News / Ask the expert – elusive date of death

Ask the expert – elusive date of death

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, findmypast.co.uk'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 findmypast.co.uk, 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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