"Just the place for a Snark!"
the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark!
I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Caroll
A cautionary tale
about the information you find on the internet
One of the disadvantages of using the
World Wide Web for genealogy is that it provides an easy way for disseminating
and multiplying errors. When this site was started the second information topic
was entitled The Dangers of Internet Genealogy
and its message is as true as ever it was.
Some of the worst examples are linked to
Americans who are trying to link ancestors that sailed across the Atlantic in
the 17th century to their origins in the UK. It is clear that some of the errors
started over 100 years ago, and one must suspect that at least some of the
"errors" were created by "professional" researchers in England who were
commissioned by rich Americans to research their ancestors. These researchers
were more interested in keeping the funds coming by supplying a continual flow
of "possible looking" information than in spending weeks or months checking the
accuracy of the facts. (This behaviour is not new - many of the Medieval English
family trees in the Visitations contain much wishful thinking by people who
wanted to claim a right to carry a coat of arms.)
Many of the resulting errors (or at best
unsubstantiated guesses) have been
recorded on the IGI and turn up on familysearch
The Limitations of the IGI on Familysearch).
What is happening is that beginners look at the IGI, on published family trees,
and at family history web sites and assume that such "common knowledge" must be
true. They add the dubious information onto their own family tree without
checking the facts - and then publish the results themselves - propagating the
When I first set up this site I received a
number of queries from America about the origins of these early refugees from
England. It was as if I was trying to build a castle on quicksand - as the
"foundations" of the query vanished as soon as I looked at them closely. When I
asked the questioner about the American sources of information (see
My Ancestors Emigrated from Hertfordshire) it
rapidly became clear that the questioner had little or no knowledge of the 17th
century New England documents which lay behind the query. Few, if any, of the
questioners had sufficient historical knowledge or experience in working with
old documents to know whether the information they had taken from published
family trees (or assembled from trees which had been held as records on the IGI)
I am afraid that I took the easy way out -
and stated I didn't answer questions before 1700. However in February 2008 I was
I could throw any light on what and where Stanstead Abbey was.
The questioner clearly had some relevant knowledge of contemporary American
documents and was trying to find out why a plot of land in Maryland had been
named Stanstead Abbey. She supplied two 17th century
references, and had noted the large number of references to Stanstead Abbey on
the World Wide Web - but was unable to tie the information down to a place in
England, much less Hertfordshire.
I decided to use this example to
demonstrate how much highly misleading or downright incorrect family history
information exists on the World Wide Web - and other online sources.
The Main Hertfordshire Sources
There are 5 main histories of
Hertfordshire which detail the county parish by parish. They are Chauncy (The Historical Antiques of Hertfordshire,
1700), Salmon (The
History of Hertfordshire, 1728), Clutterbuck
(The History of the County of Hertford,
1815-1827), Cussans (History of Hertfordshire,
1870-1881) and the
Victoria County History of Hertfordshire (1902-1914).
These histories tell us
very little about the common man as they all concentrate on the ownership of land, and the church (which
was also a one-time major owner of land) - and deal with changes in
ownership connected with the dissolution of the monasteries in detail. None
mention "Stanstead Abbey" (including variant spellings of "Stanstead") or even hint at an abbey at Stanstead Abbots.
This is a Hertfordshire village which
was named because in Medieval times it had been a manor which was owned by
the Abbot of Waltham Abbey. All were written by scholars who would try their best to ensure the
accuracy of their information and the reliability of their sources. All,
except the last, were written to be purchased by rich and discerning customers,
while the last is a serious piece of academic research. One
thing you can be virtually certain about - if these books do not mention an abbey or a
monastery at Stanstead Abbots there wasn't one there.
The same negative result is obtained if
you look at old maps going back to Saxton
or a wide variety of
other less profound histories, tourist guides, etc. You will find nothing in
Your Family History in Hertfordshire
- the "bible" for those currently researching their family history in the
UK Wide Sources
Directed searching online on
in the National Archives index failed to produce a single
reference. Interestingly a search of
www.google.co.uk restricted to UK
web sites was also negative once you have eliminated a few irrelevant rogue
pages. (This will change when this page is posted.) It would seem
that, at the time of writing, none of the web pages which refer to a Stanstead
Abbey originate in the UK, and inspection shows that most, if not all, originate
in the USA.
