Some people seem to get very pernickety about ages in their family history research. This is not really justified.  There are many reasons why ages in historical records may not appear to tally exactly with what you might expect. Never reject a record just because the age isn't exactly right.

The first thing to consider is what you are using as the persons birth date, since this obviously defines what you expect their age to be at some later date. If you are lucky or have obtained a birth certificate, or a modern death certificate, you may well have an exact birth date. Be aware, though, that whatever the source of this information, there is no absolute guarantee that it is correct. In the absence of an exact date then for England and Wales births since 1837 the usual source of a birth date is the General Register Office (GRO) registration index. This shows which quarter of which year the birth was registered. A birth was supposed to be registered within 6 weeks, but this did not always happen and sometimes the registration was later. In some cases when a birth was registered late, the parents gave a date less than 6 weeks earlier as the official date of birth in order to avoid getting a fine. There are also some circumstances in which a birth may be re-registered, e.g. adoption or subsequent marriage of the parents. This may happen years after the birth.

In general the actual date of birth will be in the given quarter year, or the the immediately preceding quarter. In rare cases it may be earlier.

The other common source of a birth date is in parish records as a baptism. Occasionally a baptism record also gives a birth date, but usually this is not the case. If it doesn't then all that we can deduce is that the birth must have been before the baptism. How long before is a moot point. Children were usually baptised within a few weeks of birth, but this was not universally the case.  Sometimes baptisms would be left for years or not happen at all. If a vicar discovered that someone he was marrying wasn't baptised he might insist it was performed before the marriage could happen.

The birth date is generally a little while before the baptism but in some cases could be years earlier.

The records where ages cause the most headaches are the censuses. In these the stated ages may not be accurate.  This is often because people are fallible and may forget exactly how old they are, or their children are. In the 1841 census there is the added complication that the enumerators were told to record the age rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5, for people over the age of 15. Thus a 23 year old would be recorded as 20, and a 59 year old as 55. But not all of the enumerators understood these instructions; some rounded to the nearest 5 years and many simply provided the actual ages. The fact that the censuses only record ages also means that the researcher has to deduce the birth year from the person's age and the date of the census. Subtract the age from the census year and you have the birth year, don't you? Well, actually this is only true if the person has already had their birthday for this year, otherwise the birth year will be the year before this. For example the 1871 census was taken on 2nd April, therefore if someone was 30, then they appear to have been born born in 1841. This true if their birth date was 2nd April or earlier, but if they have not yet had their birthday then the birth year will have been 1840. Note that the censuses were usually taken nearer the start of the year so the latter is more often the case.

For reference the dates of the available censuses were:

  • 1841    7th June
  • 1851    30th March
  • 1861    7th April
  • 1871    2nd April
  • 1881    3rd April
  • 1891    5th April
  • 1901    31st March
  • 1911    2nd April

Another potential complication with dates is the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. The difference between the two calendars is the way that leap years are determined. The Julian calendar was less well aligned with the true length of the year so gradually drifted away from an accurate date. It's year was slightly too long and so when the change was implemented a number of days had to be skipped to bring the calendar back into line with reality. In the UK the change was made in 1752 and 11 days had to be skipped. Wednesday 2nd September was therefore followed by Thursday 14th September. In the same year the UK adopted the New Style year numbering. In the Old Style prior to 1752, the new year started on Lady Day, 25th March, whereas in the New Style it started on the 1st January. (see here for more about dates). Be vigilant, the change in the start of the year was made at different times in different countries, as was the change from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian. In Scotland, for example, the year had started on the 1st of January from 1600.

So be careful when computing birth dates from ages, or when computing a person's expected age at a given date. It may not be as simple as you expect even, if all your data is accurate. And errors are always possible in the data, or at any later stage.

The censuses are one of the most useful resources for the family historian. Censuses from 1841 through to 1911 for the entire country are available online through sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast. They were taken every 10 years through to the present day, with the exception of 1941, which wasn't taken because of the war. What many people don't realise is that there were earlier censuses which can contain useful information.

1841 was the first year in which the census taking was organised at the national level. The Government employed people to go around and collect the data about every person and where they were on the census night, 7th June. The collected data was copied into special enumerator's books, which were sent to the Government so that they could extract the data they required, such as population growth, numbers of workers of different sorts, numbers of children etc. The online images and their transcriptions are the pages of these enumerators books. The original collected data was mostly destroyed after it had been collated into the books. For more information about the UK censuses see Wikipedia.

