Deciphering old documents


How frustrating it is when you find an old document relating to your family history but then can’t read it! Ancient parish registers are perhaps the most difficult, because the spelling was often quirky or sometimes even in Latin. Or perhaps you’ve come across a census record where the poor old Enumerator was close to finishing his rounds. He’d been traipsing round the village all day and his fingers were numb in the April sleet – not surprisingly, his handwriting was a little scrawled.

Here’s some advice on how to decipher those all-important details:

  1. Context – Read all the column headings or look at the other entries on the page – perhaps you’ll see some repetition or patterns emerging. For addresses on censuses, flick back to the first mention of the street, when the Enumerator was feeling fresher!
  2. Unfamiliar places – Sometimes place-names are really hard to guess because you’ve never come across them before. An address like ‘Old Wives Lees’ would obviously mean something to the locals of Canterbury but maybe not to you. Google any part of the address you can read, or study a map, working out from the nearest town or village you can make out.
  3. Old Occupations – Again, seek out context. Look at the other people on the census – were they all working in the cotton mills, for example? What social class were they from? Then research the other jobs that might apply to your ancestor. If you find a Lawyer in the middle of a page of Agricultural Labourers, he was probably actually a ‘Sawyer’. See links at the end of this page to some useful websites about this.
  4. Archaic lettering – Sometimes you see ‘fs’ in a word like ‘mofs’ or ‘seamstrefs’. This was how a double ‘s’ was written. Another one that causes problems is the old letter ‘thorn’ written like this: ‘ye’. It’s just an abbreviation for ‘the’.
  5. Abbreviations – ‘J’ can stand for Journeyman (between an Apprentice and a Master); acronyms such as ‘G.W.R.’ (Great Western Railway) can be easily googled. Then there are many name abbreviations: Jno. for John; Wm. For William etc.
  6. Handwriting – Look for similar words or letter shapes by the same writer. Try to copy the word yourself several times to help your brain recognise the letter patterns. Be aware that poor spelling and even dyslexia have always existed even if they weren’t recognised. We found a baby girl christened as ‘Bertie’ when her parents had chosen the name ‘Bridie.’ They were probably blissfully ignorant of this as it’s unlikely they could have read the christening record!

Links to helpful websites about old occupations:

Discussion: Have you come across any words you can’t decipher or occupations you’re unsure of? Drop them in the comments and we’ll see if we can help. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.