General Resources


The pages below are a general collection of information we have found useful, informative, or just plain fun, while researching Our Family records. More will be added from time to time.

The world is flat?

Common Errors & Misconceptions

On this page I hope to to debunk and explain some of the common misunderstandings we all have when first starting to research our family trees.

So far these include this short list, but if you have more do let us know so we can either include your suggestions, or research and explain your own confusion [click on any title to go straight to that topic].

For England and Wales, why are there different versions of Birth, Marriage and Death certificates?

Civil registration was introduced into Britain in 1837. Since then it has been a requirement to record all births, marriages, and deaths with the official registry (today known as the General Register Office, or "GRO"). However, many people do not realise that the certificate the GRO keep is not in fact the original, but a transcription. Furthermore, those certificates are then transcribed onto an index ledger, and in more recent years, those index pages have been digitised for on-line searching. The entire process therefore provides many opportunities for errors. These are the steps in the full process, for a typical church marriage ceremony:
  1. After the wedding service, the registrar, bride and groom jointly complete certificate in the Parish register
  2. Later, the Registrar's office transcribes those details onto copy forms and submits those to the GRO
  3. At the GRO, after the end of each calendar quarter, those forms are indexed. There is a series of alphabetical index pages for each quarter, covering all the English and Welsh registration districts
  4. Historically these indexes were made available in either book form, or on microfiche, to libraries, and other research organisations
  5. More recently various computer companies have taken these pages and digitised them, making searching for information much easier. However, the process requires re-typing all the entries from each index page. That is often done by people not familiar with the names and places, so many transcription errors can occur.

As an example, here is an image showing both an original Church or Parish Register copy of a marriage certificate; and the GRO copy for the same marriage. The details in this case are all the same, although it is not unusual for errors to occur between these two. It is interesting though to look at the handwriting. On the original copy, there are a number of different writing styles; the registrars, plus the signatures of the groom, the bride, and each witness. These were all written by those people, at the time of the wedding service. The second copy is all in a single hand. This is the writing of the registrar, or an assistant, on the form sent to the GRO.


What is the CORRECT spelling of my family's surname?

This is a very common question. The short answer is that there is no such thing. Once you understand and accept that fact, then research becomes both more successful and more complex. One of the best explanations I have seen recently for this is by Gillian Rickard, B.A., Dip. Loc. Hist., in the Sept. 2009 Journal of the Kent Family History Society (Vol. 12 No. 8), Letters to the Editor, page 541:
"... a common misconception amongst family history researchers [and that] is that there is a 'right' way to spell a surname. In actual fact, there isn't and it is essential to keep this in mind when you are researching. Through the centuries since they first came into use the spelling of surnames has been subject to the vagaries of dialect, pronunciation and the varying degrees of literacy and illiteracy of the owner and recorder of the name. Even things like deafness, speech impediments, toothache, and drunkenness could change the way a surname was spoken and heard and, ultimately, written down. The way any of us spells our surname today may go back only a few generations, since our forbears learnt, or decided, how to write and spell his or her surname and had it recorded thus in official records. So the spelling of our surnames is not set in stone and some of the above factors, plus typographical errors and mistranscriptions in modern times, still affect and change the spelling of surnames today."
Can I really see family likenesses in people's features over generations?

This is a very subjective issue, and I suspect we are all prone to wishing likenesses upon old photos. However, there are many scientific studies which do confirm that certain facial characteristics are carried down though generations.

I decided I wanted to try and prove the case for myself. I was fortunate in being able to locate four similarly posed images, for my grandfather, my father, myself, and my eldest son. In fact, apart from my grandfather, we are each the first born in our respective families. These photos are also all taken at around the same age, 21 years. Whether they prove or disprove the theory I leave for you to decide! I WANT to see likenesses of course, and so have convinced myself they are there. Let me know what you think...
What is my Family Crest or Coat of Arms?

College of Arms Just like the surnames issue above, the short answer is that, in fact, you don't have one.

It is a common misconception that a crest or coat of arms belongs to everyone with the same family name, mainly promoted, since Victorian times, by people trying to sell bogus coats of arms to unsuspecting people. Today it's furthered by a huge number of web sites offering them. In fact, "coats of arms" are usually granted only to a single person, not to an entire family or to a particular surname. Coats of arms are inheritable property, but they generally descend only to male lineal descendants of the original arms grantee.

Technically, usage by persons not descended from the original grantee constitutes "usurpation", a derogatory term used to describe either an illegitimate or controversial claim to the throne in a monarchy, or claim by a person who succeeds in establishing himself as a monarch without inheriting the throne, or any other person exercising authority unconstitutionally.

The official body which administers rights to Coats of Arms is the College of Arms, an independent branch of Britain's Royal Household. Its web site: College of Arms explains these issues and many others in full detail.