A search of a variety of other modern
and antiquarian reference books draw a blank.
17th Century Sources - The "Hopewell"
In the early 17th century, starting
with the Mayflower, many ships crossed the Atlantic carrying people who wanted
to settle in New England. A surviving passenger list [see
ref.] tells us that at the
beginning of April 1635 the Hopewell, under the command of William Bundick,
moored in London with a view to transporting a boat-load of passengers. These
passengers had to have certificates from their minister and from justices of the
peace as to their eligibility. My interpretation of the document is as follows:
On April 1st there were four families
(three from Olney, Bucks and one from London) waiting to board, together with
two single men who were probably brothers. A list was started and at the top
were the four heads of the families, and the single men, all of whom would have held the
certificates. Once they were processed the wives, and then the children and one
servant, were listed. On April 3rd (possibly spread over three days) other
groups arrived and a new list was started, When the first group arrived the
scribe responsible wrote:
Theis under written names are to be
transported to New England imbarqued in ye Hopewell Mr. Wm Bundick. The p'ties
have brought Certificates from the Minister & Justices of peace that they are
no Subsedy men they have taken the oath of alleg: and Supremacee.
Joh: Astwood 26 Husbandman
Jo: Ruggells 10
Martha Carter 27
Marie Elliott 13
The scribe, unfortunately, failed to
record the place that John Astwood, etc., had come from. The next party came
from Hertfordshire and, rather that repeat the wording about the certificates,
recorded the following:
P'r Cert: from Stanstede Abbey in
Laurence Whittimor 63 Husbandman
Elizabeth Whittimor 57
Elizabeth Turner 26
Sara Elliott 6
Robert Day 30
Wm. Peacock 12
When the next party arrived the scribe
abbreviated the heading to "Nazing in Essex" with no explicit reference
to the certificate. Entries for later arrivals were even more abbreviated and did not
separate heading. On April 6th another page was started and this only includes a
list of names with no places. Having now got a full load of passengers the boat
sailed to New England. It is clear that as the passenger list got longer the
scribe took less and less care to record the existence of the certificate
(perhaps to hide the fact that some did not have one) or to record where the
certificate was drawn up. Of course the spelling of surnames and place names was
erratic - as was normal at the time.
"Stanstede Abbey" Reference
There is an immediate and obvious problem. It is clear that
the people from "Stanstede Abbey" had a certificate from their "Minister and
Justice of the Peace." There is no way that the Hertfordshire histories
detailed above could have failed to record a church with a minister in place in
1635 so it is obvious that the place name as recorded on the list on the passenger list MUST be wrong.
What could have happened? One can never be certain but
the scribe may not have been familiar with Hertfordshire towns and villages (or a
Hertfordshire accent). In Hertfordshire there was a parish called Stanstead Abbots which had a
minister called Robert Ballard. If
"Stanstead Abbots" is said with minimal emphasis on the last syllable
it would sound
rather like "Stanstead Abbey." There are very many places in England ending in
"Abbey" and few in "Abbots" so if the scribe drafting the list misheard he would
be far more likely to write "Abbey". There can be little doubt
that the reference to "Stanstede Abbey" on the shipping list relates to the
parish of Stanstead Abbots.
Modern References relating to The "Hopewell"
& Stanstead Abbots
At the top of this page I mentioned a
google search for "Stanstead Abbey" and at this stage it is appropriate to
re-examine the findings in the light of what is known about the Hopewell.
A google search for "Stanstead Abbots"
and Hopewell came up with two web pages which accurately linked passengers on
the boat (Whittimor and Day). Another related to Astwood, which I consider is
one of the people whose place of origin is not stated. There were also
three references to Robert Titus which claimed he came from Stanstead Abbots
when the list clearly states he was
"Of St. Katherins." Which St Katherine's is not clear, as the dedication
is common - and there were three churches of that name in the City of London -
close to where the Hopewell was moored. No evidence is given to say why
Stanstead Abbots in mentioned. There were a few other genealogy references with
genuinely included the words "Stanstead Abbots" and "Hopewell" but which did not
relate to the above passenger list. All the other references were irrelevant
coincidences - such as those referring to a modern Hopewell School.
