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Friday, 8 March 2013

Little White Lies

Little White Lies: Lies on Censuses and Certificates

We like to think of our ancestors as fine upstanding members of the community and it can sometimes come as a shock to discover that they told an untruth when registering important events such as births, marriages and deaths or when passing on personal details to census enumerators. Giving false information on a census was actually an offence punishable by a fine (in 1911 this could have been up to £5), but nevertheless many people took the risk and lied anyway. Unfortunately for us, our ancestors may have misrepresented all manner of details about themselves including their names, ages, occupations, places of birth, relationship to the heads of households, infirmities and, in the 1911 census, even how many years they had been married and how many children they had had.  But don’t despair, working out why your ancestor might have lied about one fact or another can be just as satisfying as – and perhaps even more thrilling than - uncovering the truth straight off. It can certainly tell you a great deal about the times in which he or she lived.

Those ancestors who deliberately lied on official documents may have done so for a number of reasons:

1.    To hide certain experiences.

This marriage certificate of my own great-grandfather William Symes in 1884 looks innocent enough but it, in fact includes two lies. He describes himself as a ‘bachelor’ when in fact he was a widower (as evidenced by the 1881 census and an earlier marriage certificate of 1878). He also describes his father as ‘William Symes’ an ‘agricultural labourer’. In fact, my William was illegitimate and probably didn’t know his real father’s name. In cases such as this, it was common for men to give as their father’s name either their own name or the name of another ‘fatherly’ male relative. In this case, William’s grandfather had also been William Symes (and he was indeed an agricultural labourer); this is the man who probably brought him up and this is the man he was thinking of when he gave his details to the registrar.

William Symes got away with the lies about his personal status because between his two marriages he had moved from his birthplace in the South West of England to Manchester where nobody knew about his earlier life. In an age before it was possible for the authorities to check on such details, he was not alone in his mendacity. Other people lied about their age to obscure other secrets - periods in prison or in mental institutions, for example. Some women described themselves as ‘widows’ on census forms to avoid having to admit that their husbands were still alive but had been imprisoned or transported. Some would-be spouses described themselves as ‘spinsters’, ‘bachelors’, ‘widows’ or ‘widowers’ on their marriage certificates in order to be able to marry bigamously.

2.    Vanity

Women of all classes fabricated their age on the census. The government report in 1881 stated that many women ‘desirous of being thought younger than they really are return themselves as under 25 or under 30 when their true age is considerably beyond these limits.’ There was also a particular tendency for women to state that their age was between 20 and 25 (when they were actually either younger or older than that age). Occupation was another area in which arrogance could lead to deception. Your ancestors might have given an inflated description of their source of income – calling themselves ‘farmers’, for instance, when they were actually no more than ‘farmhands’.   

3.    To appear respectable

Some people did not want to admit to large discrepancies in age between themselves and their partners (particularly if the woman was older than the man). An unmarried women might describe herself as a ‘housekeeper’ or ‘domestic servant’ to obscure the sexual nature of her relationship with the head of a household.  Prostitutes would rarely return the true nature of their occupation in the census but would class themselves as ‘needlewomen’ or ‘domestic servants’. On the 1911 census, couples were asked for the first time how long they had been married. Many gave a falsely extended number of years – just enough to render all their children legitimate!

4.    To obtain some economic advantage

Many young Victorian girls pretended on censuses that they had already reached the age of 15 in order to have a better chance of obtaining work as domestic servants and to command better wages when they did so. Couples living together but not actually married often claimed to be spouses in order (erroneously as it turned out) to protect their own position in the event of the death of the other partner. Some people falsely added years to their age on the 1911 census in order to qualify for the old-age pension (to which some people over 70 were entitled from January 1st 1909).

5.    To avoid a penalty

The birth of a child had to be registered within 6 weeks (42 days) on penalty of a fine. In order to avoid this, parents who had left registering their children late would often falsify the date of birth on a certificate by a matter of a few weeks. For this reason, it’s always worth looking at the date of registration on a birth certificate. If it is exactly six weeks from the date of birth, you should perhaps be a little suspicious.

