How Certain do we have to be?
by Rosemary Bailey
This article was originally published in the July 2000 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Just how certain are we that the person we are claiming as our 4 x great grandfather is actually our 4 x great grandfather? I am not talking here about whether one of our ancestors was the natural child of the milkman rather than the man he/she called 'Dad' but about the evidence we have taking us back through the generations. How can we be certain that the person in a marriage entry was the same one who was baptised with the same name 25 years earlier? You're probably fairly safe with an unusual name like the three generations of Malachi Anton (also known as Arlington) in my tree but what about all those Thomas Sauls? And you are probably fairly safe since 1837 when national registration provides us with more information such as father's name and occupation etc. which can be used in conjunction with corroborative evidence from census records. But what about before that when the only records for an individual may be baptism, marriage and burial?
I started thinking about this when I was entering another member's Saul family onto Generations (the computer software used by the Sole Society). Was I as rigorous in researching someone else's family as I was with my own? Exactly what 'degree of certainty' did I apply to my own research? A critical look at my own tree shows, as I suspect it would for most of us, a few links that are less certain than others.
People often ask how far back I have got in my research and I reply; back to the 16C in a couple of branches. However one line going back to the 1680s was sent to me by a distant cousin and I have never checked it myself. My ancestor Thomas Edward Hobley seems to have sometimes used Edward and sometimes Thomas - but how can I be certain it was the same man? And on my Saul line I conveniently forget my ggg-grandfather's missing baptism at the ending of the 18C. When I first looked at this family several years ago the evidence strongly pointed to who his parents were but with the passing of time I seem to have forgotten the doubts and his parentage has almost become a fact.
My great grandmother Sarah Jane Saul (1852-?) was the oldest of the 9 children of Thomas (2) Saul and Susanah Bassford. I have Sarah's birth and marriage certificates and she is on the 1861 and 1871 census living with her parents and siblings in Oldbury, Worcestershire. All ages and occupations fit. The 1861 and 1851 census show her father Thomas (2) Saul was born around 1828/1829 in Oldbury and his marriage certificate names his father as Thomas Saul, engineer. Sure enough a Thomas (2), son of Thomas (1) and Harriet Saul was baptised at Christchurch Oldbury in 1828. Thomas and Harriet had a total of 6 children baptised between 1822 and 1839 and Thomas (1) is described as an engineer in all entries. The 1841 and 1851 census has the family living together - all the ages fit and both Thomas' occupations are given as engineers. The census suggests Thomas (1) was born around 1790 in either Oldbury or Banbury (Oxf).
Until here I have no doubts about the accuracy of this line, but now things get less certain as this is where the missing baptism comes in. The baptism of Thomas (1) is not in the Oldbury or Banbury registers. The first Saul entry in Oldbury is 1797 - William son of Peter and Hannah Saul. Their son Samuel is baptised in 1805. The Wesleyan Methodist registers of Oldbury show the burial of Peter Saul of Oldbury, born Banbury, aged 85 in 1832. A Peter Saul married Hannah Hanton in Banbury 1787. Banbury seems to be the link.
The evidence so far: my ggg-grandfather Thomas (1) was born c1790 possibly in Banbury. Peter and Hannah Saul of Banbury were living in Oldbury from 1797. In the absence of any other Sauls in the area I have assumed Thomas (1) was Peter and Hannah's son. I think there can be little doubt that there is a very close connection between Peter and Thomas (1) and that probably they are father and son. However Thomas (1) may have been a young relation who Peter and Hannah brought with them from Banbury when they moved to Oldbury or he may have joined them to work in the industrial black country at a later date. There is also a James Saul born Oldbury ca 1801 for whom a baptism can't be found but, by the same logic, is probably the son of Peter and Hannah.
As far as my Saul line goes it doesn't matter very much at the moment since I can't find the baptism of Peter Saul to trace the line further back. But Hannah Hanton may have been (again, I can't be certain) the Hannah daughter of Malachi and Hannah Aunton baptised in Banbury in 1763. This family are a genealogists dream, there are three generations of Malachi and over a period of 130 years they use the surname Aunton, Anton and Arlington interchangeably with the entries themselves sometimes stating 'Arlington alias Aunton' and visa versa. But I am back to my problem - how certain do I have to be? Was Hannah Hanton who married Peter Saul in 1787 the Hannah Aunton who was baptised in 1763 in Banbury?
Family history is never certain. There will always be a missing baptism, an apparent change of christian name, an inconsistent date. It is a fascinating absorbing hobby but I think we need to be aware of its possible shortcomings and perhaps we should more often use 'probably' and 'possibly'.
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