Friday 6 January 2012

Those Places Thursday - it's not where you think it is

Place names are full of trip-wires, booby-traps and assorted other traps for the unwary. You need to know this if you are going to get anywhere with your genealogy. It helps if you look at maps and gazetteers as well as records.

Over the years I have discovered all kinds of ways that place-names can conspire to be misleading, and I have fallen foul of a few of them myself. When I started researching in English genealogical records I thought I had a pretty good basic grasp of the geography, but I quickly discovered that I didn't know as much as I thought I did.

The first major lesson that I learnt was about registration districts; these are the first administrative units you come across when you start researching an English or Welsh family in the 19th or 20th centuries, and their names are not always as you would expect. They don't always correspond to modern place-names, or even historic ones. For example, if you know that your family came from Manchester, you might expect their births, marriages and deaths to be registered in the district called Manchester. And so  they might, but they could also be found in the registration districts of Ashton-under-Lyne, Barton-on Irwell or Chorlton. It's much the same for Liverpool; your Liverpudlian ancestors are as likely to have been born, married or died in the registration districts of Toxteth Park or West Derby as in Liverpool itself; note that West Derby has nothing to do with Derby, which is two counties away!

Similarly, England's second biggest city, Birmingham, also has three registration districts; Aston, Birmingham and King's Norton. But while Manchester and Liverpool are contained within a single county - Lancashire - Birmingham sprawls across three of them. Most of it is in Warwickshire, but there are parts of the city in Staffordshire and Worcestershire too.

And then we come to London. That's a whole subject in itself, but as far as registration districts are concerned there are LOTS of them, and most of them don't contain the word 'London'. One that does is West London, but it is part of the ancient City of London, and is nowhere near places like Ealing or Hammersmith, which are what most people would regard as West London nowadays. As for the county or counties that London is in, well, that could be Middlesex, but might be Surrey, Kent or Essex depending on the time period. Or the county of London itself, which came into existence in 1889.

Another way that place names can trip you up is when there are two or more places with the same name, particularly where one of them is large and well-known. For example most people have heard of Luton, a major town in Bedfordshire, but far fewer know of the Luton which is part of Chatham in Kent. This could trip you up if someone gave it as their birthplace in the census, even if they gave the information accurately. I have seen examples where the birthplace was 'corrected' by the enumerator or a census clerk, because they thought they knew better. I spent some time going in the wrong direction because my great-grandmother's birthplace, correctly written as 'Bona' which is part of Inverness, had been crossed out and changed to 'Boness and Linlithgow' by a census clerk. He must have thought that the silly woman had made a mess of filling in the census paper, and perhaps he had never heard of Bona, but he did know of Bowness in Midlothian. It's quite an assumption to make a chnge like that, but I doubt if he was unique.

And the moral of this story really need to get to know the geography. I've mentioned it before, but it always bears repeating, the online England Jurisdictions 1851 which is part of FamilySearch is absolutely invaluable. There is nothing quite like it, unfortunately, for Wales or Scotland, but there is still A Vision of Britain Through Time



  1. Great advice Audrey and good tips for those less familiar with England.

  2. This site is absolutely essential for navigating registration districts and their changing patterns.