring into space, I have retained enough dignity in old age to require an excuse. Family history is also my perfect pastime, in that it allows me to peer into other folks' lives without the public taint of nosiness; and since those other folks are my own family, sometimes the facts uncovered shed light on those half-forgotten whispers and mutterings overheard in my youth. Reason three for indulging in this hobby? The cousins-of-sorts I meet along the way. Infinitely generous with their information and their encouragement, even with their friendship and their accommodation. And the last reason, of course, is that I just can't help myself - the pleasures of the detective work, the joy of discovery, the satisfaction of joining-the-dots....I am in thrall to the most solitary of pleasures, because sadly NOT EVEN MY OWN FAMILY is at all interested in my passion. And that last reason is why I am tickled pink to be writing a blog.