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TIP EIGHTEEN: Be alert to the misinformation inherent in Civil Registration records.

Eric Trudgill    -    5 November 2012

Research Tips For Beginners In Gypsy Genealogy

Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Floate’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.

TIP EIGHTEEN: Be alert to the misinformation inherent in Civil Registration records.

Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837, and given the advantages over priests and census takers enjoyed by a registrar, sitting in an office recording data as it was given, you might expect his records to be more reliable than Church or census records.

With birth records they usually were: Gypsy children were usually baptised late, baptised a few weeks, or months or even a few years late, often with no birth-date recorded, but Gypsy children civil-registered were normally registered promptly with their birth-date always given. However, civil birth registration isn’t as reliable as you might think. For one thing, the forename given a child on a birth certificate might be accurate at the time but still misleading in terms of future usage, perhaps never to be used again: Young Dimiti Buckland’s wife in February 1843 birth-registered their first son as Jerusalem, but a month later the two of them baptised him as Abraham, the name by which he was always known (I should point out conversely Sidney and Amy Hughes birth-registered a Levithan in 1854, baptised her two weeks later as Alice, and always called her Levithan). More importantly, for several decades after 1837 many Gypsy couples, unaware of or indifferent to their legal obligation, didn’t civil-register their children’s birth, only their baptism in a church; when looking for a Gypsy ancestor’s birth information, you often have only Church records, with all their limitations, to rely on.

Civil registration marriage certificates also aren’t as reliable as you might think, since few Gypsies married in Register Offices before the end of the nineteenth century, and most civil marriage certificates consequently were transcripts of entries in Church registers. This meant a registrar, sitting in his office, regularly signed off on data he probably wouldn’t have accepted, as a bureaucrat not a pastor, if he’d been conducting the wedding. He might have insisted on a precise age for bride and groom, not the time- and trouble-saving but virtually meaningless “of full age” (indicating perhaps a young couple yet to have children, or a mature couple who’d been having them for years); and he might have challenged a precise age, when it was given but given somewhat implausibly (as when Siara Lovell, marrying in 1864 a man about ten years her junior, gave her age as 29, not 41). The use of Church data also meant a registrar, sitting in his office, sometimes signed off on errors perpetrated by a priest in haste or confusion in his church, as he attempted to process sometimes doubtless excitable strangers. When Melchisedech Lovell, son of the well-known Jerusalem, was married in 1873 as a Boswell, presumably after his mother, his father was recorded as Jerusalem Boswell, probably because Melchisedech gave only his father’s forename and the priest assumed the rest; and when Rebecca Booth, daughter of William, was married in 1858 as a Clayton after her late husband, her father was recorded as William Clayton, presumably because she too had only given his forename.

Civil-registration death certificates are in one respect vastly more unreliable still, that is with respect to the age they give for the deceased (Church burials are equally unreliable). Some elderly Gypsies liked to be thought younger than they were: Damon Lee and Methusalem Hearn at their deaths were about nine years older than they were said to be. More commonly elderly Gypsies liked to be thought much older than they were, centenarians even, because of their pride, or their family’s, in their longevity. The truth is, if you assume they were born not that long before they were christened, a few famous Gypsy centenarians(eg Barrington Buckland and Sibby Draper) were 20 years or so short, and several more (eg Spanish Lovell, Woodfine Smith and Matthew Lock) were 15 years or so short. Even with nineteenth century Gypsies, not professing to be centenarians, you need to be cautious, especially if they were born in the eighteenth century, or early decades of the nineteenth: you should be prepared to knock ten years or more off the death-age of any you come across.

In short, be alert, in the absence of a civil birth certificate, to the possibility of an undeclared late baptism, without assuming its reality just to give yourself genealogical closure; be alert in wedding certificates to the possibility of factual misdirection, without assuming its reality just to give yourself genealogical closure; and be alert in death certificates to the possibility that they might lead you to the baptism or even birth certificate of the people concerned, if you look for them ten or more years later than their death-age suggests.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill