News / Ask the expert – elusive date of death

Ask the expert – elusive date of death

20 April, 2012

Our resident expert Stephen Rigden, pictured below, answers your queries.

From Adrian Shepard:

‘I wonder if you can help me with a question regarding finding the date of death of my great-great-great-grandfather?

My great-great-great-grandfather was Benjamin Shepard from Lymington (born in 1782). His name appears in local parish records for the birth of his children with wife Mary Ann Green (born in 1784 and died in 1856).

By the time of the first census in 1841, and also in 1851, however, he doesn’t seem to be listed again with his wife and children. I can’t find a record of his death locally in Lymington but his name and profession appear on several marriage certificates for his children.

Does that mean he was alive at the time of the children’s weddings in 1853 and 1859? Would it normally say ‘deceased’ on the marriage certificate? Many thanks for any help/advice you can give.’

Stephen says:

‘Dear Adrian,

Thanks for your question.

The answer to your question is that theoretically a marriage certificate should record if the father of a bride or groom is deceased. If the 1853 and 1859 marriage certificates in your possession are silent on this point, therefore, normally one would infer that the father was indeed still alive at those dates, unless there is evidence to the contrary.

No proof was required by the registrar, however, so the information recorded in the marriage register (and on the marriage certificate produced from it) will only ever be as good as the knowledge of the informant providing it (usually the bride or groom, as applicable). For example, in cases of family estrangement, a person getting married may not know whether his or her father is deceased and may, therefore, state that he is alive when he is not (or, conversely, that he is dead when he is not). You should, therefore, proceed tentatively upon the basis that the father Benjamin was alive in 1859 but remain alive to the possibility of him having died by that date.
Stephen Rigden,'s resident expert
If you have not done so already, you should also obtain a copy of the death certificate of his spouse Mary Ann from 1856. This should describe her as either the wife, or the widow, of Benjamin. If it states “widow”, then one would assume that he was in fact dead by 1856. If it states “wife”, however, then this could add extra weight to Benjamin being alive at that date – and of course if he was the informant at her death, that would be conclusive! Should he not have been the informant, the same reservations would apply as for the marriage certificates and the evidence is only as good as the state of knowledge of the informant at death.

I am sure that, with a last name such as Shepard, you will already have thought of searching under name variants. If not, you should definitely extend your search using the more common spellings of the last name: on, just tick the ‘include variants’ box when doing a death search.

Having said that, there is a death for a Benjamin Shepard in Lymington registration district for the December quarter of 1853 and another in Southampton in the September quarter of 1863. Unfortunately, at this date the original death indexes that the General Register Office compiled do not give age at death (this was not introduced until March quarter 1866), although the actual death register and a death certificate issued from it will give age, and of course these entries may relate to individuals of completely different age.

Good luck with your research!’

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  • caspar graham

    thought you might like to know that there is a Benjamin Shephard b.c.1781 Lymington, Hampshire in the 1851 census.
    He is a painter’s journeyman living in Southampton Buildings, Lymington, and is married.
    He is incorrectly placed with the daughter of another family in the transcription – but a look at the original shows this to be incorrect.
    I respectfully suggest this may be your man.
    Kind regards


  • Adrian Shepard

    Thank you to Stephen and to Casper for your information and suggestions. It has all been very useful.
    One of the marriage certificates states Benjamin Shepard’s occupation as a painter and there is an entry in Pigots directory 1830 for a Benjamin Shepard in Lymington High Street as Painter. This may be the link that proves Benjamin lived beyond the first census of 1841 and perhaps became estranged from his wife and family.
    I am going to take a gamble and order the death certificate for Benjamin Shepard in Lymington registration district for the December quarter of 1853. I will let you know what it says.
    Many thanks again

  • Alex Dow

    I agree fully with Stephen’s comments, particularly with respect to the limits of the knowledge of the marrying couple in this case.

    Some years back, I came across a 1906 Marriage on Scotland’s People, in which superficially, the names given for the Bride’s parents appeared to be correct.

    The Bride was aged 26 in 1906; and the Marriage of the parents took place only 4 years earlier in 1902. Slightly unusual Surnames, so mreducing the chances of having found the wrong Marriage.

