WARNING: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure accurate transcription of genealogy records, errors exist in both the original information and the transcription. You are strongly advised to verify any reference or information given before acting upon it.

Transcription Errors in Genealogy Records

One of the most irritating aspects of tracing a family tree is that historical information can rarely be verified. That is not to say the information should be treated with contempt. Rather, caution should be exercised when reaching conclusions from genealogy records.

Errors appear in one of all the following stages:

At the Time the Information is Recorded

Recording information is a manual and human process. This makes it very error prone, especially prior to the 20th century when many people could not read or write. To illustrate the errors that could be made consider the following examples.

Registering a Birth

On an English Birth Certificate the following information is recorded

Prior to most babies being born in hospital, there is no real way to know the when and where born. Most will be able to give the correct information but there is quiet a long time (42 days in 2005) that can elapse before the birth must be registered. In the 19th century when every day was a work day, people may not be sure exactly when then date was. So, for some, the date may be a guess! The "where born" is likely to be correct as the registrar probably knows the names of all the villages in his area and would, therefore, spell it correctly.

The name given to a child can be quiet different to how they subsequently become known. Some common changes are Mary to Polly Ann to Polly or Ann and John to Jack. Some people do not like their birth name and so change it.

Sex should be reliable until the late 20th century.

Single mothers is not a new phenomena. In the 19th century almost 1 in 10 births are recorded without a father! It is only the mother's word that the father's name is correct.

One would expect the name, surname and maiden name of the mother to be correct. But it will often not be recorded correctly. If, for example, the mothers name is Hannah Tripe and she has a speech impediment or the registrar has a hearing problem, the registrar may think she has said Ann Swipe. If he asks her to confirm her name as Ann Swipe she may be too embarrassed, especially if she is young, to say he has the name wrong - so she lets the wrong name be entered. Indeed, in the 19th century, it would be unlikely that the mother would be able to write her own name - she would sign with her mark - and would not even know that the wrong name had been entered. This error in recording the information would not even be picked up later by looking at the signature of the informant as a cross does not give much information!

Registering a Marriage

On an English Marriage Certificate the following information is recorded for both the bride and groom:

The most common errors on a marriage certificate is the address of the bride and groom. To keep down the cost of a marriage, the bride and groom would give the same address so that banns only had to be read, and paid for, in one parish.

Another common error is the age. In the days when 14 year olds worked, they may not be certain about their exact age when they get married 10 or more years later.

Yet another common error is the Rank or Profession of Father. If the bride or groom have moved away from home, they may not know if their fathers occupation has changed. They may not even know if he is still alive! In the 19th century there were no telephone or e-mail. Families did not write to each other because most could not read or write. It was very easy to loose touch.

Registering a Death

On an English Death Certificate the following information is recorded:

The death certificate is most likely to contain errors. The name may not be the same as was recorded at birth or marriage as the person registering the death - the informant - may have only known the person for a few years and if the live to over 70, they may not know details about the dead persons early life.

Similarly, if there are no records at the time of death, the maiden name, date and place of birth may not be known. It is not unusual for the age at death to be several years out! Clues as to the reliability of the information can be gleaned from the qualification and address of the informant. A daughter living with her mother is more likely to have the correct information than a family friend living in the next village.


The type of errors that can occur in genealogy records include:

See also

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