What’s in a Name?

The Bell family in the 1851 census

Family research can be greatly simplified if you’re dealing with unusual names so we are fortunate to have an ancestor called Hiram and one with the first name of Thompson.

Thompson does sometimes get transcribed as Thomas. On the example above (if you can zoom in close enough) you can see that “Thompson” has been changed to “Thomas”, giving us good reason to think this is our Thompson and Hannah Bell.

But we can also be led on a wild-goose chase.

marriage between William and Mary

This is the marriage record of Thompson’s daughter Mary to William Shearer. All well, as far as we can see: Mary and William are the right ages: we know William is a joiner and Thompson a shoe-maker.

But why was the marriage taking place in Lancashire when everybody concerned came from Yorkshire? Perhaps Mary had something – or someone – to hide, and maybe that someone was her son Hiram.

In 1868, two years before this marriage, one Mary Bell has had her child baptised Hiram Smith Bell on 31 May at St John’s church, Preston. His father’s name is given as William Smith Bell.

Was this our William trying to cover his tracks with a false name? Maybe it took Mary two years to find him again! Or did our William meet Mary later on and agree to raise Hiram as his own? In census returns he did refer to Hiram as his son, and recorded Hiram’s birthplace as Preston.

If Hiram was, in fact, born before his parents’ marriage, it might explain the use of “Bell Shearer” or “Bell-Shearer” by himself and his children, my grandparents’ generation.

I remember seeing the name for the first time at the funeral of my great-aunt, ironically called Mary Elizabeth, probably after the lady who wasn’t her grandmother. When Mary Shearer died, her husband William married, confusingly, a lady called Mary Elizabeth.

Here’s the record of that first Mary Elizabeth’s marriage to William in 1890:

marriage of William and Mary Elizabeth

We know this is genuine from other records. William’s signature, for example, is the same as that in the register where he witnessed Hiram’s marriage. But it’s subtly different from the 1870 signature.

Could the two signatures of the groom be that of the same man? Could his father James Shearer the smith be the same man as Joseph Shearer the ironfounder? Was the William who gave his age as 23 in 1870 the same man who said he was 40 in 1890? And the man who died in 1907, supposed to be aged 52?

Far more questions than answers! Have fun researching this, someone!!!

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