I then re-examined the over 200
references I had originally got from looking for "Stanstead Abbey." By deleting
all those were quite obviously not relevant (for instance a mistyped version of
a 21st century bus route) I ended up with 190 references all of which contained
references to the "Hopewell", the year "1635" or the names of frequently
mentioned passengers. I did not look at all 190 - but a sampling of the more
readable ones suggest that the information they contained all came from the
April 1635 Hopewell passenger list - although often the source was not stated.
In fact no valid reference to a 20th century or earlier "Stanstead Abbey" was
found on any Web Page that could not be linked to the Hopewell list.
A few of the entries, which basically
were concerned with the passenger list, were clearly satisfactory, as they
merely repeated what the list said without interpretation. Most of those
which had used the information as part of a family reconstruction showed a very
poor understanding of the source of the information - and how that information
could be safely used. Not only had a very large number of people failed to
realised that the reference to "Stanstede Abbey" on the list must be to
Stanstead Abbots, but their web pages contained complete inventions - for
instance saying that an individual had been born or baptised at the Abbey. (The
certificate only recorded where the adult's certificate came from - not the
place of birth.) A very large number
were linked to Robert Titus where the reference to Stanstead Abbey is clearly
incorrect as the document indicates he came from somewhere else. In at least one case the claim was made that the baptism
of their ancestor was
carried out by the bishop of Stanstead Abbey - when
the list only said they came from "Stanstede Abbey".
17th Century Sources - John Taylor 1636
In 1636 John Taylor, "The Water Poet,"
wrote The Honorable and
Memorable Foundations Erections Raisings and Ruins of divers Cities, Townes
Castles and other pieces of Antiquitie within ten Shires and Counties of the
Kingdome: Namely Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Middlesex,
Hartfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
The extract reprinted in the Middlesex & Hertfordshire Notes and Queries
records "At Stansted Abby, John Giver" [see
The Taverns of Hertfordshire.]
So how reliable is it? The introduction to the reprinted extract says "...
Amongst the hastily compiled pieces which Taylor published ..." and ends
referring to the inns by saying "Many of them, no doubt, he had visited ..."
The introduction also says that John Taylor was an impecunious writer so one
must wonder if he could ever have afforded to travel to all the places
mentioned. A sensible conclusion from reading the introduction is that his
work was not always well drafted. Perhaps he picked up information by
visiting some of the many inns near the River Thames which served as arrival and departure points
for travellers coming to, and leaving, London. In such places the landlords
would have frequently been asked to advise intending travellers as to where to
stop on their journey - so they would need to be a fountain of knowledge of
towns and inns on the routes starting at their establishment. All in all it
seems far more likely that "Abby" is an error for "Abbots" than that it is
evidence that a Stanstead Abbey existed.
It should be noted that Hertfordshire Inns & Public Houses states
that John Giver was a possible keeper of the Red Lion wine tavern at Stansted
Abbotts in 1633 but gives no source. As their bibliography mentions John
Taylor's publication in 1633 I assume the 1633 is a misprint, or there were two
published versions of his list.
There is overwhelming evidence that
there was no such place as Stanstead Abbey - and the two 17th century documents
which name such a place were created under circumstances where confusion between
"Stanstead Abbey" and "Stanstead Abbots" was very likely. An online search
found 2 web pages which used the information accurately as part of a family
tree. At the same time about 200 web pages contained wrong or misleading
information - an error rate of 99% !!! There may be many other copies of the
incorrect information on submitted family trees, and other sources
In researching your family tree you
should note the words of the poem at the head of this page. Saying something
3 times - or 200 times, does not make it true. If the information comes from a
single source the truth, or otherwise depends on how reliable the source was
when it was written, and the accuracy of any subsequent copying (perhaps by hand
many years ago), transcription, indexing and interpretation.
Much of the family tree information
the internet has been assembled without proper checks and safeguards, often
by people who are only collecting as many names as possible with
minimal effort. Other people's family trees should be considered as potentially
unreliable - particularly if the primary sources (i.e. the original contemporary
sources) are not identified. The fact that the family tree is well presented, or
has been entered onto the IGI is no evidence that it is correct.
