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Newsletter – 15th November 2023



GRO add 70 years of deaths to Online View BREAKING NEWS

Trends in forenames

Were workhouses places of comfort?

Women and the crime of bigamy FREE PRESENTATION

Getting away with murder

A true story: follow-up

More civil registration errors

Have you tested your DNA?

Letters to the dead

Peter’s Tips

Stop Press


The LostCousins newsletter is usually published 2 or 3 times a month. To access the previous issue (dated 9th November) click here; to find earlier articles use the customised Google search between this paragraph and the next (it searches ALL of the newsletters since February 2009, so you don't need to keep copies):



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GRO add 70 years of deaths to Online View BREAKING NEWS

There was some great news from the General Register Office today – from 9am this morning it became possible to view England & Wales death register entries from 1837 all the way up to 1957, which is the last year for which the registers have been scanned and digitized. Previously you could have paid £7 for a PDF of the entry - and waited nearly a week to get it - so the new service offers an effective saving of 65%.


Although birth register entries from 1837-1922 have been available since the public launch of the Online View service in July, death register entries from 1837-1887 were the only ones available at launch (and this was also the case during the private beta, which I was fortunate to be involved in from September 2021 onwards).


What does this mean for family historians? Those of you who have used the service since July will know that being able to access images instantly (the only delay is the time it takes to pay) and cheaply (each register entry costs just £2.50) transforms the way we work. For a detailed explanation of how to use the Online View service see the Special Edition newsletter which I published shortly after the July launch – it tells you things that even the copious notes on the GRO’s own site omit!    



Trends in forenames

My ancestor Robert Jeffreys Roper, father of my illegitimate great-grandmother Emily Buxton, came from a Suffolk family where they reused family names, both surnames and forenames. For example, his middle name (Jeffreys) was also his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and one of his elder brothers was Thomas Peck Roper, Peck being their mother’s maiden name. The eldest brother was called Edney, an unusual name which seems to have been adapted from Edna (a name I’ve come across in my research, but have yet to connect to my tree).


My ancestor’s eldest sister was christened Theoda, also a very rare forename – so it’s reasonable to assume that their mother, Mary Ann Peck, was descended from Samuel Peck and his wife Theoda Steagall. However there is no record that I can find of that couple (or any other Peck family) having a daughter baptised as Mary Ann around the right time, and whilst Samuel and Theoda did have a daughter named Mary, I can’t rule out the possibility that she died as an infant.


These days children are more likely to be named after celebrities than ancestors – or named on a whim, if the parent is a celebrity. This article from the Guardian looks at naming trends on both sides of the Atlantic.   



Were workhouses places of comfort?

Nobody familiar with the novels of Charles Dickens would want their ancestors to have entered the workhouse, but archaeologists working on the site of the St Pancras workhouse, built in 1809, have found evidence that the workhouse was originally intended to provide a more welcoming environment than the one that Dickens describes. This article describes the findings so far.



Women and the crime of bigamy FREE PRESENTATION

At 5.15pm (London time) next Tuesday, 21st November, Professor Rebecca Probert will be giving the Annual Lecture at the prestigious Centre for English Legal History, part of Cambridge University.


Entitled Women and the Crime of Bigamy in English Law, 1603-2023 the presentation it is likely to be of great interest to family historians with English or Welsh ancestry, and whilst I can’t be in Cambridge because of other commitments I will be attending via Zoom – and so can you. The talk is free whether you attend in person or online – please follow this link to book.


Tip: laws aren’t only relevant to those of us who have law-breakers in our tree – the law of the land as it was, or as it was perceived to be, will have influenced all of our ancestors in the decisions they made.   



Getting away with murder

Although crime passionnel might sound like a romantically-named culinary concoction, it’s more a case of someone who helps themselves getting their just desserts….


In August 1917 Anton Baumberg, who went by the name “Count de Borch”, was shot dead at a boarding house in Porchester Place – just to the north of London’s Hyde Park. He had 10 bullet wounds, according to one newspaper account, though according to another newspaper only 4 bullets were fired – but there was no doubt who had fired the fatal shots, it was Lieutenant Douglas Malcolm, the husband of the woman with whom Baumberg had been having an intimate relationship. Some said the fictitious count was a white slave trader, others thought he might have been a German spy – but everyone seemed to agree that he was a bounder, and when Malcolm was tried for murder the following month the jury acquitted him, in what was dubbed the first crime passionnel in the English legal system.


The sordid story was of great interest to the popular newspapers of the time, but it might have been long forgotten had not Lieutenant Malcolm been the father of the highly-respected film critic Derek Malcolm, who died this July at the age of 91 – you can read his obituary here. Or, to be more precise, Derek Malcolm grew up believing that Douglas was his father, only to be told the truth by an aunt after Douglas Malcolm’s death in 1969.


