Daily Archives: January 31, 2023
Understanding evidence, Part 2: Derivative records – some grey areasLeave a Comment
Janice Heppenstall is a graduate of our Advanced Certificate programme (with Distinction). She has a passion for finding the extraordinary in ‘ordinary’ people’s lives, using their stories as a springboard to explore the local, social and political context in which they lived. She blogs regularly on family history and genealogy topics at English Ancestors and is also to be found on Facebook.
This is the second of three posts looking at different types of documentation and other sources that we, as genealogists, draw upon to evidence our research. These posts focus not on distinct record sets like censuses, birth registers or manorial records; rather they provide a broader look to get us thinking about the relative value of ‘evidence’ from different source types.
In the first of these posts we focused on primary sources, which we often refer to as ‘original records’, and secondary sources. We looked at how we can use them together to build a fuller picture of our ancestors’ lives and experiences. In this second part we’re starting to look at derivative records.
Derivative records are created after the event but based directly on an original record. In other words, information is copied from the original to another document. As such, there is scope for error in their creation, based on illegibility of the original text, carelessness, or other errors and omissions. There are several types of derivative records. In this post we’ll start with some grey areas: certain record types that are contemporaneous to and certainly look like originals but strictly speaking are not.
In the first post we differentiated between the 1911 and 1921 censuses and all those that went before. Why are these ‘original’ records, yet the earlier ones are not? When we find the 1911 or 1921 census return for our person of interest, we see a single sheet completed by (or on behalf of) the head of household and relating to the members and housing conditions of that household. This is an original record and primary source. By contrast, for the earlier censuses what we see is a long list of all residents in a specific locality, arranged by household and organised according to the route the enumerator took as he walked from house to house, collecting the information. You might have explained this difference with reference to illiteracy rates: that since a great many people were unable to read and write, the enumerator simply arrived on the doorstep and wrote down the information he was given; but this is not true. Individual records were created for each property, and this was then transcribed onto the lists we see today. The original household sheets were then destroyed. In other words, all we have left for these earlier censuses is the contemporaneous derivative record. This might explain some inconsistencies. The second child of my great grandparents is referred to in the 1881 census as Jane (female). He was actually John, a boy. Another great grandfather, George, appears as ‘Enoch’ in the 1891 census. Was this a mis-transcription, or did George object to nosy-parkers coming to ask him questions? (I have spent a lot of time playing hide-and-seek with George, and I suspect the latter…)
Civil Birth, Marriage and Death certificates (Civil BMDs)
Are they original records? You would think so, but they are not necessarily so. Imagine yourself registering a death in 1851. You would go to the local Register Office. They would record all the information, give you a copy, keep the original for themselves and send a third copy to the General Register Office (GRO) in London. Of course, there were no photocopiers: the only way to do this was to write it out by hand several times. In other words, when we buy Civil BMDs online from the GRO, what we receive is a facsimile of a hand-written copy of the original record, i.e. a true copy of a derivative record, and not the original itself. You can choose instead to buy your BMDs from the local Register Office. However, some don’t offer this service, while others don’t have the capacity for creating facsimiles of the originals, in which case what we receive is a modern handwritten or typed copy of the original – again, a derivative record. Might this explain an odd discrepancy you’ve come across?
Bishop’s Transcripts (BTs)
BT’s are an interesting grey area. They are the copies of parish registers that, from 1598 until around 1800, church ministers were required to keep and send annually to the diocese office. They are contemporaneous with the originals, and written by a churchwarden who may have known the individuals involved. Even if a parish’s records from this period have not survived, there is the chance that the BTs have, since they will have been lodged with the diocesan records, quite separately from the parish, and possibly in different archives. As copies, strictly speaking they are derivative records and may contain transcription errors. However, sometimes they contain more information than the originals, and are often invaluable in providing a second chance in deciphering 17th or 18th century handwriting.
Let me give you an example from my own research:
The first image below is the 1819 Bishop’s Transcript of the baptism of my 3x great grandfather’s first child. When I found it I was in no doubt that this was the correct Thomas Mann and son James Sword Mann. However, since my 3x great grandmother’s name is Lucy, and the mother’s name here is Sophia, my assumption was that Thomas must have married twice, his first wife, Sophia, having died not long after James’s birth.
Some years later another I found the parish register record for the same baptism, below. It contained all the same information: James Sword, son of Tho[ma]s and Sophia Mann. Clearly, the BT had been absolutely correctly copied from this original record. However, here, the clerk has added a note to the effect that he has realised the mother’s name of ‘Sophia’ should be ‘Lucy’. The note was dated seventeen years later, 14 August 1836.
In this example, the BT is a faithful copy, but whereas a correction has been made to the original, the BT has been left with the incorrect information. Only by using the one original parish register entry do we see this additional important information.
What all these types of sources have in common is that they are contemporary copies. You may come across other examples, such as the copying of information from chapel of ease records to the main parish register, or post-Interregnum transcriptions made by the parish clerk, based on notes received from the interim civil parish clerks. They are contemporary, and undoubtedly they have value. In some cases they are all we have. But they are copies nevertheless, and as such there is the possibility of error or omission. The important point to take away from all this is that we should be aware of the nature of the record we’re looking at, and we should record that along with the information from the record.
In the final part of this look at different source types we’ll focus on more modern derivatives: transcriptions and indexes; and we’ll meet up again with James Sword Mann and his parents.