8: Researching your English ancestors WEA Centre Adelaide 6:30 to 9:30pm
Glenelg heritage walk WEA Centre Adelaide 2:00 to 4:00pm
There are no seminars in May.
See the seminar program
for more details and bookings.
Scottish House Tax records
The mostly subscription-based website, ScotlandsPlaces, has added about 10,000 pages from the rolls held by National Records of Scotland in respect of the Inhabited House Tax, covering the period from 1778-1798 (though there are gaps). To be included properties needed to be worth at least £5 per annum in actual or notional rent, which means that most rural properties are not covered - but it is still worthwhile taking a look at the two sample pages at the ScotlandsPeople website where you will also find a detailed description of the records.
Issues with surnames
Some readers may suggest that I spend too much time pointing out pitfalls in researching and indeed that has been a topic in a number of issues of this newsletter. However, one cannot be too vigilant and on guard about these issues. In particular I refer you to Proformat News #84 February 2013 entitled, Standard of proof.
Ancestry makes the following statement about surnames and unfortunately many of us believe what we read on what we may consider to be a reputable website but in fact for the bulk of us this is a nonsensical claim:
Your last name gives you a sense of identity and helps you discover who you are and where you come from.
At best this is only true for our most recent past and in the case of adoptees and many refugees that past is very recent indeed!
Scottish House Tax records
Issues with surnames
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Issues over surnames have proved to be significant hurdles for a number of my clients and many have come about as a consequence of taking up material presented by fellow researchers pursuing the same families. In fact even the most cursory look at the multitude of public family trees will quickly demonstrate major issues brought about by fixating on a particular surname and its current spelling.
The most important principle of all family history research is to start with yourself, or the subject of your enquiries, and work backwards in time through available records from the known to the unknown.
If you try to work forward in time from some historical character who is supposedly your ancestor, or shares your surname—the usual consequence will be much wasted time, many dead-ends and little real progress!
Some researchers have researched wrong lines simply because they have ignored an important gap in the ancestral chain or failed to validate a record with an official document!
One of the primary issues every family historian has to come to terms with is their own surname! Your surname is not something sacred—it is merely an accident of history. Many factors in your ancestry may have impacted on a lack of continuity in your surname from the time surnames were first adopted. These include:
The spelling of our surnames is also dependent on chance. The spelling of family names was quite fluid until the early nineteenth century. There are no hard and fast rules governing the spelling of names.
One can easily get hung up on the spelling of their name and create unnecessary problems for themselves. As you progress your research ensure you record all the versions of both surnames and given names (include abbreviations) you come across. Keep this in mind so that whenever you are conducting a search of any index, you ensure you cover all the possibilities.
- a husband adopting his wife’s surname.
- stepchildren adopting their stepfather’s surname.
- an adopted male child who takes the surname.
- a foreign name altered to resemble an existing local surname.
- a male purchaser of property adopting the seller’s surname.
- a mis-spelling at some point that switches to a new surname entirely.
- a condition for an inheritance.
- an admirer or lackey taking on a superior’s name.
- a male hiding his identity for any number of reasons.
- a male rejecting his name for personal or societal reasons.
- a transfer from a patronymic system such as in Wales or Norse held areas of Scotland.
- a child not taking its father's surname for any number of reasons.
- a child taken/purchased/stolen from its natural parents.
Some surnames are relatively recent inventions. I have an interest in a family who married into my family but from whom I am not descended. In the first half of the 19th century a William Gray married Elizabeth Parker and one of their children was named Parker Gray. In turn, two of Parker Gray's children were named William Parker Gray and Ellen Parker Gray. The next generation, namely William Parker Gray's children became Parker-Grays and this new surname persists to this day. New surnames are being created and others become extinct and this has been going on since surnames were invented. Emigrants have often changed their name to suit their new home and in fact this was very common by people moving to the USA. The birth certificate used has always neglected to proclaim the surname of the new child and technically the child could adopt either parents' surname or an entirely new one. The fact they invariably used to take their father's name was one of custom.
There is a growing trend for newly married couples to take a completely new surname rather than hyphenate both names or discard one. In fact in the USA the opportunity to take a new name on marriage is available in several states including New York. If this becomes a popular trend, people in the distant future may find a new barrier to pursuing their ancestry!
Certain consonants in surnames can lead towards a different spelling of a surname as can the pronunciation. (see Proformat News #35 January 2009),
Sometimes applying the rules of Soundex to a name can assist you in determining whether other names are closely related (see Proformat News #35 January 2009), but using such aids themselves can create another range of problems as the system is by no means perfect.
The French surname, Jaunet, is pronounced exactly like Jaunay. The origin of Jaunay is a place name. The former is comparatively common and it is claimed that it owes its origins as a descriptive name for a person with a jaundiced complexion or yellow hair. Maybe my early ancestor was a Jaunet but a scribe wrote down Jaunay! Many people were illiterate and the ministers, registrars or enumerators who listened to their voices and then filled in the entries, spoke with very different accents. These scribes were quite capable of writing either what they thought was said, or what they thought should have been said. Much of this would have been reproduced phonetically.
Try not to fall into the trap of assuming that a surname is common or uncommon, because you live in an area where this is the case.
Jaunay is a rare name until you visit the central west coast of France!
Avoid assuming your surname origin can be determined from reading material on the subject! In some cases, asking advice from someone in the area where a name originates may be the best way of translating it. How else would you work out that Hazeboro’ as it is pronounced in Norfolk is spelt Happisburgh and Horsfield in Staffordshire is spelt Alstonfield, or that Appletreewick in Yorkshire can be pronounced Aptrick?
The appearance of an alias in a record indicates the use of two or more surnames, and the possible reasons are many. The most important thing to remember is that people could call themselves by whatever surname they chose.
This newsletter has previously featured two articles related to this topic:
• Surname dilemma (No 35: Jan 2009)
• Surname variants (No 65: Jul 2011)
Following a survey of Australian names, Ancestry produced a Wordle demonstrating the more common ones. Given that about a third of Australians have an English ancestry, it is unsurprising that the commonest English surnames are the commonest in Australia too!
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