What interested me about this story was not the lurid detail, but the cavalier way in which Dorothy Malcolm (neé Taylor) changed her name and her age as she sailed through life. She was born plain Dorothy Taylor on 9th February 1888 at Gunnersbury, west London – she was the second child, and eldest daughter of Frederick Taylor, a solicitor, and his wife Lavinia Elisa Warrall:




By the time of the 1911 Census Dorothy had lost her father, but gained a middle name and a fancy spelling of her first name – she was no longer plain Dorothy, but Dorothie Vera:


© The National Archives – All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission of Findmypast


Clearly this change of name was approved, or at least accepted, by her mother – who had completed and signed the census form. At least Dorothie’s age was shown correctly – she was 23.


Three years later, when Dorothie married James Douglas Malcolm at St Peter’s in Pimlico, her age had advanced by only one year; she was now 24. Her late father, formerly a solicitor, had been promoted to ‘Esquire’:



The happy couple hadn’t been married long before Douglas Malcolm headed off to war, leaving his young bride behind. By the time of the 1921 Census a lot had happened, but you wouldn’t know that from the census schedule:


© The National Archives – All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission of Findmypast


After 7 years of marriage and 4 years of war Dorothie had apparently aged by just 3 years – she was, in fact, 33 years and 4 months old on Census Day (I imagine she was the one who amended the census schedule, carefully obscuring whatever her husband had written). But when the National Register was compiled in September 1939 the question on the form was different – people were asked for their date of birth rather than their age, and for once Dorothie gave the correct information, as you can see:


© The National Archives – All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission of Findmypast


Mind you, had she continued to knock 6 years off her age she would have been the same age as her younger sister Phyllis, who was living with her in 1939.


Phyllis, a spinster school mistress had also changed her name by 1939 – the unusual middle name Bert, presumably a family surname, had been dropped and replaced by the more gentle-womanly Angela. After the war Phyllis also upgraded her surname, becoming Elliston-Taylor, which must have sounded far more grand – and this fiction seems to have been perpetuated when in Debrett’s People of Today (2006) Dorothie’s maiden name was incorrectly recorded as Elliston-Taylor (see Wikipedia). In reality Elliston was the first name of their maternal grandfather, Elliston Warrall, who married Lavinia Victoria Street in 1858.


It took me a long time to establish what was truth and what was fiction in this case study – and I wasn’t even trying to solve the murder! One most unexpected outcome of my research was the discovery that in 1911 Dorothie and her family were living in Goodmayes, where I grew up – the other, equally unexpected, was the sober realisation that there is only a thin dividing line between a crime of passion and a so-called honour killing.  



A true story: follow-up

Last month I recounted the true story of Tony and Jane (not their real names), and the impact on their lives of an impostor who went through a marriage ceremony using a false identity. If you didn’t read the story at the time it’s well worth reading before you read this follow-up article (and even if you did it’s probably worth refreshing your memory).


Jane married Bruce – at least, that’s what she thought, but not long after their marriage it became clear that Bruce wasn’t who he claimed to be, and to this day nobody knows who he really was. Acting on advice from people whose judgment she respected, Jane treated the marriage as null and void, eventually getting together with Tony a few years later and marrying him. However she hadn’t told Tony the full story – after all, she’d been advised to forget about the whole sorry episode - and Tony, being a gentleman, hadn’t liked to pry. And as I wrote last month, ”many years later, a mystified Tony, by now a widower in his eighties, discovered that despite the circumstances, Jane's marriage to an unidentified man was not null and void, and that he himself had been the counterparty to a bigamous marriage. Even worse, it must surely mean that their children were illegitimate….”


Here’s what Professor Probert had to say:


Tony himself would not be regarded as a bigamist, even if Jane was. And their children would be deemed to be legitimate by virtue of the Legitimacy Act 1959 – this provided that the children of a void marriage were to be treated as legitimate if at least one of the parents had 'reasonably believed' the marriage to be valid.


It's also possible that Jane was not a bigamist either – for example if the man pretending to be 'Bruce' was already married to someone else. In that case Jane's first marriage would have been void and her second valid.


Even if her first marriage was valid, it's very likely that a court would have acquitted her of bigamy had the case ever come to trial – by this time the courts had held that a genuine belief as to the invalidity of the first marriage would be a good defence to a charge of bigamy.


I wondered whether Jane could have applied to the court for the marriage to Bruce to be annulled, and if not whether Jane could get a quiet divorce behind closed doors. Again Professor Probert knew the answers:


She would not have been able to have the marriage annulled - the category of 'mistake' is very narrowly defined in English law.