Earlier censuses had been taken every 10 years from 1801. However, these were created differently. They were primarily concerned with counting the number of people and measuring population growth or diminution. To this end the Government decreed that the data should be collected at the local (parish) level. In each parish the churchwardens or the Overseers of the Poor were tasked with counting everyone in the parish. They had to count the number of households, and the number of males and females in each household, the numbers of adults and children and the numbers of workers in agriculture and manufacturing. They had to collate the data and send the numbers to the Government. How they collected the data was up to them.

Most decided it made their life easier if they noted the name of the head of the household with the collected numbers. Some decided it would be best to note the names, ages, sex and occupations of everyone in the household and then extract the required data from these notes.

Once the data had been collated and sent off, the original notes were either destroyed, kept by the officer concerned or stored in the Parish Chest with the other important parish documents. Therefore, unlike with the modern censuses, many of these original notes still exist and can be useful to the family historian.

The most definitive list of the available early census data is available as a large pdf file here.

From this document, the only existing examples of these early censuses for the Isle of Wight are Calbourne 1811, Ryde 1821 and part of the parish of Newchurch for 1821. Unfortunately, I think the part of Newchurch 1821 and the town of Ryde 1821 are actually the same document. For images and transcripts of the Calbourne 1811 and Ryde 1821 click on the links. Both of these only give the names of the heads of the households.

As well as the usual decennial censuses, there were also other population counts conducted for various reasons. Almost by accident I stumbled upon a document called "census of Calbourne re. Service with the Volunteers 1803".  This was a time when the threat of French invasion seemed high and Volunteer forces were being raised throughout the country. The document is an absolute gem as it gives the names and ages of everyone in the parish, and identifies many of the relationships and occupations. See here for more information and images or here for a transcript.

I wonder how many more such documents are lurking in the Isle of Wight Record Office, and other Archives up and down the country?


The Poor Rate Books and Parish Vestry Minutes are often overlooked, but can be quite useful for the family historian.

They arose from the way that the parish was administered. 

Until well into the 19th century, the Church of England parishes were the main organisational unit for local government. The parish church was the administrative centre of the parish and the church Vestry was the traditional meeting place where the parish business was conducted. As a result the the meetings to conduct business came to be referred to as Vestries, and the notes recording the business that was conducted were called Vestry Minutes. Many of these record books have survived and they are generally held by the relevant County Record Offices.  Some of the more mundane business was also recorded in separate books, in particular the church accounts and the parish accounts.  The latter include the Poor Rate books which recorded the income from the Poor Rates.

Amongst the duties of the parish officers, as mandated by the various Poor Laws, was care of the poor of the parish, i.e. those that for one reason or another could not provide for themselves. Some of these people only required a little temporary help, for example if the main wage earner of the family could not work due to injury, but in other cases permanent help was needed, e.g. for the old and infirm and for the physically and mentally handicapped.

Help was administered in two ways: Outdoor Relief (sometimes known as Out Relief) was simply money, food or clothing given to the poor where they lived. The other was Indoor Relief, which was provided as board and lodging in the local poorhouse (or workhouse). 

On the Isle of Wight small workhouses were present in the parishes of Northwood (from 1728), Brixton (now known as Brighstone) and Newport (both from 1729), but workhouses were generally too expensive to be maintained by a single parish so in 1770 an Act of Parliament was passed incorporating all the parishes of the Island into a union that could build and maintain a single workhouse, or House of Industry as it became known, for them all. This was built on the site that is now St. Mary's Hospital. Significant parts of the House of Industry remain as parts of the hospital.

The expense of all the relief had to be covered by the individual parishes.  This was the purpose of the Poor Rates. This was a system whereby every householder contributed according to the assessed rental value value of their property. The rates were generally collected quarterly. For example: if a rate was set at 9d per £, then a householder in a property valued at £20 per annum would have to pay 9 x 20 = 180d (or 15 shillings).

