I love to look at the signatures of my ancestors. For me, their mark, leaves a tangible sign that they existed – not just as names on a pedigree chart but as individuals, with different personalities and variable life experiences. In many cases a signature will be the only “visual” I will find of them. I like to imagine them holding the pen, dipping it in ink, and scratching out the letters that make their names – trying not to blot the ink, or make a mistake.
A signature doesn’t tell me what colour my ancestors’ eyes were, or whether they had a prominent nose but it can give me clues about their lives.
Did they sign their marriage record with an X? If so, maybe they were illiterate. I’ve seen some debate about this in the genealogy community. Signing with an X doesn’t always mean your ancestor was illiterate. It could be that a shy literate spouse didn’t want to show up an illiterate one by signing their name, whereas their new wife/husband could not. It could be that the clerk assumed they were illiterate, and therefore wrote the Bride and Groom’s names and asked them to mark them with X.
Read the below from the statistics site, Histpop, owned by the University of Essex (link is given below quote):
“It has been suggested that the evidence of signatures was limited because the pressures surrounding the marriage ceremony might cause a literate bride or groom to make a mark out of nervousness, or out of fear of embarrassing an illiterate spouse. But the Registrar General did not think the problem serious, and the frequency of literate/illiterate marriages suggests that the issue of embarrassment was not as acute as observers sometimes suggested (Vincent, 17). Modern scholars such as W. B. Stephens and David Vincent have had sufficient confidence in the data to use it in their own studies as a rough proxy for literacy levels in the pre-First World War period (Stephens; Vincent).”
If your ancestors didn’t sign with an X, then what does their signature look like? Is it written neatly, in cursive handwriting? Does it look child-like (un-joined up and wobbly)? Perhaps they were literate? Or maybe they only knew how to write their own name?
Below is a picture of my 2x Great Grandfather’s signature (from the 1911 census) – his name was George William Pithers (born 24/03/1879).
I wonder whether he called himself “William” – the name George looks like it’s been squeezed in front of the William – like an after thought. The letters in George are smaller too, and it looks like it might be all in small case – or at least the first G is less pronounced then the other capital letters that he writes. It’s not written very clearly, it looks more like “Gorge” than George.
His signature on the parish copy of his marriage strengthens my theory. He’s signed his name as W. G. Pithers. It’s also interesting to see how his hand had changed over time. His marriage record looks much neater – but perhaps he took his time over it, feeling it was important whereas the census (10 years later) was just a piece of admin. Although it’s possible that someone else wrote his name for him, the writing does look different from the rest of the certificated.
I also have the signatures of two of George William’s sisters. See the below picture taken from the marriage of Beatrice Alexandra/Alexander Pithers (born 23/10/1891) and William Parsons. Beatrice and George William’s sister, Mary Eleanor Pithers (born 19/04/1889) witnessed the marriage. You’ll notice the W of Beatrice’s husband (William Parsons) is remarkably similar to the W that George William writes, showing a clear trend in handwriting styles (as taught at school).
Beatrice’s signature looks tiny next to her husbands. I imagine a quieter, shy person (although obviously this is just speculation). Beatrice missed out her middle name (Alexandra or Alexander). Perhaps she never called herself by her full name? Or maybe she didn’t like it?
Mary has written her middle name – although she’s left a large space between the E and ‘leanor’. Perhaps she had planned just to write Mary E Pithers and then changed her mind. She’s almost missed the ‘s’ off the Pithers too. You can see how easily transcription errors occur.
Let’s look at some other ancestors. See image below of William Augustus Decrespigny Lovegrove (chr. 29/01/1843) signature on his first marriage record. He has very large handwriting. It looks like he’s had to correct some errors, like the A in Augustus. He’s also had to insert something between Augustus and Lovegrove but it’s very difficult to read. I’m guessing it’s meant to represent ‘Decrespigny’. The name William looks like it’s been added after he’d written Augustus. Perhaps he too tended to go by his second name, rather than his first.
For me this signature looks like that of someone who had little education, which would fit with what you’d expect for a working class man born in the 1840s. Perhaps William Augustus could only write his own name. On his second marriage, his father’s name was recorded phonetically (Eaton rather than Heaton) suggesting perhaps he was unable to spell it out for the clerk.
By contrast William Augustus’ wife, Anne Penton has a neat and tidy signature. She’s sometimes recorded as Ann or Annie but her signature tells me she most likely called herself Anne (with an e). Her father Thomas Penton (born 08/02/1814) witnesses the marriage and his signature is neat too. Although, perhaps the T looks like it may have been written by a shaky hand? He was 51 at the time, but worked all his life as a labourer – could he have developed a shake or arthritis? Perhaps worth noting for future research. I haven’t ordered his death certificate yet.
Here’s the signatures for William Augustus’ second marriage, some 30 years later. The name “William” is missing this time and so is “Decrespigny”. He’s just called himself “Augustus Lovegrove”. The writing is still large and messy. Witnesses are William Augustus’ son, also called William Augustus Lovegrove (born 19/05/1866) and his wife Annie Elizabeth Lovegrove nee Tydeman (born about 1869).
William Augustus Junior has signed his name with an X, so perhaps he was illiterate. It’s sad to think that whilst his father had learnt at least to write his own name, his son may not have done so.
Let’s look at William Augustus Juniors marriage to Annie Elizabeth Tydeman in 1892, shown in the image below. As you can see from picture, he’s signed his name with an X.
OK, let’s move forward to 1900; what about when William Augustus Junior married his second wife, my 2x Great-Grandmother Bertha Mary Webster (born 03/05/1872)? Yes, it’s an X again! But actually all 3 samples of his name look very similar. The “A” in Augustus is written in what looks like lower case. Could that be the style? The “A” in Annie’s name is small in the above picture (although it’s clearly “A” (not “a”) when she witnessed her father in law’s marriage.
I’ve looked at the handwriting on the rest of the page for both marriages and feel that his name was written by the same person that filled in the rest of the register – most likely, the clerk.
So how did he write his name in the 1911 census? Ah! No X! But it’s very neat. Did he really write this?
I look at the rest of the census page. Here is the recording of Bertha Mary Lovegrove nee Webster. I think it has similarities with the signature Bertha wrote on her marriage record. Did she fill the 1911 census in on behalf of her husband?
The close examination of signatures sometimes leaves us with as many questions as it does answers – but with genealogy you never know what records you might unearth next, and these may help prove or disprove your theories. If you don’t ask the questions, you’ll never know the answers!
Have you looked closely at your ancestors signatures? What do they look like to you? What clues do they give you? What questions do they raise?