In terms of divorce, she would (eventually) have been able to petition on the basis of 5 years' separation without any of the details coming out. Petitioning on the basis that he had behaved in a way that she could not reasonably have been expected to live with might have been more tricky – I haven't come across any similar case.


My layman’s verdict (for what it’s worth) is that Jane behaved honestly, Tony was just the sort of husband she deserved, and Bruce was a cad of the highest order.



More civil registration errors

I’m very relaxed about errors – people are only human, and mistakes will be made from time to time. The reason that I’ve been highlighting errors in the newsletter is to remind you that, whilst errors in birth and death registrations are mercifully rare, they did happen from time to time. Indeed, I’m sure they still happen very occasionally.


But before giving some more examples I need to remind you that under the system of civil registration instituted in England & Wales in 1837 each birth or death entry normally appears in two registers, the register retained by the local registration district, and the register created by the staff at General Register Office (GRO). When a birth or death was registered it was first recorded in the local register, then at the end of the quarter the local registrar would copy every entry onto loose sheets which would be sent by post to the GRO to be bound with other entries of the same type from the same quarter. The bound volumes were numbered – generally the same registration districts would be bound together each quarter, so the volume number would be the same – and then the pages within the volumes were numbered sequentially. Only then could the entries be indexed – a process that involved copying some of the information again – and again, so that by the time an entry appeared in the index it had been copied at least three times!


Note: in the last issue I linked to a talk about the early years of civil registration by Audrey Collins, who worked for many years at the National Archives, and before that she was at the Family Records Centre in Islington, where the GRO indexes could be accessed by members of the public free of charge until 2007.


The existence of two register entries, one in the local registration district, one at the GRO is important, because it means that errors can be introduced at the time of registration, in the process of copying the local register entries for transmission to the GRO, or – in either case – when a copy certificate is produced to fulfil an order from a customer.


I specifically mentioned birth and death certificates above because we all know that information in marriage registers can be incorrect, for a whole range of reasons. And, in the case of marriages, each entry can appear in as many as three registers – the church register, the local register, and the GRO register – so there’s even more scope for error.


And because of human error (and/or bad handwriting), two copy certificates can contain different information even when they come from the same source. For example, in 2003 Carol and her cousin independently ordered a marriage certificate for Carol’s great-grandmother – and they showed different occupations for the bride’s father. According to one he was farmer, according to the other he was a tanner – yet each was certified as a true copy of the same entry.


When something looks wrong it can be quite difficult to figure what actually happened, and this example sent in by Pamela had me stumped until I remembered I’d seen something similar before:



I expect you’ve noticed something different about this birth certificate – the time of the child’s birth has been recorded under the date. In Scotland the time of birth is always recorded, but in England & Wales the time of birth is only recorded in the case of multiple births, in order to establish the order of priority for inheritance purposes. Pamela wondered if James was one of twins, but if so – where was the other child? There was neither a birth entry nor a death entry.


And that’s when I remembered that I’d previously come across a registration district where in the early years of civil registration the registrar would routinely record the time of birth. Thanks to the GRO’s new Online View service riddles like this can be solved quickly and easily – I simply ordered another birth from the same page in the same quarter:



As you can see, I was unlucky with my first choice – it appeared to show the word ‘none’ beneath the date, which strongly hinted that my theory was correct, but wasn’t conclusive. Time to spend another £2.50 to satisfy my curiosity:



This time I hit the jackpot – George Riches was shown as having been born at 4pm (and he wasn’t a twin, either). So that’s one mystery solved – the other question is how James Minns came to be baptised 2 days before he was born?


© Norfolk Record Office – All Rights Reserved. Used by kind permission of Findmypast


Clearly the young orphan can’t have been born on 2nd May, as the GRO birth register entry states, but why would the wrong date be shown? After all, if we assume that 25th April (the birthdate given in the baptism register) is the correct date, the birth would still have been registered within the 42 days prescribed in the Act. Perhaps before reading on you’d like to consider how things might have gone wrong?


Here’s my theory: we know that Susan Minns, James’s mother, couldn’t sign her own name - so she may not have been very good with dates. Let’s suppose that when she took the baby to be baptised she was asked when he was born, and answered “Friday”. There wouldn’t have been much scope for confusion – James Minns was baptised on Wednesday 30th April, so the vicar could easily calculate that he had been born on Friday 25th April.


But suppose that when she went to register her son’s birth she was asked the same question, and answered “It was a Friday…. let me see, it must have been 5 weeks ago.” There are two ways that the registrar could have interpreted this – one would be to count back 5 weeks from the previous Friday, the other would be to count back 5 weeks, and assume that the child was born on the Friday of that week. The first approach would lead to a birth date of Friday 25th April, matching the baptism register – the second would imply that James Minns was born on Friday 2nd May, the date shown in the birth register.


