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Name Variations and Problems

Why they vary | Examples | Tips for Searching

Why they vary

The spelling of names can vary considerably in records used by family historians. There may be several reasons for this:

  • Spelling was not formalised until the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.
  • Many people were illiterate, so their names would have been recorded by other people who would use their own idea of spelling.
  • Sometimes the name was misheard, or a regional accent was misunderstood, and a completely 'wrong' name would be entered in the records.
  • Spellings may vary between different branches of the same family, especially where some have moved away, and different versions gradually become fixed
  • Sometimes different versions of Christian names would be entered - Helen, for example, instead of Ellen.
  • Watch out for transcription errors where the person transcribing a hand-written text misinterprets personal or place names.
  • Finally, when a widow or a single mother marries, their existing children may change their surname to that of the new husband. For an example of how much trouble this can give you, read the story of my search for Frederick Nursey.


1.  Helen Razzell, nee Headington. Her name appears variously as:

  • Eleanor Headington (birth certificate)
  • Eleanor Heddington (1861 census)
  • Ellen Edginton (1871 census)
  • Ellen Headinglow (1881 census as indexed on
  • Ellen Headington (marriage certificate)
  • Helen Razzell (daughter's birth certificate and her own death certificate)

2.  Thomas Ceybird

  • Thomas Keybird (1851 census)
  • Thomas Ceyboard (1861 census)
  • Thomas Ceybird (later censuses and gravestone)

Tips for Searching

Can't find someone in one or more censuses?

  • If you can get access, try another genealogy website.
    Sometimes one site will have a section of the census that another does not have. Sometimes one site has a better image which has led to better indexing of that particular page. Sometimes one indexer has been able to interpret that handwriting better than another.
  • If you have an address from a previous or subsequent census, try searching for the address.
    Find My Past has a specific address search for each census. With Ancestry and The Genealogist sites you can use keywords to look for a street or house name. This is how I managed to track down Eleanor Headington (see above), who lived at "The Orchard" for much of her short life.
  • Try searching for the first name OR the surname, but not both together.
    First name and place of birth can often produce a result where the surname has been incorrectly indexed.
  • If you have been searching for name with a date of birth, try omitting the date of birth. Remember that the date of birth in the indexes is derived from the recorded age which may be incorrect, misread, obliterated by other marks, even missing altogether. Occasionally I have found an indexed date of birth out by 60 years when a figure one has been misread as a seven.
  • If you have been including county of birth in your search, try leaving that out.
    Sometimes the enumerator has entered the wrong county (I sometimes find Desborough given the county of Leicestershire, instead of Northamptonshire).  Sometimes the county has been omitted.
  • If you have been including town/village of birth, look for variant spellings, or use county instead.
    Some place names have local variations, such as "Rowell" for "Rothwell". Some have conventional abbreviations, such as "Desbro" or "Desboro" for "Desborough". Sometimes the census only gives the county, or gives the name of a larger village or town nearby. If you find a possible match, but you don't recognise the place of birth, use Google Maps to find the place and 'get directions' to find how far it is from the 'correct' place of birth. Bear in mind also that if a family moved in the early years of a child's life that child may give the place they grew up in as their place of birth.
  • If one member of the family has a more unusual first name, try searching for that.
    For example, look for wife Rebecca, rather than husband John. You may also find that the husband/father was not home on the day of the census - see the story of John Letts for an example
  • Sometimes an individual has been entered on the census by initials only.
    This can happen for prisoners, hospital patients, inmates of asylums, etc

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