Hertfordshire Genealogy

Guide to Old Hertfordshire


What did your Ancestor call himself

The June 2001 issue of the Society of Genealogists' journal, Genealogists Magazine, has an article "In Search of John Peters" by Peter Horne. John Peters had no Hertfordshire connections but the investigation into his origins is an excellent piece of detective work - and I summarise it below.

John Peters died in Australia in 1929 and his obituary contains much detailed information about his career, which had started in the Navy at the age of 14. His career history, as outlined in his obituary, included a list of the boats that he had served on including the Boscowen, the Hero, the Columbine in 1863-5, the Medusa in 1866, the Galatea in 1866-8 and the Inconstant in 1868-9.

There was only one problem. A check revealed that no-one of the name John Peters served on any of these ships. Clearly something was wrong. Was his life story an invention or did he change his name.

A further check showed that there was a William Hill on all the ships mentioned at the time mentioned and his naval career had ended with an entry of "Run September 9th 1869 Pembroke Docks". Other details of William Hill fitted pretty well and it is quite clear that William Hill had deserted in Wales in 1869 and taken the name John Peters. He apparently worked on merchant ships, becoming mate of a topsail schooner trading between the Australian mainland and Tasmania, before marrying and settling down in Tasmania in 1876.

In many ways this story is exceptional. Apart from changing his name, and an unlikely story that he had injured his leg in New Zealand during the Second Maori War, William Hill/John Peters career is well documented by his obituary and it was possible to unravel the mystery. Unfortunately there must be many people who disappeared in one country, to emerge thousands of miles away with a new false identity where it will be impossible to ever discover who they were.