Blog29 Oct 2010
I’m findmypast.co.uk’s records development manager and resident genealogy expert. As well as answering your ‘Ask the Expert’ queries, I work with archives, family history societies and other owners of original historical records to digitise these for findmypast.co.uk
Recently I’ve been reviewing our Chelsea Pensioner data so as to understand and think about how we can go about enhancing it.
The Chelsea Pensioner records extend over 150 years – from 1760 to 1913 – and those up to the middle of the 19th century are, in some ways, especially interesting from a data point of view. At that time, spelling of place names had not quite settled and been standardised, at least not the spelling as used within the British Army. In some ways this is inconvenient but in others it provides an intriguing insight into local history.
Many of the soldiers’ places of birth are given and spelt phonetically by the recruits or the recruiting sergeant on the attestation and discharge papers which form the surviving service record.
This week I have been looking at the places of birth of soldiers born in my home county of Kent. This requires some thinking about the local accent and local pronunciation of place names. For instance, ‘Settingbourne’ sometimes appears instead of Sittingbourne (older members of my own family still say ‘set’ instead of ‘sit’). Similarly, Erith is sometimes spelt ‘Earith’ and ‘Eariff’, which gives a close approximation to the way it is pronounced locally.
On one occasion it appears aspirated (if that is the right word), as ‘Hereif’. This is a common fate of Kentish places beginning with a vowel and, therefore, tempting the local to add a leading H. For example, occasionally Eltham can become ‘Heltham’, Eynsford becomes ‘Hainsford’, Eythorne is ‘Haythorne’, Ide Hill is rendered as ‘Hide Hill’, Iwade metamorphoses into ‘Highwade’, Ulcombe becomes ‘Hulcombe’, etc.
The reverse process also occurs, where a required initial H is dropped: Hadlow becomes ‘Adlow’, Halstead becomes ‘Alstead’, Harbledown turns into ‘Arbledown’, Headcorn becomes the delightful ‘Edcorn’ and so on. These are not transcription errors but bona fide reflections of what is written in the original papers.
Sometimes the spelling can tell you how a place was (and often is still) pronounced. For example, there are a number of villages in Kent called Boughton. The ‘ough’ combination of letters in English can be pronounced in a variety of different ways – think of ‘bough’ (of a tree) ‘cough’, ‘though’, ‘nought’ and so on. Here in Kent, however, this place name is always pronounced as it is sometimes spelt in the Chelsea Pensioners, as ‘Borton’. We know this as the qualifier can be present: ‘Borton Aluph’ instead of Boughton Aluph, or ‘Borton Mallet’ instead of Boughton Malherbe.
Kentish pronunciation also has a tendency to run letters together and not trouble to pronounce some letters or syllables. Thus we get ‘Harrisham’ instead of Harrietsham, ‘Harcus’ instead of Hawkhurst, ‘Lamhurst’ instead of Lamberhurst, and ‘Trosley’ instead of Trottiscliffe. Other places have changed over time. Today’s Molash usually appears in Chelsea Pensioners records as ‘Moldash’, while in the older records Faversham is often shown as ‘Feversham’.
Understanding this sort of variation in spelling and departure from received pronunciation – and especially the adding or subtraction of an H at the start of a word – can be helpful when researching your family history as of course it applies equally to personal names just as to place names.