The importance of certificates

In my opinion, you aren’t researching properly if you don’t invest in certificates from time to time.

While these days there are a great number of research sources becoming available online, some of which negate the need to purchase birth, marriage and death certificates (either because they are sources such as marriage registers or might provide key dates you wish to obtain from a certificate such as date of birth or death from another source such as a baptism or a burial or from a newspaper report or a probate entry) but there is still some very key information you can garner from a certificate that can help put you on the right track in your research or open up new avenues. However, it is always worth remembering that the content of the information in a certificate is only as good as the knowledge of the informant of that certificate, it is not always accurate or even true.

I consider a lot of my research to be quite detailed already, I didn’t always have the funds to obtain birth, marriage and death certificates for all of my direct ancestors but bought mostly those I felt I needed in order to answer key questions to get towards the next step in my research. Recently I’ve had more funds to be able to catch up on certificates for more of a belt and braces approach, to back up my research with more sources and documentation. The majority of certificates I have been ordered recently have been death certificates, it interests me from two points of view about the information within them, one being for the general information about my ancestors, their death is of course a part of their life, part of their story, but also in terms of my overall medical history – I might see trends in certain family lines for something I might want to consider down the line to be more watchful for.

I have a funny little habit, when the certificates arrive in the post (each in their separate envelope from the General Register Office or all in one go from a local registry office) I place them face down until I am ready to look at them all. I like the anticipation of wondering what information I might find on those expensive bits of paper. Especially if I am hoping to answer a particular question. Then I flip them over and one by one pour over them. If that makes me a bit of a genealogy geek then so be it!

I ordered a couple of marriage certificates some months ago, one of which turned up some interesting information on my 2x great grandfather John Marshall. I had his place and date of marriage from information available on the Selected England and Wales marriages record set from FamilySearch and Ancestry, which also provided father’s names for each party, so it wasn’t so urgent previously for me to order the certificate, but I am glad that I did, as I discovered that when John married my 2x great grandmother Mary Fielding in 1869 that he was a widower. This was news to me. I then was able to discover that John had previously married Nancy Andrew in 1864, and that she sadly died just six months after their marriage. She was 38 when she died – meaning she was 9 years older than John. I suppose we are used to men marrying women younger than themselves or at least around the same age, however 9 years isn’t a huge age gap really, but sad for John to be not even 30 yet and to have lost his first wife.

Marshall Marriage

John Marshall’s second marriage certificate.

Another example of the importance of the information you can find out from certificates and also the accuracy of the information people provide on certificates relates to a mystery I’d had with my 3x great grandmother Jane Drake for a number of years. Years ago when I was still quite new to genealogy I had dutifully ordered Jane’s marriage certificate to her husband Elias McDonald from 1856 in order to discover a bit more about her prior to their marriage. She gave her father’s name as John Drake, a Clothier. I knew from a couple of census entries that she was born in or near a place called Honley in West Yorkshire, not far from Huddersfield and close to the border with Lancashire where she got married. I knew there were families in the area with the surname Drake, but I couldn’t seem to find a family with a father called John who had a daughter Jane born around 1834. The occupation of Clothier was a very common one in Honley, so this didn’t help to narrow it down much. I found Jane in 1841 living with a John Jebson/Jepson in Honley and by 1851 she was living with her aunt and uncle John & Fanny Knott in Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire – the area where she remained for the rest of her life after her marriage. I found John and Fanny’s marriage – finding that Fanny’s maiden name was Jepson, but couldn’t find a baptism for her to tie her into the John Jepson that Jane was living with in 1841 or to John Drake.

Jane marriage

Jane and Elias’s marriage certificate

Cut to a couple of years ago when Ancestry introduced their West Yorkshire set of records, initially there was the Church of England parish registers, where again I couldn’t find any trace of Jane, then later on the non-conformist records became available and I struck gold. There was Jane being baptised in 1837 – with an 1834 date of birth, down as being  from Honley, daughter of John Jepson and Mary Drake. The record, while it didn’t explicitly state that she was illegitimate, was inferred by the fact that for all the other parents listed on the page the mother’s surnames were firstly given as their married name, with their former maiden name given underneath. Mary Drake was just listed as Mary Drake, no former name, and Jane was down as Drake, not Jepson. I found the burial for Mary Drake two years after Jane’s baptism and I tried in vain to find a baptism for this Mary Drake thinking that perhaps she was a single woman. It soon became clear that Fanny Jepson who Jane was living with in 1851 was actually her older half-sister rather than her aunt.

Jane Drake

Jane’s baptism entry from Ancestry’s West Yorkshire Non-conformist records.

