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Expert QnA: Old before her time

Can you help our reader David Evans? Leave a comment with your thoughts. Check back on Friday November 19th to see our expert, Doreen Hopwood’s, response…


I believe ladies often understated their ages on census returns by perhaps five years, but Helen Birnstingl seems to have suffered from accelerated ageing. The censuses show: 1851, aged 20 and married to 30-year-old Louis; 1861, aged 32; 1871, aged 46; 1881, aged 58. Her death certificate in 1893 shows her age as 71 years. What’s the best estimate please?
David Evans, via email


“It’s definitely unusual to find such large age discrepancies on census returns – especially when it increases, rather than reduces, the age of the person.  Until the 1911 Census, the schedules were completed by the enumerator, rather than the head of the household, and the accuracy of the information was dependent upon who provided it. I note that Helen’s husband, Louis Birmstingl, died in 1889, so she may have been living with one of her children when the 1891 Census was taken, who may not have known Helen’s true age. This may also have been the case when her death was registered in 1893. If the age shown for Helen on the 1851 Census is correct, she would have been a minor when she married Louis, and their marriage certificate should indicate this – although many people said they were “of full age” when they weren’t actually 21 to avoid having to get parental consent. The marriage certificate will also provide her father’s name and I suggest you then search the parish registers for the area where she said she was born for her baptism. Unfortunately, you’ll need to search these for the whole of the 1820s to cover the time span shown on the census entries.” DH

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 16th, 2010 at 2:27 pm and is filed under Census, Getting started, QnA, Research tips. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a comment, or trackback from your own site.

| Census, Getting started, QnA, Research tips | 16/11/2010 14:27pm

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