Spelling the name

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Before the middle years of the 1800s, the majority of our ancestors would never have seen their own names written down. For names on tombstones, they had to rely on what a stone mason decided was the correct spelling; for names on legal documents, a solicitor's clerk made the decision; in the baptismal register, it was up to the Parish Clerk or the minister. No-one ever thought of there being a right or wrong way to spell any word - often, it was just a case of phonetics - writing down what you thought you heard just as the person said it, so that spellings of the same word varied widely in different parts of a county, depending on local dialect or accent.

Gradually, as the 19th century wore on, more and more children went to school. The schoolmaster would look in the Parish Register to see how a name had been spelt at baptism and that would be the version  he taught the child to write. But other children in the same family may have been baptised elsewhere and their names may have been spelt differently in the Register so it is quite easy to find members of a single family each using different spellings for their surname.

Here is a very brief example taken from Falmouth Parish Registers:


Thomas, son of Thomas and Jane Stidiford

5 August 1730


Jane, daughter of Thomas and Jane Stadeford

25 June 1732


John, son of Thomas and Jane Stedyford

2 December 1733


John, son of Thomas and Jane Steddiford

5 December 1734


Jane, daughter of Thomas and Jane Stedeford

16 April 1738


Jane, daughter of Thomas and Jane Studdiford

31 May 1742

Six entries - six completely different spellings. So which one was passed to the next generation? The answer is all of them plus some new variations! The parents and their surviving children moved around and, in fact, triggered another set of inventive spellings for their surname over the following century.

Notwithstanding Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, which was published in 1755, standardised spelling of English is a comparatively recent development, heavily influenced by the typesetters of popular newspapers as the 20th century began. The vocabulary of their text was kept to a relatively small number of words and they made sure their readership could follow that text by rigidly controlling the spellings used.

A few years later came standardised spelling of personal names as more people got the vote and governments created voters' lists. Names given on census returns and civil registrations began to go through a standardisation process too, so that gradually, many of the old variations disappeared forever.


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