The Poor Rate Books record these assessments and income for the parish. They usually give the names of all the heads of household along with the amount of rates they were paying.  Parish Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials don't usually note where people were living within the parish so the information in the Poor Rate Books can be very useful to confirm exactly where and when a family was living in a parish. Here is an example from Calbourne in 1810:

As can be seen, for the Quarter from Lady-day to Midsummer 1810 the rate was 7d in the pound, and therefore Richard Arnold of Newbarn had to pay £11 13s 4d on his total rents of £400.

In contrast Vestry Minutes cover all sorts of parish business. Much of this is of little interest to the family historian but it does sometimes include bastardy and settlement issues. Here is an example from Arreton in 1753:

This gives confirmation that Robert Rayner, the father of Robert Rayner (who was the father of Mary Bagsters' child) has given "good and sufficient security of indemnification". i.e. He has guaranteed that the parish will not have to pay relief for the child, and therefore Robert Rayner (junior) is "att full liberty to walk where he pleases"!

Another example from the Arreton Vestry Minutes a little later:

It appears that "Mary Noris's Son a bastard and David Elsbury and his family" have become in need of parish relief but do not belong in the parish (i.e. they have no claim to be settled there) and therefore settlement orders are to be sought to remove them to their respective home parishes.

Both Poor Rate Books and Vestry Minutes are generally included with other parish records at the local County Record Office. The Isle of Wight Record Office (IWRO) parish record holdings are available at The list of parishes there gives the dates covered by the parish registers for Christenings/Baptisms (C), Marriages (M) and Burials (B) but if you click on the parish name it will give a pdf file listing all the parish records, including Vestry and Poor Rate records if they exist.

As far as I am aware, none of the Isle of Wight Poor Rate Books or Vestry Minutes have been filmed, digitised or even transcribed. The only way to check them is to go the IWRO and physically read through them (or of course I could do this for you!). Obviously, this will be a very time consuming process unless you have a reasonably good idea of which parish and time period your relative lived in.

Happy hunting!


An interesting question that I saw on a family history group on Facebook: How many people make me? If I am the product of my ancestors, with some traits from one person and some from another, then how many people altogether make me what I am?

Well, we all have two parents, and they come from four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents etc. By this reasoning, ten generations back we have 1024 ancestors, twenty generations back it’s over a million, 30 generations back it’s over a billion.

At this point we realise there is a flaw in this reasoning. If we just consider someone in the UK then going back 30 generations, say about a thousand years, the population was only about 1.5 million ( ). You may say that there has been some immigration, but there hasn’t been that much. Besides, how far back should we go? Another 10 generations and we would be at over 1000 billion, more than the entire population of the earth.

This flaw in the argument is called ‘pedigree collapse’. It arises because at some, possibly remote and unknown level, some of your ancestors are related. They may share common grandparents, or great-grandparents, or more remote ancestors, and as a result each generation will have less ancestors in it than a strict doubling would suggest.

For example, in the case where your parents are first cousins, they share common grandparents (see ). So you will still have four grandparents but two of these are siblings, and have the same parents. Therefore you will have only 6 great-grandparents rather than 8.

And there is that question of how far back do we go. Do we go back as far as the dawn of homo sapiens? Or do we go back further, after all, even the first homo sapiens had two parents? With no clear idea how far back to go, and an indeterminate number of ancestors at each generation, is there any other way that we can approach the question?

We need to consider how our characteristics are passed down. It's all in the genes.

It is estimated that there are about 19,000 genes in the human genome ( In the human chromosomes these are duplicated with one copy in each pair coming from the mother and one from the father. So we could say that the maximum number of people that make us is around 38,000.

Can we refine this number further, or maybe set a minimum number? Biblical literalists would say we get everything from one couple around 6000 years ago. Surprisingly, modern science indicates a similar tale. Some of our DNA is only passed down from our mothers. This is known as Mitochondrial DNA. There is also DNA in the Y-chromosome that only exists in males and is inherited from their fathers. Both these types of DNA are passed down unchanged, except for the occasional mutation, from one generation to the next. Studies of these two types of DNA indicate that all humans are descendants of a single female ("Mitochondrial Eve") who lived between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago. Similarly, all men are descendants of a single male ("Y-Chromosomal Adam") who lived between 120,000 and 200,000 years ago ( )

This does not mean that we are made up from DNA from just two individuals. There is a lot of other DNA besides the mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA. All this means is that there is some of Y-chromosomal Adam's DNA in all men, and some of mitochondrial Eve's DNA in everyone.

