Hertfordshire Genealogy

Guide to Old Hertfordshire


Is this the right birth/baptism?

You have a problem - you have, for example, a marriage, but there is no evidence as to where the husband came from - expect that there is nothing in the parish registers.  However  there are one or more possible births or baptisms listed some way away on the IGI at familyseach. Could one of them be the missing ancestor?

 This is a common problem and below I work through one successful example from my own family tree (sorry it is not from Hertfordshire) that I looked at nearly 30 years ago. I then look at some of the questions you should consider in trying to solve your own problem.


Nathan Atherton, grandfather of Maria Atherton, and my GGGG-grandfather, was married at St Margaret's, Westminster, on 1st July, 1771, his residence being given as the parish of Ramsbury, Wiltshire. There is no doubt that he spent the rest of his life at Ramsbury, bringing up a family and dying in 1819, aged 77.

The problem is that not only are there no Atherton entries in the Ramsbury Registers before those of his own children, but at the time the surname was unknown in Wiltshire and very rare in the South of England. A survey of the IGI showed that the surname was concentrated in the North West, particularly Lancashire.

At the time the search revealed that the full name Nathan Atherton was very uncommon - and the IGI then only contained two or three English baptism entries of any period - none of which fitted my Nathan (although he is listed now). Through correspondence I linked up with some fellow family historians who had been researching an Atherton family with a missing Nathan. The following table shows the features that were examined to see if there was a match.





Date of birth

1741/2 from age at death

Baptised 26 September 1742 [but another Nathan baptised at same location in 1737]

Good fit - but beware possible mix up with cousins.


All children baptised in Church of England

Baptised at New Chapel Independent, Saint Helens

No fit - but wife was C. of E. and he lived in wife's village.



Father's occupation Maltster

Allied occupations so reasonable fit

Social Status

Prominent tomb in prime position in churchyard (will not yet located)

Father estate in administration, mother left will

Reasonable fit - but more research useful

Children = parents

Two of children named Joseph and Elizabeth.

Mary named after his wife.

Parents were Joseph and Elizabeth

Good fit

Children = relatives

Nathan, William, [Mary] Ann

Siblings Nathan, William, Mary and Ann

Good fit

Children = other

Thomas, [Mary]


Names of in-laws - so no problem


In Ramsbury 1771-1819

No contradictory burials or marriages noted in Lancashire. Not in Lancashire in 1790 to execute mother's will

No obvious pitfalls and confirmation of being alive in 1790. Good

In addition there is an interesting coincidence which may suggest another link. Nathan Atherton married Mary Slaymaker in Westminster in 1771 - and while the marriage register records that Mary was living in Westminster she was born, and her parents were living, in Ramsbury. Alice Atherton, a sibling from the Lancashire family married James Cumming in Westminster in 1777. She was employed as a nurse by the Duke of Devonshire and her husband was from Scotland and also worked for the Duke of Devonshire. This raises the question (which has not been investigated) of whether Mary Slaymaker also worked for the Duke of Devonshire, and perhaps Nathan's move to Wiltshire had a ducal connection.

In the circumstances it is a good working assumption that the Nathan Atherton who came to Ramsbury in 1771 was the same one who was baptised at St Helens in 1742.


Some guidelines:

  1. Unless there is some reason to believe that the person had a "mobile" occupation or social status, a move of more than 15-20 miles in Hertfordshire is unlikely and the reason the person has not been found may be that relevant records do not exist or are not indexed, etc.  See Population Movements in Rural Hertfordshire and The Limits of Familysearch. However if someone has moved they may have moved a long way - for instance in the above case we have a movement from Lancashire to Wiltshire, and another from Scotland to London.

  2. Check what happened to the "candidate" birth/baptism. For instance it may well be that the child died in infancy (see the relevant burial registers) or stayed in the village (and its immediate area) and married some 20-30 years later. Without such checks you could have a family tree with an "ancestor" who died in infancy - and you don't want a spurious "ancestor" which could only be "valid" if he was bigamously married and living in two places, perhaps a long way apart - when there is no evidence for this.

  3. Compare the families - Christian names were passed down from generation to generation. If there is no match there is probably no connection - while unusual names can be a useful clue - although you should remember that as names run in families there may be several identically named cousins of about the same age. See The Inheritance of Single Christian Names and Right Name, Wrong Body.

  4. If things still look good, research associated surviving records to get information about social backgrounds - such as manorial records, old account books, estate papers, etc., depending on what has survived for the relevant parishes. In particular see if you can establish a reason and/or date for the movement from one place to the other.

An important factor is the distinctiveness of the name, and the likely accuracy of and date of birth estimation. In the case of Nathan Atherton the name was highly distinctive so there was only one serious candidate. In most cases there may be anything from a dozen to many hundreds of possible candidates to be eliminated, and in such cases it is important to concentrate on collecting the maximum amount of information from the marriage parish in the hope you will find clues which will allow you to eliminate candidates more rapidly. For example a servant who worked in a large house may well have travelled to the area with the family in the house - so finding out links with other parts of the country can suggest leads.

See also I've hit a brick wall ... and How can you be certain about ...

If you can add to the information given above tell me.

Error corrected November 2007