Every now and then I would look again for more information about Mary Drake, and it occurred to me that I should order her death certificate which really helped answer my questions! Firstly she and John never married as her burial and death were both under the name Drake. Usually for women – the occupation section of the information to put onto the death certificate is filled in with details of who their husbands are or were. If they were single then usually an occupation would be given. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this section stated that Mary was the widow of William Drake – Clothier, and then under the informant section it stated that the informant of her death was a Law Drake, present at the death. I have to admit I was half expecting it to be John Jepson, but no. I subsequently found that William Drake had married Mary Lofthouse in nearby Almondbury in 1811 and found baptisms for their children – including Law, born in 1818. I then discovered that William had died in 1831. I knew John Jepson’s wife Mary had died in 1832, so at some point these two widowed individuals had found comfort with one another and had found themselves parents with the birth of Jane in 1834. It was interesting that she was baptised three years later and that it wasn’t just Mary listed as the parent, that John’s name was given and that he seemingly stepped up to look after her when her mother died two years later. Who knows, perhaps Mary never did have Jane at home with her and her older children, perhaps John had always looked after her? Either way, she had her father’s family around her, and that is not something we often see in cases of illegitimacy in this period. John died in 1850, presumably the reason why Jane went to live with her older sister, but she had a large paternal family who seemed fairly close, with various members being with Fanny in 1851 and in later census years.

Mary death

Mary Drake’s death certificate.

Jane went on to marry Elias McDonald – the son of an illusive Irish man who deserves his own post another time! They had seven children, Elizabeth, Mary, Hannah, Ellen, Sarah, James and Eunice of which three survived into adulthood, Mary, Ellen and Eunice . Elias died in 1882 when Eunice was just 10 and Jane never remarried. She lived out the rest of her days with her married daughter Eunice and her husband James Large – my 2x great grandparents. She died at 13 Buller Street in Droylsden on 19th October 1903 of a brain haemorrhage and was buried at Mossley Cemetery on the 24th of that month along with her husband Elias and two of Eunice’s children George and James and another grandchild, James Sykes.

Without certificates I may not have been able to piece together some of the more complicated aspects of my tree. Of course they are used in conjunction with other sources to help verify the path of research I have followed. But as I mentioned before, sometimes the information isn’t always correct. Take Jane’s marriage certificate for example – the father’s name of John – was of course right, but the surname Drake – well, perhaps when asked Jane just gave her father’s name as John and didn’t specify that actually his surname wasn’t the same as hers. Perhaps she wanted to save face a little by not admitting she was illegitimate? But her father was indeed John and he was a Clothier so in some ways this was right but not completely.

There are so many types of information you can glean from certificates, from the basic data such as birth, marriage and death dates, relationships between people, occupations, addresses…the list goes on. And depending on the area in which you are looking at – there can be a whole other world of information available to you. Scottish certificates hold a lot more information than their English and Welsh counterparts, and likewise Australian certificates often contain information such as how long someone had lived in the state and the country if they had emigrated there, the number of children they had and how many were alive. And yes, the information is only as good as the person giving it – so bear that in mind. Especially when thinking of times when the majority of people may have been illiterate and unable to check that names were spelled right, or even people just trying to save face a little by covering up illegitimacy, or rounding their ages up or down a bit to narrow a large gap between spouses.

What have been some of your greatest discoveries with certificates in your research?


8 thoughts on “The importance of certificates

  1. I totally agree that certificates are really valuable. All my ancestors are Scots, so I love the fact that scanned certificates are so readily available. One of the first times I saw their value was in the case of my gg grandfather Rankine Gourlay, who I found on a census return in a lunatic asylum. His death record showed that he died in the Poorhouse of syphilis. It was this disease that had blighted his life and led to his admission to both the asylum and the poorhouse.

    • I love Scottish certificates – I wish they were all as detailed as that and as readily available and more cost effective! Thanks Su!

      • Yes, I do feel very lucky. NZ certs (for my partner’s family) are hideously expensive; though quite comprehensive which is something. Thanks Alex.

  2. I completely agree with the importance of ordering certificates as you can. They are invaluable. I had a client once who was desperately trying to locate living relatives. It was the extra info on a death record that made his wish possible. It was worth every penny of the $40 he spent on that death certificate to find out he had a living cousin that lived 2 1/2 hours from him. Which was very surprising as the client’s father was illegitimate, born in Germany and immigrated with his mother to America and the cousin was a child of one of the legitimate children, born in South America to German immigrants and then settled in California where they both live now. Then of course I have had PLENTY of experience with certificates helping my own research. They are invaluable!

  3. Great post! And so true. Sometimes, of course, certificates give the wrong information, but I am always so excited when a long-awaited certificate arrives in hard copy in the mail. I know that feeling of anticipation you described so well!

    • Thanks Amy! I got a few more last week but nothing ground breaking, but still good to have them. I’ve made some far more interesting discoveries over the past week with newspapers though – will no doubt post about them soon! Hope you had a good trip away?

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