Of course, you might have a better theory. If so, don’t write to me, post it in the Comments on the latest newsletter discussion area at the LostCousins Forum – you’ll find it here.


Tip: almost anyone can join the LostCousins Forum, and it won’t cost a penny, just an hour (or less) of your time. Simply log into your LostCousins account and add relatives to your My Ancestors page until the Match Potential shown on your My Summary page equals or exceeds 1. Why is entry to the forum restricted? Because it’s a reward for the members who do the most to help their own cousins! The quickest way to increase your Match Potential is to add relatives from the 1881 censuses.


Finally, an example from my own tree of an error in a marriage certificate. When I began my research there were no parish registers online, so it was a matter of going to the relevant record office or ordering a copy of the marriage certificate. In those days you could obtain certificates from local register offices quite easily: if you visited in person and they weren’t too busy they would produce the copy while you waited. Most were able to photocopy a marriage register entry onto a blank certificate so that the handwriting of the participants was shown, something that was always nice to have, but could be crucial. This is the local certificate I obtained in 2002 for the marriage of my great-great grandparents in 1859:



This really threw a cat amongst the pigeons – as it was I couldn’t find the birth of Mary Ann Burns, and here was an official document telling me that her father’s surname wasn’t Burns, but Brown. It was only some years later that I checked the entry in the church copy of the marriage register, which had been deposited at the London Metropolitan Archives:


© London Metropolitan Archives. All Rights Reserved. Images used by kind permission of Ancestry


It’s not just the name of the bride’s father that is shown differently in the church register – the forenames of the bride and groom are shown in full (other than the abbreviation for William). The one thing I haven’t done is purchase a certificate from the General Register Office, though I’m sorely tempted. Will that register entry match either of the other two, or will it be different again?



Have you tested your DNA?

Considering that DNA tests are quite expensive, you’d be surprised how many family historians – even LostCousins members – don’t make very good use of the results they get. Some focus on the ethnicity estimates (almost certainly a waste of time), and most spend their time figuring out how they are connected to their closest matches (whilst there is some merit in this it shouldn’t be your priority). As I explained to the audience at the Suffolk Family History Society Fair last month, the biggest mistake is to forget why you tested – surely it was to fill in some of the gaps in your tree by knocking down ‘brick walls’?


Fortunately there’s a way to keep your focus – follow the advice in my DNA Masterclass. It tells you everything you really need to know, and sets out simple, straightforward steps that anyone can follow. I’ve been working with DNA for well over 10 years, and have taken every DNA test from every major provider – I know what works and, more importantly, I know what doesn’t work.



Letters to the dead

A couple of miles north of the ancient Essex village of Great Chesterford you’ll find the Cam Valley Crematorium. A recent innovation on the site is a memorial post box, a place where relatives can deposit letters or cards addressed to loved ones who have passed away – you can see a picture in this newspaper article. I hope it brings comfort to those who use it.


Those letters won’t be opened or read – and that was almost the fate of a cache of letters written in 1757-58 to the crew of a French warship that was captured by the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War. It is only now that they have been read, by a Cambridge professor who unearthed them in the National Archives at Kew – you can read about the discovery here.



Peter’s Tips

It probably won’t have escaped your notice that Black Friday is fast approaching. In the next issue I’ll be unveiling the best offers from the world of genealogy and giving my unbiased recommendations – so don’t fork out until you’ve read the newsletter!


There’s one thing that certainly isn’t a bargain these days – First Class post! To charge £1.25 (twenty-five shillings in old money) to send a letter seems extortionate, particularly since the latest statistics show that only 73.7% were delivered next day, compared to the 93% target set by the regulator Ofcom. Thankfully I have all the 1st Class stamps I’m ever likely to need, purchased at half the current price.


Whilst on the subject of things going up, today’s announcement that inflation in the UK has fallen to 4.6% won’t affect next year’s pension increase – State Pensions will be going up by 8.5% in April 2024, based on the increase in average earnings. Some good news at last!



Stop Press

This is where any major updates and corrections will be highlighted - if you think you've spotted an error first reload the newsletter (press Ctrl-F5) then check again before writing to me, in case someone else has beaten you to it......



Remember that this year’s seasonal competition has already started, so entries you add to your My Ancestors page not only increase your chances of connecting with living cousins, they increase your chances of winning multiple prizes in the competition! (See this article for more information.)



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Peter Calver

Founder, LostCousins


© Copyright 2023 Peter Calver


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