Can we rely on Parish Register entries?

Posted by Liz Jack     Category: Gloucestershire, Parish Registers, Research

Looking for the baptisms of the children of John Harris in Kings Stanley, I came across these entries on a microfiche.

  • Samuel Harrisson, son of John Harrisson, baptised last day of July 1653
  • John Harrisson, son of John Harrisson, baptised 14th October 1655
  • William Harrisson, the 3rd son of John Harrisson, baptised 25 December 1657

Checking a microfilm of Kings Stanley parish register entries for the period that followed, I also found:

  • John Harries the son of John Harries was baptised the 14th day of October 1655.

I did not find baptisms on this film for either Samuel or William.  The three Harrisson entries were not on the microfilm and the one Harries entry was not on the microfiche!  So, what was the explanation?

I ordered up the original register and checked the entries, all as above.  There was nothing that I could see in any part of the book to indicate that any part had been copied at any time.  The book appeared to be organised in 4 sections.   The first section held baptisms, the second had marriages, and the third burials.  The fourth section seemed to be a general section.   At the end of the first section, I found the first three Harrisson entries just as they were shown on the fiche.   After the marriages and burials, I found the baptism for John Harries as it had been on the film.

So, all four entries were there in the registers, as you would expect from filmed documents.  So – what happened?  After discussion with the archivist on duty and another experienced researcher, we all agreed that it was extremely unlikely that a John Harries, son of John Harries, was baptised on the same day (14th October 1655) as a John Harrisson, son of John Harrisson.  We agreed that there was most probably only one family, father John and his sons Samuel, John and William.

So, which surname is the correct one – Harries or Harrisson?  From other, later entries in the registers, Harrisson or, more usually, Harrison, seems to be the most reasonable choice but – are our assumptions correct?  There were, of course, no bishops transcripts for the 1650s so we cannot check those.   Can we trust the parish registers?

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2 Responses to “Can we rely on Parish Register entries?”

  1. Helen Shrimpton Says:

    I have often noticed different name spelling. I imagine names were written as they sounded. Different people will say them and hear them in different ways.
    And it wasn’t until late Victorian times that spelling became standardized.

  2. Liz Jack Says:

    Yes, when you take into account the fact that most people before the late 19th century were unable to read, the majority of records were made by someone who heard the details and the resulting record depended on their hearing ability and the accents and dialects being spoken. The recorder’s knowledge of the names and places involved played a big part. So pretty much all records that we rely on to trace our ancestors need to be taken with a little pinch of salt. It is really not an exact science – but a dose of common sense helps us to make our way back. We are always urged to find three different sources to confirm each piece of information – not always possible but good advice!

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