I have seen it suggested that, as there are 23 pairs of chromosomes in humans, the number of individuals that make you is about 46. That would imply that by the time you get back to your 4xgreat-grandparents (64) your genetic make up includes no contribution from some of these individuals. However, this would only be the case if each complete chromosome was passed on unchanged, i.e. if, for each pair of chromosomes, an individual only passed on to their offspring either the version of the chromosome they received from their mother or the one they received from their father. This is not what happens. In each chromosome pair one chromosome is the version of that chromosome received from the individual's father and the other is from the mother. When the pairs split to be passed on to offspring, the DNA strands mingle and recombine such that each chromosome that is passed on contains bits of the version inherited from the father and bits of the version from the mother. So the rate at which ancestor's DNA vanishes from their descendants is actually very low. (see for a better explanation this)

I have also seen it stated that there is a significant chance that two individuals will not show up as DNA matches in genealogical DNA testing even if they share a common ancestor ten generations back. But this is not because they don't have any shared DNA but rather that genealogical DNA testing actually only looks at a small fraction of the total DNA.

So the only reasonable answer to the original question is that you are made up of contributions from an awful lot of your ancestors. Research them diligently and respectfully. The chances are that all the ones that you can identify have helped make you what you are.





A subject that seems to cause much confusion in the family history community is relationships. Most people are comfortable with the terms “parent”, “sibling”, “grandparent”, “uncle”, “aunt”, “nephew”, and “niece” but can find “cousin” a little confusing. This is because it is a more general term and can cover a number of different relationships.

In the most general sense “cousin” has been used to mean any relationship, especially one that doesn’t have a more specific name. In modern times the term is more specifically used for a relationship where the two people share common ancestors that are grandparents or further back.

The most common usage is to refer to the children of aunts and uncles. Strictly these are more correctly referred to as “first cousins”. There are also “second cousins”, “third cousins” and so on. Any of these terms can also be used with the phrase “once removed”, or “twice removed” etc. This tends to be where confusion starts to arise. The term “cousins” can refer to any or all of the these relationships, but usually implies “first cousins”.

First cousin” is the term for children of aunts and uncles. It follows that the common shared ancestors for this relationship are the grandparents. If A and B are first cousins then they share a common set of grandparents.





As an example John and Jamie are my cousins because John and Mary are grand parents to all of us.

Similarly, “second cousins” share a common set of great-grandparents. “third cousins” share common great-great-grandparents, “fourth cousins” share 3xgreat grandparents and so on. i.e. “Nth cousins” share a set of (N-1)xgreat grandparents.

But what if A and B are not of the same generation? For example, if A’s grandparents are B’s great-grandparents? This where the “removed” part comes in. The number of times removed is the number of generations difference between A and B. Thus in this example A and B are once removed.

In a case like this the greatest confusion arises from considering whether A and B are first cousins once removed or second cousins once removed. Logically, from A’s point of view the shared ancestors are grandparents and thus the relationship is first cousin, with B being one generation further down the line (i.e. once removed). From B’s point of view the shared ancestors are great-grandparents and thus the relationship is second cousin with A being one generation up from him (i.e. once removed). In the past this may have been expressed as “second cousin once removed upwards”. Both views are equally correct.


These days the usual convention is to describe the relationship using the lowest cousin number. So in the case above the relationship between A and B would be first cousin once removed.





Extending the previous example, the famous singer Dame Clara Ellen Butt is Frances' first cousin because James and Mary Ann are grandparents to them both. But from above you can seen that Frances is my great-grandmother and thus James and Mary Ann are my 3xgreat-grandparents.  Dame Clara Butt is therefore my first cousin three times removed, because I am three generations below Frances.

The final complication that I shall mention is the case where only one of the grandparents is shared, not both.  This happens when the shared grandparent has had children with two different partners. In this case the relationship can be described as "half-", but often this complication is ignored.

So to recap:  If two people share common grandparents then they are first cousins, if they share great-grandparents they are second cousins, if they share 2xgreat-grandparents they are third cousins and if they share Nxgreat-grandparents then they are (N+1)th cousins!  If the number of generations is different down each of their lines from the shared ancestors, then the lowest cousin number is used and the difference in the number of generations is the number of times removed.

I hope that all makes sense!