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Why you should examine your ancestors signature and how to do it

Your ancestors signature won’t tell you what colour their eyes were. Or whether they had a prominent nose. We’d all love a photograph of our ancestors, but finding a signature can be the next best thing. Examining the way in which your ancestor signed their name can give you clues about their life.

The physical marks our ancestors made on paper are sometimes literally the only physical ‘thing’ that survives of them. I like to imagine my ancestors holding their pen, dipping it in ink, and scratching out the letters that made their names – trying not to blot the ink, or make a mistake. Especially when signing their marriage certificate. There’s something so tangible about that mark. Like a hand held out across time. Remember me. I was here.

But putting sentimentality aside, what can your ancestors signature tell you about their lives?


Our Ancestors Marks and their Literacy

The most obvious clues that a signature can give us are ones about our ancestors possible literacy. Did your ancestors sign their marriage record with an X? If so, they were most likely illiterate.

If you’re shouting at the screen that an X isn’t proof then stop. It’s OK, I know. I’ve seen the debates. Here’s my 2 cents worth….

John Fathers and Ann Tack signature
My ancestors John Fathers and Ann Tack both signed with an X. Witness James Tack, brother of the bride, was able to sign his own name.

I agree that signing with an X is not concrete proof of illiteracy. Your ancestor may have been able to read and not write. I’ve also read arguments suggesting that shy literate spouses sometimes signed with a mark because they didn’t want to embarrass their illiterate wife/husband by signing their own name – when said wife/husband could not. Alternatively, a clerk might have assumed the couple were illiterate. Therefore writing the Bride and Groom’s names for them and then asking them to mark them with an X.

However, the The Online Historical Population Reports Website, Histpop states:

www.histpop.org; University of Essex; Essays – 1836-1920 – Great Britain Literacy; retrieved 05 October 2017

I tend to take the same stance as Stephens and Vincent. Whilst not conclusive it is most likely that those ancestors that signed with an X were illiterate. Especially if they sign all the documents associated with them with an X. Or if the document dates from before the slow build up of legislation in the 1870s-1880’s that led to free compulsory education for children.

William Camfield and Jane Groombridge signature
My ancestor William Camfield signed with an X. His wife was able to sign her own name.

Early Education

When trying to determine your ancestors level of literacy, you need more than just your ancestors signature to build your case. You need to bear in mind the timeline for compulsory education. Reform in both education and working hours happened slowly across generations – with a ramp up of acts in 1870-1880.

Right up until 1860 most education was private and had to be paid for. This meant it was unattainable for most working class families. Education for the poor was limited to a mix of Apprenticeships and Charity, Dame or Church schools.

Old school desk

Charity schools often had a vocational focus. Training children to enter into particular occupations. Dame schools were informal and run mostly by local women – some of whom couldn’t read or write themselves. They offered childcare at an affordable price, but were often more like nurseries than educational establishments.

Church schools were established in most parishes. Naturally they had a religious focus, and did not tolerate dissenters. However, at least these schools covered 3 R’s (Reading, Writing & Arithmetic). But the availability of a local school did not necessarily mean that your ancestor attended. Or rather, that they attended with any regularity.

Chimney Sweep
New York Public Library [Public domain]

Many children were put to work at a very young age. Poorer families needed every single penny they could get. That meant everyone working towards the household budget. Children were employed to do menial work and work that benefited from being done by smaller bodies. Some such occupations have become infamous, like the child chimney-sweep. Older children may have stayed at home to attend to young babies. But by older, I do not mean teenagers. I simply mean a child that was older than the baby or toddler he or she was left to tend.

It’s easy to see why families got trapped in cycles of poverty. Poor education often left them unable to progress to better jobs. Ill paid work meant they couldn’t afford their children to attend school and so the cycle continued. No wonder some of your ancestors signatures are just an X.

Task: If your ancestor signed with their name with an X, take a moment to consider exactly what that means. If they weren’t at school, what were they doing? Menial labour work? Caring for siblings? A mix of the two?

Educational Reform

In 1833 the government voted against mass education for all. But it did start to send annual grants to church schools. In the same year the 1833 Factories Act was passed. It prohibited employment of children under the age of 9 in factories and mills. Working hours for children were restricted and education for factory children made compulsory. However, it allocated no funds to this education.

Victorian child factory workers

Following the appointment of a committee to review education in 1837, the government finally established a Privy Council for Education in 1839. In the years between 1839 and 1852 the department focused primarily on giving grants to teachers and to support schools. Progress towards affordable compulsory education was painfully slow.

It was not until 1870 that the Elementary Education Act was passed. Known as the ‘Forster Act’ it made education for children aged 5 to 13 compulsory. Attendance was to be enforced by the local school boards. The act was problematic. Attending school was ‘cheap’ but not free. For the poorest families this meant education was still out of reach. They could hardly afford the loss of the wage brought in by their children – let alone the cost of paying to attend. Especially those with larger families, that had several children aged between 5 and 13.

