Hertfordshire Genealogy

Guide to Old Hertfordshire

Spelling Personal and Place Names

The question of variability of spelling of personal and place names often come up so an explanation seems appropriate..

If your ancestors made their marks when the signed the marriage register they would not have known how to spell their own name and for much of history the majority of inhabitants of these islands would not have been able to write their name, much less spell it. Many people who could sign their name may have have learnt this mechanically and be unable to read and write as we know it. This means that records would have been written by others and would not have been checked. Spellings were very variable - and approximately phonetic - and with the various regional dialects the same phonetic name might be written differently in different parts of the country. This means that when one goes back several hundred years the idea of a standard spelling was meaningless.

For example the medieval spelling of the place now called Wigginton included Wegynton, Wigentone, Wigeton, Wiggeton, Wiggetone, Wigintone, Wygenton, Wygintone, Wykenton, Wykington, Wykinton while Ardeley was even more eratic with Ardele, Ardeleia, Ardesleg, Ardleg, Eardeleage, Erdelegh, Erdelei, Erdeley, Erdeleye, Herdelee, Jerdele, Yardeley, Yardley, Yareley, Yerdele, Yerdley, Yurdelegh.

A number of things happened which have led to the idea of standard spellings of English, surnames and place names and I will simply list some of them.

The coming of printing. The first book was published in England in 1474 by William Caxton. It was entitled Dictes or Sayenges of the Phylosophers. The first first book published in Hertfordshire was The Boke of St Albans in 1486 which was aimed at "gentill men and honest persones" who "haue greete delite in haukyng and desire to haue the maner to take haukys, etc. ..." This invention made it possible to produce many identical copies of a document.

The St James' Bible of 1611 became the most widely published and read text in the English Language - and was widely used in schools and private education. Its influence on English was significant.

The introduction of dictionaries, such as the one by Samuel Johnson in 1755, meant that people not only looked for word meanings, but had a reference source for spelling.

The introduction of religious schools for the poor by bodies such as the British & Foreign School Society (founded in 1808) and the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (founded in 1811) meant that far more people learnt to read. One of the first National Society Schools in Hertfordshire was built at Wheathampstead in 1815 to accommodate 100 pupils.

Ordnance Survey Maps named features according to what they were told and the maps were issued throughout the 19th century. This had an effect of recording place names in a way that sometimes became "the recognised form."

Civil Registration was introduced in 1837 and meant that for each person there was now an official document which recorded their name. The "phonetic spelling" of a name on a certificate in some cases became the official name.

All these developments took time to have an effect and it is worth noting that a major Hertfordshire town such as Berkhamsted only officially agreed how it should be spelt some 90 years ago.

A very rough guideline is that you may have to think hard to recognise some words in 17th century and earlier documents (assuming you can read the handwriting). You should not be surprised to find the same name spelt in different ways in the same document in the 18th century. In the 19th century well educated families will have a recognised spelling but there will be variability among the illiterate, but by the 20th century virtually all family and place names will have stabilised.

[One must also remember that errors can easily occur in transcriptions and indexes, and handwriting styles have changed over the centuries, and I have come across difficult cases where the modern printed word in a transcript or index has little in common with the original handwriting. For examples of how things can go wrong with comparatively modern documents see the page on the 1901 census and the examples in My Ancestors in the 1901 Census.]

See also Early Modern English Dictionaries Database