6.    To enlist

When the First World War started in August 1914 a vigorous propaganda campaign persuaded tens of thousands of young men excitedly to sign up and do their bit for King and Country. To fight abroad you had to be at least nineteen, but you could enlist at eighteen. Many boys of 15, 16 and 17, however, lied about their ages and, as it was not compulsory to provide a birth certificate to confirm your age (until conscription started in January 1916), many got away with it.

Falsehoods or Mistakes?

If you discover that something is not quite right about information submitted by your ancestor on a census or certificate of registration, you should not always jump to the conclusion that he or she was deliberately lying. There are a number of other reasons why incorrect information might have been passed on to officialdom. Here are some to consider:

Genuine Error

Our ancestors in the nineteenth century were subject to far fewer identity checks than we are today. During the course of their whole lives they were hardly ever required to give their age or date of birth and would have kept little paperwork relating to themselves. Thus, when they were asked to give personal information in a formal setting (such as when they registered their own marriage or gave their age to a census enumerator), it is possible that they quite simply just made a mistake. For births and deaths of course, the events were not registered by the main actor in the event but by other family members (and sometimes by friends or neighbours). This registering of information at one remove, in itself, might have led to mistakes.


Until Forster’s Education Act of 1870 made schooling for all five to twelve year olds compulsory (and indeed in many cases even after that) – many people grew up either totally unable to read and write or with very little ability to do so. If they were filling in information about themselves, they might well have entered information wrongly.


Our ancestors may not have had a clear idea about some of their own personal details, particularly their ages. In rural communities children were employed when they were tall enough or strong enough to do a job, not when they reached a particular age. Whilst they might have been clear about their day and month of birth, the year of their birth might have been less of a matter of certainty. A government report on the 1881 census stated that many people ‘keep their date of birth in mind for the earlier part of their life, up to 20 years or so, but after this, they lose reckoning, and can only make an approximative statement.’


People giving their ages also often confused the year of age in which they were living with the number of years actually completed. Thus your great-grandmother might have given her age as 21 when in fact she was simply in the 21st year of her life and was therefore, in fact, still only 20.

Poor questioning on the part of officialdom

Some registrars and census enumerators may not have been clear about exactly what information they required. A good example of this is where a woman marrying for the second time was asked for her ‘previous’ name. What the registrar actually wanted was the maiden name, but many women mistakenly gave their first married name at this point. Here an imprecise registrar might unwittingly have created a major headache for family historians trying to trace a woman’s birth family. 

Case Study – Ellen Lawless Robinson

The case of Ellen Lawless Robinson, is a genealogist’s puzzle and delight. When she reached her early thirties, still young, slim and attractive, this audacious lady shaved fourteen years from her age, so that by 1881 (when she was in fact 42 years old) she was able to claim to be just 28!

The reasons for which Ellen fabricated her age are deep rooted. As a young woman (from 1858 to 1870 when she was aged 17- 31), it is likely that she had been the lover of the world famous author Charles Dickens. Captivated by her good looks, engaging personality, literary knowledge and theatrical family, Dickens set Ellen up in her own home and struck up an affair with her that may have involved the birth of one or more children who died in infancy. In order to keep the memory of Dickens sacrosanct and to make her own virtue appear intact, Ellen found it expedient, after Dickens’s death, to make several years of her life disappear.

Ellen’s deception probably succeeded because she and her husband lived in Margate, a long way from the social contacts of her earlier life. She was also a consummate actress accustomed to adopting new roles. Subsequent censuses show that in later life she continued to have a flexible relationship with the truth and her lies were inconsistent.  In 1891, she claimed to be 48 years old (she was in fact 52). In 1901 (when she was actually 62), she said that she was 50. In 1911, she claimed to be 70 and stated that she had given birth to just two children (was this a lie to cover up the child or children she had had with Dickens?). Ellen finally died from cancer on April 25th 1914. She would have been 75 years old – not a bad age - but her children must have lamented that her death came far too early – after all, they thought that she was just 61!  

Useful Books

Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens – A Life, Viking, 2011

Claire Tomalin – The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, Penguin, 1991

Peter Christian and David Annal, Census: The Expert Guide, The National Archives, 2008

Edward Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited: A Handbook for Historical Researchers, Institute of Historical Research, 2005

Useful Websites  - National Archives Podcast - Sex, Lies and Civil Registration On enlistment into the army and the lies told about age.

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