Alternative Facts

"You're saying it's a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that" (Kellyanne Conway, 22 Jan 2017). But it isn't just presidential inaugurations which give rise to "Alternative Facts", we may find our own family research produces more than one picture of the story.

Two stories

Here are some facts. My grandfather, Thomas, according to his headstone, was a 'dear husband and dad' who died aged 63 in 1943. He was buried with his wife, Lily, who had outlived him by over two decades. There is no record of any children to this union, regardless of the inscription. There are, however, some "Alternative Facts".

My grandfather, Thomas , according to the registers of births, marriages and deaths, was born in 1881 and died in 1944. He was outlived by his wife Alice, who he married in 1907 and the marriage produced a son (my father) in 1909, followed by five further children born between 1929 and 1937. No, this is not a mistake, there was a twenty year, gap between the first and later births, but the register entries identify the parents beyond dispute.

Neither set of "Facts" amounts a wholly true story.

If you have been researching your family for any length of time and have not developed a healthy level of scepticism about each and every "fact" you encounter, then either your ancestors were remarkably honest, and reliable people whose lives were impeccably recorded, or you have possibly allowed some inconsistencies to slip through unchallenged.

But why are records incorrect?

The records we use in our research are imperfect. Whether it be the memories of an elderly and respected great-aunt or the official records of an ever-increasing number of government departments, error is ever present. This is not to say that our interviewees are necessarily dishonest or our administrators are incompetent (though there is scope for both!), but simply that the record is not always correct. There can be several reasons:

The person providing the information believed it was correct, but was wrong. The most obvious example of this is the information, particularly the age, recorded on a death certificate. The subject of the record is, by definition, in no position to provide the information required, so it falls to others whose knowledge of the deceased may have been imperfect. A less obvious example is knowing when and where you were born. Anyone alive today and born in the UK can, if they do not know these details, get a copy of their birth certificate. In earlier times, anyone born before 1 July 1837 did not have this authoritative (though we shall see later, less than perfect) source and possibly had to rely on their memory or upon the memories of others. You can see this clearly demonstrated if you analyse the distribution of ages in the 1851 and 1861 census returns. There are distinct peaks around ages 50, 60, 70 etc. This is a pretty clear indication that older people are effectively saying "...about 60".

White Lies
The person providing the information knew it was wrong but had an innocent reason to misrepresent themselves. A woman who had pretended to be a few years younger than her true years when getting married to a younger man, might feel obliged to continue the deceit every ten years when having to provide her age for the census, which would be seen by her husband. Parents might misrepresent when they married so as to 'legitimise' a child born before or embarrassingly soon after the marriage. There are many well-documented cases of boys giving false birth dates in order to enlist in the armed forces during the Great War.

The person may have wished to hide or 'blur' their identity to avoid interest by the authorities. Perhaps they were involved in a bigamous marriage, on the run from the police or possibly an army deserter. Deceit perhaps causes the greatest problems for researchers since while white lies may involve modest distortions, deceit can involve more substantial changes, which make the true identity as difficult to establish as the perpetrator had intended.

Human Error
Finally, people make mistakes - we cannot discount human error. The census returns upon which much of our research may rely were, before 1911, copied into books by the enumerators from the original household forms which were then destroyed. It is all to easy to see how a detail could be mis-read or mis-copied.When you are looking at a transcribed record, it is quite possible that the transcriber made an error - the importance of verifying transcriptions with the original records cannot be over-emphasised.

But weren't checks carried out?

The simple answer in most cases is an emphatic NO!. When registering a civil birth, marriage or death, the details given to the Registrar were accepted as correct unless the Registrar had reason to believe that they were being deceived. Similarly, census enumerators were under no obligation to check the veracity of the information given, they were simply obliged to ensure that they enumerated every person within their assigned district. It can be argued that in a stable rural area the officials would probably know so much about the local people that they would recognise an untruth if presented with one, but in a busy city, it would have to be taken on trust. For example, a couple appearing in a church for the first time asking the minister to baptise their child were likely to be accepted as married if they said they were.

So what about my grandfather?

The two stories with which we started have a simple explanation, but one which shows the tisk of accepting any individual record without question. My grandfather was genuinely born in 1881 but died in 1944. He genuinely married Alice in 1907 and their son was born in 1909. Here, however, the story goes off-script. The couple separated around 1917, when Alice and her son moved back to her family home, ostensibly to look after her recently widowed father and younger brothers. Thomas remained in their former marital home looking after his ageing mother until some time after her death in 1924 and at least until 1927. Somewhere around this time he met Lily, with whom he set up house, representing themselves as man and wife. The relationship produced a son, born in 1931, followed by four further children over the next seven years.

But how did this still-married man go about registering the births of five children who were illegitimate in the eyes of the law and perhaps face embarrassment if this became known to his neighbours? Firstly, in each case he left it to the very end of the 42 days time allowed for a birth to be registered, perhaps to see whether any questions were raised about the family's circumstances. Secondly, he registered the births personally - Lily was not involved and may never have known what came next. Thirdly, and most surprisingly, when it came to naming the child's mother, he said that the mother was Alice, his estranged wife. In all five cases, the registrations were duly accepted and remain uncorrected to this day, just waiting to trip up the unwary researcher.

Thomas died in 1944 and was buried in a private, but unmarked grave. It is porbable that the family were not able to afford a memorial. When Lily died in 1967 she was buried alongside Thomas, and her children, possibly now in better financial circumstances, erected a small headstone recording both burials. However, their memories were imperfect and although they knew the correct day and month of Thomas's death, they incorrectly had the year carved as 1943. Also, the children were completely unaware that Thomas and Lily had not been married and that Thomas already had a wife. They were also never aware of the dishonesty with the birth registrations.

What do we learn?

Firstly, our ancestors' lives are not always as uncomplicated as we might think. Personal lives can be tangled and can lead to some difficult decisions when it comes to interactions with authority. Secondly that memories are imperfect and records which rely on memory are vulnerable to error. And finally, take nothing on trust. try to verify every "fact" with at least one other independent source. Thomas's date of death is easily verified through civil registration records but what of the falsified birth certificates? There is no authoritative source to provide the true parentage. We can find Thomas and Lily living as man and wife with their children in the electoral and 1939 registers. We can find Alice living with her son and her father and brothers in the same sources (and soon, I would expect, in the 1921 census). However, the one authoritative record we have is an "Alternative Fact", an unarguable official record. We might be 100% sure that the five children were Lily's, but five decades after her death there is no way to prove it conclusively.

So perhaps one more thing we can learn is that sometimes there will be no single  "fact" to refute the "alternative fact" and we can only build a compelling mountain of evidence to support our conclusion.


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