Remember: It is important to understand
each source - how, where, why and when it was written - to judge the
potential accuracy of the document. Simply "ripping out" the reference to
someone whose name means he might be your ancestor from a document, index or
published family tree and ignoring the context is a recipe for error.
Brian Chelton (brokenclaypot
@t yahoo.com) of
Eagleville, Pennsylvania, US, writes: I found in my family history a
Titus Family in America, by Rev Anson Titus, 1881] that I was
looking for your advice on. It notes a St. Catherine's Parish, near
Stansted Abbots (not abbey), Hertfordshire, thirty mile north of London. I
noticed that there is a St. Catherine's parish in Sacombe which appears to
only be a couple miles from Stansted Abbot and appears to have had a church
located there since approx 1000. Is it possible this is the place
My reading is that the association of
Robert Titus with Stanstead Abbots is not justified in any
competent reading of the Hopewell document, and how the Rev.
Anson Titus got such obviously incorrect information is
unknown. He refers to the document in the Public Records
Office in London [now
National Archives] and when he quotes from it
correctly later in the document he makes no
mention of Stanstead Abbots.
The entry as written could, in theory,
refer to any "St Katherine's" anywhere in England. However
as the Hopewell was loading in London there is one St
Katherine's that would have been very well known to the
clerk who was making the list. It is not clear which wharf
the Hopewell was loading at but it might even have been
moored at St Katherine's Dock, near the Tower of London (see
Katherines Dock). A recent transcription of
passenger lists, including the
Hopewell, has interpreted the entry on the list as
St Katherine, London, while I would only say this
association is extremely likely, but not certain. Definitely
there is nothing in the list to associate Robert Titus to
Hertfordshire and any search should concentrate on London
The topic was re-googled and came up with a few other
references in recently digitised books of UK origin which are obviously errors
in the original texts.
The Monthly Magazine and British Register, Volume 9, recording news
says: HERTFORDSHIRE. Died.] At
Stansted Abbey, Mrs. Fielde, wife
of the Rev, Thomas Fielde, vicar of that place.
Thomas Fielde was the vicar of Stanstead
Abbots from 1796 until 1847.
The Index of
Ducatus Lancastriae, published in 1827, lists
Stansted Abbey -
but the text referred to is of
Stansted Abbot, Hertfordshire.
The Peak Guide, of 1830, writing about the seventh Earl of Rutland,
records that His wife was Frances, daughter of Sir Edward Cary, ...
and widow of Ralph Baesh, of Stansted
Abbey, Herefordshire, esq. ...
A detailed pedigree is given by
Cussans on the Stanstead Abbots pages.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, published in 2006, in
records: One of Keat's breakthrough poems in 1819, "The Eve of St.
Agnes," interestingly marks his return to the very first verse form in which he
was struck by indirect intensity as a reader and in which he first composed as a
poet the rhymed, eight-line Spencerian stanza. Occasioned by a chilly January
encounter with the medieval monumentality of
Stansted Abbey, and written under
the double emotional charge of the recent death of his brother Tom ... ...
In fact Keats was actually impressed
by the chapel at
Park, on the Sussex/Hampshire border.
I also tried the
Archive and, bearing in mind the vast size of the archive and how often
mistakes are made by reporters writing down what they hear in court, etc., I was
surprised to find no references to "Stansted Abbey" and only one in the
Chelmsford Chronicle of 1880, concerning a dispute in which a John
Salmon "became possessed of a small cottage at
Stanstead Abbey, in
Hertfordshire." In comparison there were the following numbers of references
Stanstead Abbot(s): 591
Stanstead Abbott(s): 819
Stansted Abbot(s): 142
Stansted Abbott(s): 72
I was very surprised as in less than 0.1% of the cases the
"Abbot" was mis-recorded "Abbey". I therefore decided to look at another large
data base and no one in England was recorded as being born in Stanste(a)d Abbey
in the 1851-1891 censuses, and only two people were recorded as being born there (neither living in Hertfordshire) in the
So since my original search in 2008 some more UK references
have emerged in digitised books - and a simple investigation of the "new"
references supports the idea that all references to Stanste(a)d Abbey arise from
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