Author Anne Brontë’s headstone has been given an erratum plaque by the Brontë Society. Should headstones be corrected or left as a historical object?
Have you ever seen a headstone that carries incorrect information? Should it be corrected? Left as a historical object? Or should a correction be added?
I have just read this BBC article relating to the correction of an error on author Anne Brontë’s grave in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.
The error, her age at death, which should have been 29 rather than 28 years, has stood in the churchyard since 1849, but now the Brontë Society has made the corrections by adding a plaque alongside the original standing stone.
This is not the first time her headstone has been corrected – her sister Charlotte arranged the correction of five earlier errors.
This reminds me of my own Great x 5 Grandmother, Elizabeth Yarrow (née Wright), whose own age, date, and year of death differs by two years depending on whether you’re reading the headstone, or one of the two parish registers that record her burial.
Dates range from 1837 to 1839, and her death seems to not to be covered by certification.
What do you think? Is it right to correct a headstone, preserve it with its error, or add an ‘erratum’?
Why making a mistake in your family tree research is one of the most important things you can do.
Getting something wrong is not something that we like to admit, but it’s probably one of the best things that you could do when researching your family tree.
My sister, who is an avid horse-rider, taught me at a young age the saying ‘You can’t ride a horse until you’ve fallen off’. This easily applies to researching – you can’t research, until you’ve got it wrong.
But… there’s always lots of moaning about the quality of data when you discover online that your family tree has been ripped to bits by another less-careful researcher, thrown back together with some random names from say – Ohio, leaving you obliterated from existence in their tree.
So why is getting a tree wrong actually important?
Scaring away the cuckoo
Discovering an error in your family tree is something that every genealogist should do at least once during their research. If you’ve never done this, then maybe you’re staring at a ‘cuckoo’ – a person who is using your tree to borrow the love and care that you have for your ancestor, when actually they are from a completely unrelated line.
Saying goodbye to that surrogate family is hard. If you’ve invested your time and effort, and perhaps some affection, then it can be a sad moment when you have to lose them.
Admitting your error
Okay, so here we go…
For years, I stared at the photograph above, of my Great x 4 Grandmother – thinking ‘what a great photo’ and ‘how lovely Mary Waters must have been’, when actually, she was Avis Tall.
I’d allowed a simple mistake creep into my research and onto my website – where I’d simply scrimped on spending time checking sources that I had in my files before adding data to my database and to my website.
A Mary Waters did indeed marry a James Martin, and together they had a son also called James Martin, but it wasn’t until revisiting a marriage certificate in my files for James Martin Jnr, that i realised that the father was actually a Robert Martin a couple of villages away, which then led me to finding his marriage to Avis Tall, and then finding references to them having the son called James Martin.
This changed my tree significantly, as I’d put a lot of effort into tracing back the Mary Waters and James Martin families, and had even found modern-day relatives who descended from them.
Once you’ve found that mistake, your attention and eye for detail is swiftly improved. After finding that Mary Waters was completely wrong, I was straight back to my core tree and re-checking my trees using various sources.
I updated my website, I updated my database, and then I updated my distant relatives who had also run with the information i’d fed them.
Whilst my site is updated, even now, years on, the effect of the cuckoo lives on – with my ancestor enjoying an existence as ‘Mary Waters’ in new trees within sites such as Ancestry.co.uk.
Getting it wrong makes your research better
By getting your research wrong, realising it, and correcting it, you end up being a far more diligent researcher. Having got it wrong once, you know the pain and embarrassment of sawing off large boughs of your family tree, and then staring at the weedy twig that’s left behind.
So, before you commit that ancestor to your tree – check. Check again. Then cross-check, or the cuckoos will get you.
Elizabeth Yarrow’s death spans two years. Her age at death spans 8 years. Two churches registers, and a gravestone all give conflicting and some corresponding information. What’s the real answer?
I have a mystery to solve and hopefully the death certificate of an Elizabeth Yarrow, whose death is recorded in the June quarter of 1838 in St Pancras, will unravel it.
This gravestone stands in Stretham churchyard, Cambridgeshire, amongst many other Yarrow gravestones. There is something engraved near the foot of the stone but I can’t make it out now, and perhaps didn’t spot it at the time.
However, this stone appears to have some errors.
The Stretham burials transcript gives William Yarrow as being 71, and Elizabeth Yarrow (née Wright) as having been buried in 1837.
The Little Thetford burials transcript (Little Thetford being a hamlet of Stretham and it’s common for inhabitants to be buried at Stretham), gives a different story: “YARROW Elizabeth otp 50 wife of William farmer, died in London was carried home and buried at Stretham” (Nov 23 1837).
This gives two positive mentions of 1837, rather than the stone’s 1839. The Stretham transcript gives the right age for her, but not for him.
There’s no mention of William in the Little Thetford transcript.
Looking at FreeBMD, there’s only an Elizabeth Yarrow death (so far) available, and that’s the one registered in the June Quarter of 1838 at St. Pancras!
The GRO certificate is ordered… so lets see what it uncovers.
What do you think happened? Here’s a couple of my ideas…
Maybe the stone was erected many years after William and Elizabeth deaths, and so family couldn’t quite remember?
Elizabeth’s death was registered in the June 1838, because certification was new in late 1837 – perhaps they were resisting it (like some), or simply didn’t know that certificates had to be issued or how to go about it?
UPDATE June 2011:
The 1838 death turned out to be the death of an 11 month old child. No further along with solving this one.
UPDATE UPDATE: September 2017
I’ve got the appetite to revisit this case now, and now that the General Register Office offers a searchable index, I’ve spotted an ‘Elizabeth Yerroll’ who dies in The City of London Union, in the December quarter of 1837, aged 58.
That’s a tick for age, quarter, year, and location. If she was visiting London at the time and died, or was taken ill, would those with her have been able to convey a correct spelling of her surname in 1837, and would those writing it down have known any different or understood a fenland accent of the informant enough to realise it wasn’t ‘Yerroll’ but ‘Yarrow’?
It’s another £9.25, but I’m going to gamble and order this certificate. Fingers crossed!