Task: Take a look at your ancestors signatures in the late 1800s. Those of your ancestors that were between 5 and 13 in 1870. How many of their siblings were also at this age? How do they sign their names? Do you think they regularly attended school?

In 1880 the Elementary Education Act was amended to give local authorities the ability to create bylaws around school attendance. It would take another decade before free education for all was effectively established, with the 1891 Elementary Education Act. This Act finally prohibited elementary schools from charging fees. Two short years later the school leaving age was raised to 11.

Idealised victorian schoolgirl sketch

Task: Looking at 1870 to 1891 do you notice a drop in the number of ancestors that signed with an X? Have you checked the local newspapers to see if any of your ancestors were fined for failing to ensure their child’s attendance at school?

In 1899 school leaving age raised to 12. It wouldn’t be raised again for some 20 years. It was not until 1921 that it became compulsory to attend until the age of 14. An 1936 Education Act made provision for the age to be raised again, to 15 but this was delayed by the outbreak of WWII. It wouldn’t be implemented until 1947, although one would hope that by then all of your ancestors signatures were their own names. The age was not raised to 16 until 1973, so within living memory for many.

My ancestors signed their own names

If your ancestors signature wasn’t 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)? This might give you clues about their school attendance. Especially if they were a child during the early years of the 1870 Elementary Education Act. Their attendance may have been patchy. Or perhaps, they were truly literate?

Looking at your ancestors signature across different documents can help you build up clues, regarding their education.

What’s in a name? More than literacy.

Our ancestors signature sometimes give us further clues about their lives. Not just their literacy.

Example One

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).

Signature of George William Pithers 1911 census

Did this ancestor go by his second name rather than his first? Calling himself, “William”. George looks like it’s been squeezed in front of the William – as 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 “Jordge” than George.

His signature on the parish copy of his marriage strengthens the theory that George William called himself, “William”. In this document he’s signed his name as W. G. Pithers.

Signature of W G Pithers and A N Simpson

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. Of course, it’s possible that someone else wrote his name for him However, the writing does look different from the rest of the certificate.

Task: Examine your ancestors signature. Did they use their first name or middle name? Did their handwriting change at all across documents and years?

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). Could they have attended the same school? Is that perhaps how they met? I could check the local map, and school records (if available).

Signatures of Beatrice Pithers and Mary Eleanor Pithers

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. Were her writing skills poor? The missing ‘s’ reminds me how easily transcription errors occur. If I were new to researching this surname, I might make a note of that to ensure I check for that particular variation in spelling.

Task: Did your ancestors make any mistakes when signing their names? Could these give you clues to possible mis-transcriptions to check? Start making a list!


Example Two

Let’s look at some other ancestors. See image below of William Augustus Decrespigny Lovegrove’s (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 has been added after “Augustus”. Perhaps he too tended to go by his second name, rather than his first.

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.

This signature looks like that of someone who had little education. This would fit with what you’d expect for a working class child born in the 1840s. Yet, the very fact he’s able to write his name is impressive compared to many of his contemporaries. He at least had some schooling, even if perhaps William Augustus could only write his own name.

On his second marriage, William Augustus’ father’s name was recorded phonetically. Spelt Eaton rather than Heaton. This might suggest that William Augustus was unable to spell the name for the clerk. More interestingly though, I can imagine my ancestors voice – dropped H’s and all!

Task: Check the regional accents of where your ancestors grew up and lived. Does the way your ancestors spelt their own names give you any clues about how they spoke?

William Augustus Decrespigny Lovegrove, Anne Penton and Thomas Penton signatures

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) witnessed the marriage and his signature is neat too. Although, 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 Lovegrove signature

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 Junior’s 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.

William Augustus Lovegrove and Annie Elizabeth Tydeman signature

OK, let’s move forward to 1900. How did William Augustus Junior sign when he 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.

William Augustus Lovegrove and Bertha Mary Webster signatures

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?

Signature of William Augustus Lovegrove

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?

I look at the rest of the census page. Recorded on the page is William’s wife, Bertha Mary Lovegrove (nee Webster). I compare the way her name is written on the census with the above signature on the marriage document. I think the two are very similar, and it is most likely that Bertha wrote both (her signature and her name in the 1911 census). Bearing the fact that her husband William has always previously signed with an X, it seems most likely that Bertha filled out the 1911 census. It’s probable that she signed William’s name for him. Perhaps she sought to save him the embarrassment of having to sign with an X.

Task: Look at your ancestors handwriting across as many different documents as you can. Do you have any examples of spouses writing on behalf of their partners?

The close examination of your ancestors signature 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!

I hope the examples above and the tasks throughout this blog post help you to have another look at your ancestors signature. They really are a valuable clue.

Further Reading

Education England

British Library: Education in Victorian Britain

Parliament UK: Living Heritage

Related Posts


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1 thought on “Why you should examine your ancestors signature and how to do it”

  1. Pingback: Marriage Records for Genealogy: Everything You Need to Know - Genealogy Stories

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