During my recent appearance on BBC Radio Wales’ Jamie & Louise programme I received an email from William Davies about his great great grandfather Daniel Davies. After locating his details on various census returns William was genuinely perplexed because Daniel Davies appears to regularly move house, change profession, and frequently alter his place of birth.
Daniel Davies was born in 1820. This is a long time before civil registration commenced in 1837 and there is no definitive birth certificate to clarify these details.
He lived until the ripe old age of 90 dying rather unhelpfully in 1910 just before the 1911 census.
Although the 1911 census is the most recent census we can access, and contains more valuable details than previous census returns, the information provided is still dependent upon the honesty of the person completing the form. In addition it is essentially dependent upon the head of the house having a full comprehension of the questions, which might in turn be dependent on their level of education.
Anglicisation of names and places
Earlier census returns were completed by an enumerator with scrawling spidery handwriting. Often these were English speaking, even in areas of Wales where only Welsh was spoken. Therefore names and places are often Anglicised and can vary dramatically from one census to the next.
Ages were even more approximate with older peoples’ ages altering by more or less than the 10 year period between census returns. In my experience, the younger the person the more accurate the age and the more simple their personal details the less likely it is that errors creep into the system.
Use wild cards
When searching for an adult, I usually set the age range to +/- five years allowing them some discretion. And when searching for a person with a long or more complex name always use a wild card or * after the first three characters.
Don’t forget that when extracting your family history information from the census returns that there are a number of people involved before you scribble down the details. Each one of those might have made a small mistake that could alter a branch of your family tree.
On Ancestry.co.uk and other similar websites if you spot a mistake please make sure that you post a comment to amend the error which alerts others to the fact that there might be a problem with the details.
In answer to William Davies’ query it seems possible that his great great grandfather may have simply not known his age or where he was born. It is also possible that he was unable to communicate these details easily to the enumerator maybe due to a problem with his speech, a particularly strong Welsh accent, a lack of education or even a love of beer, all of which could all have influenced the way in which the information he provided was noted down by the enumerator.
Tracing Daniel Davies
It appears that Daniel Davies was born around 1820 since he appears on the 1851 census aged 30. He lived at Cyfn Bralle Ucha, near Ystradgynlais, and worked as a coal miner born in Cardiganshire. He lived with his 27-year-old wife Sarah from Monmouthshire.
By 1861 he is living next door at Cefn Bryn Isaf Farm in Coelbren but is listed as a miner born in Llanboidy in Carmarthenshire.
Ten years later in 1871 he is listed as living nearby at Cefn yr Erw Farm but as a farmer born in Breconshire. In 1881 his birth place is Caio, by 1891 it’s Llangrannong and by the time of his last census in 1901 his birth place has altered again to Llanywni!
I can’t spot him easily on the 1841 census as there are eight men of that name and age born in Cardiganshire... or should that be Carmarthenshire? Don’t forget that on the 1841 census it only confirms whether or not the person was born in the same county as they were living when the census took place. If William has a copy of Daniel’s marriage certificate then he can always try to cross reference his father’s name and this should enable him to establish the correct entry.
This in turn could help confirm the names of Daniel’s siblings and even lead to locating an entry in a baptism register once the parish can be narrowed down.
William has his own explanation, one which I cannot confirm or deny obviously but it does seem plausible. Daniel Davies was reputed to have been born in the part of Wales responsible for the Rebecca Riots it is possible that he was one of the men burning down the toll gates, dressed as a women. Ultimately this could have resulted in him fleeing from the law and goes someway to explaining the inconsistencies in his details on the census returns.
But it is exactly these type of issues which make family history so fascinating and addictive. Quite simply, if it was easy then it wouldn’t be so rewarding.