Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Facts can sometimes ruin a good story

Old records - where it all begins
A few months ago I started writing a book about Susan Mason and her family. In a way, I've already written most of her life story on this blog, but it's quite fragmented. I wanted to draw together all the information I've discovered about her into a continuous narrative. She's such an interesting character, and her life, while not remarkable in any historical sense, provides insights into many different situations and places. It's a great story.

I've just finished the first draft, and now I'm in the process of rewriting and editing it. But I found myself with a dilemma. Some time ago I discovered a record on ancestry.com that seemed to indicate that in 1876, while the family were stationed in Ireland, Susan had given birth to a child, a boy named Charles. The child wasn't David's.

The father, named on the record as Charles Newman, was a soldier from David's regiment, the 50th. The record gave the date (October 1 1876) and the place of birth, and it seemed quite feasible that it could be true. The child's birth (but not his parents names or the date) was also included on the the index to the Irish Civil register on Ancestry and the British Nationals Armed Forces Register of Births on Find My Past.

An affair with another soldier would certainly add colour to the story, but should I be revealing such details about Susan or the Newmans? (You've probably guessed by now that the reason I'm telling you this is that it isn't actually true.) And besides, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that something about the record didn't seem quite right.

Bantry, Co Cork, where David Whybrew
was stationed in 1876.

© Copyright Pam Brophy and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Susan was in the right place and could have had another child in October 1876 after giving birth to Alice late in the previous year. But the two births would be quite close together, and Rose Whybrew was born only fifteen months later. The soldier's wife, Mary Newman, on the other hand, had one child who was two years old at the time and she had another child two years later. Charles' birth would fit neatly into her family. From later censuses I knew that Charles Newman had been brought up by the Newman family in Bristol after his father left the army.

There was also no image of the actual documents available. It was just a transcript, details copied by someone at some time. Where had the information come from? The army's records? The Irish Civil Register? How reliable was it?

I posted that question on the British Genealogy forum, which is always a good place to get other opinions and advice. "Get the original documents from GRO (the General Register Office in England) and the Irish Civil Register" was the predictable response, along with some equally predictable "hmmphing" about the reliability of sites like Ancestry. Someone also provided me with helpful advice about how to go about ordering the documents for the least expense.

To be fair, sites like Ancestry and Find My Past are now providing access to more and more  images of original documents on-line and not just transcripts, as was once the case. The original hand-written census documents, army enlistment and medical records, church registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, convict records and ships' passenger lists can all be seen and checked against the transcripts provided (which are occasionally quite inaccurate.) It's not Ancestry's fault if people don't check the original documents and think about the plausibility of information before adding it to their family trees.

So I sent for certified copies of the information on the registers. The Irish Registry Office hasn't replied, probably because they couldn't find any record of a birth with the details I provided. The GRO sent me full details from the Army Register of Births, Baptisms and Marriages, which show that not only was Susan Whybrew not the child's mother (Mary Newman is named as mother) but the date of birth was also different from the on-line transcription (July 1, 1876, not October 1). The father's name and regiment are the same, so it seems to be the right child.

It's possible that whoever transcribed the details of the birth from the Army Register inadvertently copied Susan's name from the previous entry. Few army wives travelled with their husbands when they went overseas, and it may well be that Alice Whybrew was the last child born to a family from the 50th regiment in Ireland prior to the one in question. Or at least her entry appeared on the same page.

I'm pleased to know that Susan didn't have a love child in Ireland, even if it does remove a potentially interesting chapter from my book. But it did serve to remind me how important it is to check facts with reliable and original sources when you're doing family history research.

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