Most books on ‘How to trace your family tree’ will tell you that the more unusual the name, the higher the odds of you being able to trace your ancestry back across the centuries.
I beg to differ. In my experience, the more unusual the name, the higher the chance that there are variants in spelling. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the name ‘Hartland’ appears in my tree and that I’ve found this spelled as Heartland/Artland: howewever, finding it spelled ‘Artlin’ was one variation I wasn’t expecting. And the problem is exacerbated if you rely on transcripts, because the transcriber can only write what they think they see. And sometimes the result defies belief. I have some hilarious examples to share with you:
Frank Nutall: transcribed as Frank Nutah (to be honest, if I hadn’t known the correct name, I might have made the same assumption – the handwriting was pretty poor);
John Griffiths: transcribed as Jo Geuffeth (no excuse for this – handwriting was perfectly clear);
Percival Terry: transcribed as Peruval Lacey (textbook copper-plate – no excuse!);
Samuel Glaze: transcribed as Fammele Glage (no excuse – perfectly clear again);
Hester Glaze: transcribed as Hesiber Edase (words fail me);
Alice Terry: transcribed variously as Alice, Aliss, Tallis, Salas and, on one glorious occasion, Metalis.
This doesn’t make life any easier for us, does it? I’ve said before that you should always check transcriptions against the original records. And if you can’t find a name on one website that you are pretty certain should be there, try searching again on another site – it’s unlikely that the same mistake will appear twice.
If you have a ‘lost’ family in the census returns, then try an address search, especially if you have a record of a birth, marriage or death within a few months of a census date. If you don’t have a precise address, search on the names of known neighbours – quite often you find that your ancestors haven’t moved at all and still have the same neighbours as they did ten years previously.
And a couple more tips that I find useful:
1) If you think that a mistranscribed name might just be the one you’re seeking, try scribbling the correct name down in your worst-possible, sloping-to-the-right handwriting: then go and have a cup of tea/beverage of your choice, come back and see whether you think it looks like the transcription you’ve found; (I’m serious about the need for a break – it takes your mind away from the task in hand and allows you to look at the name a little more dispassionately);
2) If you’re having difficulty reading Victorian handwriting – which is usually in the hand known as ‘copper-plate’ – find yourself a book on calligraphy (there should be some in your local library) and study the page on copper-plate handwriting. Look at how the letters are formed, and whether the pen would be pushed up the page or pulled down to form the letter. Then, using a copy of the document in question, trace over each letter with a pencil – you needn’t actually touch the page with the tip of the pencil – to form the letter. Don’t try to read the word – just concentrate on each individual letter. You’ll soon find that you can read this style of writing quite easily.