Thursday, 1 November 2012

Birthplace conundrums

I'm always quite intrigued about the town or village that my ancestors put down as their birthplace. Sometimes it's straightforward: they were born, married and died in the same place so there is no deviation in the place of birth that they gave to the census enumerator. Other times it changes from census to census but its usually in the correct vicinity. Did they not know where they were born? Or was it a case of there being more than one obvious option. For instance, I was born in Bushey in Hertfordshire, yet I quite often say I was born in Watford. This is because Bushey is practically on Watford's doorstep, you can't really tell where one stops and the other begins and also because people are more likely to have heard of Watford.

Today I have been working on the life of my first cousin four times removed, Elizabeth Cullip. I had a bit of trouble searching for her records simply because of the birthplace she'd put down. I developed doubts as to whether I'd got the correct person in the census. But with a bit of lateral thinking I believe I've worked out her way of thinking and the explanation behind the varying places of birth.

Elizabeth was born in 1818 in the village of Eaton Socon in Bedfordshire. Her mother Sarah came from Boxworth which lies about 15 miles to the east in neighbouring Cambridgeshire. Her father Thomas came from Tempsford in Bedfordshire which is about six miles south of Eaton Socon. How Thomas met Sarah I don't know, but the wedding took place in Sarah's home parish of Boxworth. And how they ended up in Eaton Socon is also unknown but this is where Elizabeth was born two years later.

Sadly, Thomas died in 1819 just a year after Elizabeth was born. He was only 24 and was buried in his birth village of Tempsford. And it's at this point I had to put my lateral thinking hat on as the census records weren't telling me what I expected them to.

Elizabeth married a fellow called Robert Ward in 1838 in Boxworth. Interesting, I thought, she's married someone from her mother's home village. But why does she indicate on the 1841, 1851 and 1861 census returns that she was actually born there when she wasn't? Yes, she was living in Boxworth (she lived there until she died in 1888) and her husband was born in Boxworth, as were their four children. The census enumerator could have made a mistake, but could the same mistake occur for three decades in a row. My theory is that when her mother was widowed at such a young age, she returned to the shelter and protection of her own family in Boxworth where she raised her daughter from the age of one. Elizabeth would have been brought up thinking of Boxworth as her home village. Being the only place she'd ever known, it's clear she considered the village as the place she was actually born. And if no one put her right then Boxworth is what she would tell the census enumerators.

Things took a curious turn however on the 1871 and 1881 census records. On those she recorded her birthplace as Tempsford. So for once she'd got the correct county, but she'd still not got the right village. Perhaps by this stage she was aware that Boxworth was not her village of birth but there was clearly still no mention of Eaton Socon as the place she was actually born. It's as if this fact had been forgotten in the family for years. Instead she opted for the place where her father came from and put down Tempsford. I guess for her it was logical: she was born in Bedfordshire so it must be where her father was born.

As you can see this is all supposition, but in the absence of hard facts and without the ability to actually sit down with the person in question and quiz them about their reasons, one has to turn to supposition to come up with a logical theory. In this case guesswork is all I have but it helps when deciphering census records that thrown in sudden curve balls!


  1. All the inconsistencies can be frustrating can't they? But I think you're right that the inconsistencies themselves can tell a story. You've got me thinking about some of those in my tree that don't seem to make sense.

    1. I'm glad I was able to give you some food for thought! I love how we have to employ so many different ways - beyond looking at the mere facts - to work out our ancestors' stories.