Two places at once?

If I’d had a pound for every person who supposedly ‘doesn’t appear in the census’ but subsequently turned up after a thorough search I might have retired by now.

But what about those that actually appear to be on the census twice – or more?

One such scenario belongs to an Arthur Walne, born in the Preston area c1879. In 1901 there are two entries for very similar individuals recorded:

RG13; Piece 3906; Folio 117; Page 25

This one shows Arthur at 16 Whalley Street, Blackburn with parents and several siblings.  His occupation is given as Farm Servant with additional notes of ‘general’ and ‘Ag’. He is a worker. His age is given as 22 and his birthplace Preston.

RG 13; Piece 3906; Folio 17; Page 25

This time, an Arthur Walne is recorded at “Hastonlea (Haslinghey)" [nb both names are included in the address column]. This time he is a servant in the household of widowed farmer Jane Thistlethwaite. Still 22, still born in Preston, and occupation Carter on Farm (additional note ‘Ag Horse’).

At first glance, the two are seemingly the same person, but it’s extremely commonplace for families to use the same names in the same areas, resulting in cousins, uncles, nephews etc being born close together and given the same first names.

So what to do in this kind of situation? We come back to our friend the Genealogical Proof Standard.

In almost every case we research, we are not dealing with absolute certainties. We put a story together based on pieces of paper, sometimes DNA matches, and information from other sources eg oral histories. We need to remember that we are looking at probability rather than certainty – who is to say that old pedigree wasn’t tweaked or that the father of that child was really the father of that child, despite what the certificate says? It doesn’t sound very trusting, but DNA is increasingly showing that these things happened – and the preponderance of similar names in similar locations in an area centuries ago doesn’t help the clarity of our research.

Essentially, we need evidence.

Enough evidence to reach a conclusion with which we are comfortable, and with which we can satisfactorily argue our case to others.

Five points apply here, as quoted by the University of Strathclyde’s useful blog post The importance of establishing proof and the Genealogical Proof Standard:

-       research has been reasonably exhaustive

-       information has been analysed and correlated

-       conflicting evidence has been resolved

-       sources have been cited or referenced

-       a reasoned conclusion has been created

In the case of Arthur, the hypothesis is that both entries refer to the same Arthur Walne, and that he migh have spent the night at one or other of the premises, with one of the schedule fillers-in having mistakenly recorded him under their roof that night. It is certainly not unheard of for parents to record all of their children at home, for example, even when in reality they were under the roofs of their employers.

To take the points in turn.

Research has been reasonably exhaustive - how many Arthur Walnes appear in the birth indexes around the time the subject of the entries would have been born? What about under other spellings of the name (in this case Waln, Woan, Whon, Whone etc are all fairly common variations). Try local baptism records too and search out certificates.

What about in other census years, can only one similar individual be found in those? Try other accessible records as well – service records, marriages, the 1939 Register, whatever is sensible and reasonable for the period you are investigating. What would other genealogists seek out? Not just an online family tree, I daresay.

Clearly it would be impossible to search every single piece of paper ever created – this is where the ‘reasonable’ part comes in – but you can be sure to look at primary sources from original records (not just indexes), to find more than one source and to ensure that the sources are independently created. You can also evaluate the reliability of your sources. Is a family tale passed down the generations likely to be 100% accurate? Are naming patterns enough to provide proof? 

This kind of case is also made complex by the fact that we are looking to try and prove two separate entries are for the same person, where in theory they should only have been recorded once. It needs to be borne in mind that absence of evidence of another Arthur is NOT automatically evidence of absence of another Arthur, and it is even more important to search out any other possible Arthurs in various sources....

Information has been analysed and correlated. Look at all the information you find and consider all the information you have gathered. What fits with your hypothesis, and what doesn’t? Do the cross references make sense? If evidence doesn’t fit try and resolve the conflict – this doesn’t mean forcing it to fit your agenda, but being open to finding out that your hypothesis is incorrect and that you may need to form a new one.

If there happened to by more than one Arthur Walne in any of the sources, investigate both and map out what happened to each. Did one die in childhood or emigrate (and if so can you be sure they didn’t return)? Did they live close to each other? Can you kill them both off and be reasonably sure that the timelines and places for both lives can be satisfactorily proven? eg Do the fathers on their birth certificates match the fathers on their marriage certificates, and the father they were listed with on the census in their early years?

You’ll also need to be recording the sources you find so that should you need to make your case that you can back it up with citations and references, and create the reasoned conclusion with which to explain the proof you have found, summarise your findings and argue any points you believe were conflicting but that you have resolved.

For further reading, check out the blog cited above, and perhaps sign up for the FutureLearn course to take your research further.

So do I think the Arthurs referenced above are the same person? Well yes, I do, but there were several Arthur Walnes in my ONS that needed to be ruled out as far as possible, and particularly with passenger lists it hasn't always been easy to prove which record related to which - and there may be more to find. Which brings me to my final point:

Just because you believe you have the most probable conclusion at the time of the original research doesn’t mean that it will always be the most probable conclusion. New sources are becoming accessible all the time. New DNA database matches are being generated and new sources being deposited and indexed. It is very possible that someone will come along with additional conflicting evidence and you will be forced to re-evaluate your original conclusions, or at least revisit your conclusions and re-iterate your points. It’s all part of the challenge!