    But following through from that and the 1901 Census, the stated parents would have been aged undeer 10 years old, at the Birth of the Bride. This was further confirmed by finding the Births of the given parents in or very close to the expected years.

    I then found the Bride’s Birth Record, with different parents, the Father’s Surname being as expected; but his First Namme and both names for the Mother being distinctly different from those on the 1906 Marriage Record – not Transcription Errors etc, as the Scanned IMAGEs were immediately available for VIEWing on SP.

    Strangely, all expected records for the actual parents BEFORE the Bride’s Birth were available; BUT none after that, nothing in Scotland or England & Wales Censuses, nothing in Migration Lists and no apparent Death Records.


    In another case within my own ancestry, a son of the Deceased Male was the Informant.

    As such, he did not know the correct names of his paternal Grandparents, giving names which again seemed superficially correct, with the Male Surname being absolutely correct; but a different First Name for his Grandfather and both names wrong for his Grandmother.

    Yet both of those stated names did occur in his Grandparents’ generation.

    In fairness to the Informant reporting his Father’s Death in 1902, his actual Grandparents disappeared from the records in 1835, whilst his alleged Grandmother had died in 1848. Only the alleged Grandfather had survived until 1896; but living mainly on a remote Isdland; and his wife having a clearly different name.

    Alex Dow

  • Adrian Shepard

    Hi All
    The Death certificate from the 1853 Benjamin Shepard says:
    Date of death: 22nd December 1853. Age 74 years Occupation: Formerly a Plumber. Cause of Death: Apoplexia 3 days. Signature, description and residence of informant: The mark of Sarah Thorner, present at the death. Old Town Lymington.
    Benjamin’s DOB was 1782, so with a age of 74 on his death certificate that’s only 3 years out, which I am guessing is more than possible.
    The stated occupation as “Formerly a Plumber” is one of two occupations I’ve seen against Benjamin’s name, as well as Painter. Am I correct in guessing that Painting and Plumbing skills often seem to go together in Victorian times?
    Unfortunately I cant find Sarah Thorner in the same residence as Benjamin in the 1851 census but I still feel this is the Benjamin Shepard I have been looking for.
    Thanks everyone for their comments and help.

  • Adrian Shepard

    I think I found Sarah Thorner:
    Sarah Thorner, who was present at Benjamin’s death is in the 1851 census living on North Street. In 1851 census she is mistakenly listed as Sarah Thornes. She was born abt 1801 in Lymington and has a husband John Thorner born abt 1791 in Milton. Sarah appears again in the 1861 census as living in ‘Old Town’ Lymington. They have a lodger in the house, so perhaps Benjamin was lodging there when he died.

    • chris griffiths

      Just in case you do see this.
      There is a Benjamin Sheppard, b 1781, ind means (unfortunately no occupation listed) Portsea Island 1841 census. Would this be yours?
      I’m tracing Benjamin Shepard b. 1810 (ish)Lymington. married Eliza Ackland. There is a record for a marriage of Benjamin and Eliza 1834 St Marys, Portsea and Benjamin snr might be the reason for them marrying there. They went on to have at least 7 children, first one Eliza 1834 Lymington, last Frederick Ackland Shepard 1844. 6th child was John Henry Shepard 1842 Southampton who ended up in The Crystal Palace Inn. Fratton, Portsmouth. Benjamin jr was a painter in Southampton as were some of his children. seems like its the same family.
      regards Griff

  • chris griffiths

    Hi Adrian. a little late finding this unfortunately but hope you read it.
    I’m currently researching my Ackland family from Lymington and the Shepard name has figured in it. My lot had The Bugle in the early 1800’s then The Anchor & Hope in the high st till 1875 ish. In 2 census’s there is an Eliza Shepard, granddaughter of William and Elizabeth (1841) and Elizabeth only (1851) Eliza it seems was the daughter of Eliza, nee Ackland and Benjamin Shepard, (b 1810 Lymington). I’ve a long way to go yet with the search but it seems there is a link with your family. Incidently, a few death certs in the ackland family had a “Harriet Sherry” present at the death even though close family members were still living at home. The only link I can find between Sherry and Ackland is brewing etc, I also found a record of a Benjamin Shephard of Lymington, Cooper, in the news papers on FMP Hampshire Chronicle, 1813 so I expect they all knew each other.
    Regards Chris.