In my recent 15 minutes of fame per The Grauniad I related my Eureka moment when after months of searching, I found the birth registration of Emma Joan Brunel, coincidentally on the birthday of my own daughter Emma.
But there have been other such occasions, and following far more abstruse research than for Emma Brunel. My first book was about Henry John Hatch, an unfortunate clergyman who endured six months’ chokey in Newgate. He and his wife adopted an orphan child, Lucy, and not knowing her surname, I wanted to trace her place of birth to see if it would be possible to identify her. For several reasons, only the 1861 census was appropriate, and I tried many times without success to locate the family.
All the census returns have now been transcribed and indexed, but as some of the handwriting in the original returns is truly dreadful, the quality of the transcriptions varies enormously. Nevertheless, it is possible to do searches on several words. Eventually, by trying different combinations of names, I found that ‘Henry John Hatch’ and his wife ‘Essie’ had been transcribed as ‘Henry J Watch’ and his wife ‘Elsie’.
Lucy was born in Goring in Sussex; there were only two candidates fitting the dates, and I knew she was one of five children. The census returns confirmed that she must have been Lucy Buckler, and I found out much later via an independent route that that was indeed her name.
But perhaps the most satisfying detection, which amply illustrates the unreliability of some of the official records, was finding my wife’s great-great-grandfather’s birth details. His name was Henry Thomas Doe, and he served in the Royal Navy all over the world, including a voyage to Australia, New Zealand and the South Sea Islands in HMS Basilisk. His story was published here. His naval record, recovered from the National Archives, stated that he was born in Great Bookham, Surrey, on 12 August 1853, but there was no corresponding record in central registration. This is unusual but not greatly so, so I looked at the parish records. There was no record there either, but what there was, was this:
Harriet Thomas Dow, baptised 13 November 1853 … Looking this name up in central registration yielded Harry Thomas Dow. The birth certificate when it came:
The date of birth was one day out, but the father’s name, profession and mother’s name tallied, so Harriet Thomas Dow had morphed into Henry Thomas Doe via Harry Thomas Dow. It remains the first time that such an investigation has yielded a sex change...
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs