News / Ask the expert – tricky surname spellings

Ask the expert – tricky surname spellings

22 January, 2013

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

From Carole Buck in Hampshire:

‘I have come up against a block. My grandfather’s (Arthur Henry Willsher born in 1887 in Neath, Glamorgan) parents are listed on the birth records as Henry Willsher and Elizabeth Ann Richards both from Kilkhampton, Devon. This makes sense as he married Madeline Mary Pedlar of Ilfracombe. I have found John Willsher born in 1858 in Kilkhampton and wife Elizabeth Ann born in 1863 in Kilkhampton in the 1901 census. I haven’t found any marriage record and can find no further information on them, despite having searched various census and birth records. Where do I go from here?’

Stephen says:

‘Thanks for writing in with your family puzzle.
Stephen Rigden,'s resident expert

My first thought when looking at the problem is about the surname Willsher. There are a whole cluster of phonetically identical or similar names and, when searching online databases or, for that matter, original paper sources, you must consider spelling variants (and clerical misspellings). Online this is usually easy enough – for example, on, you just tick ‘include variants’ under the name boxes on the search screen.

If we do this for the 1891 census, for example, searching for Arthur Willsher born 1887 +/- 3 years, we get 26 results to consider. Scrolling down through the list, there is an Arthur Henry in Neath registration district, which is clearly your grandfather’s entry. The spelling is Willshire not Willsher. He’s in Aberavon with parents John Harry, a stone mason, and Elizabeth Ann, plus siblings Mary Elizabeth, Thomas John, Albert Lewis and Annie Maude. His parents are both from Kilkhampton, as you say, but all their children are born in Glamorganshire.

The eldest child shown, Mary, was eight in 1891 and, therefore, was born after the 1881 census. One would expect to find her parents’ – your great grandparents’ – marriage within the years 1880 to 1883. Going to the civil registration indexes of marriage and conducting a search for John Willsher marrying an Elizabeth and using the ‘include variants’ option brings up a handful of entries, including your grandparents – John Henry Willshire married Elizabeth Ann Richards in December quarter 1881 in Neath registration district. This means that we may expect to find them living apart in the 1881 census return which was taken on 3 April 1881.

Again, your great grandfather appears as John H Willshire, not Willsher, so it appears that his name was fairly constant at this time. He is in Kilkhampton, a journeyman mason, living with his parents Thomas and Ann. His mother is also Kilkhampton-born, while his father is from ‘Finsbury, Kent’. This is almost certainly Frindsbury (near Rochester), which I have often seen corrupted in census returns. Thomas’ occupation is noted as ‘Pensioner, Woolwich’ – a second hand (that of the census clerk, rather than enumerator) has written against this the word ‘Army’. Other evidence (see below) suggests, however, that he was actually a Navy pensioner. He was 69 in 1881 and, therefore, born circa 1811/12. This opens up all sorts of new possibilities.

Firstly, we can search for Thomas Willshire in parish registers. On we have a collection called Thames and Medway parish registers, which covers the interesting strips of land extending out from London on either side of the Thames Estuary into Essex and Kent. This collection includes Frindsbury and, sure enough, there is a Thomas Wiltshire (sic) baptised on 25 April 1813 in Frindsbury All Saints to parents William and Mary.

It’s then possible to try to find Thomas and Ann Wiltshire in the other census returns and find details of their various children. This is a little tricky – for example, in the 1871 census, Thomas Wiltshire is a 55-year old agricultural labourer born in Maidstone, Kent, while in 1861 he was a 48-year old Greenwich pensioner born in Woolwich, Kent. In both years, they are living in Kilkhampton, Cornwall, so I believe we can be sure it’s the right couple.

It looks like they married in March quarter 1853 in St German’s registration district, Cornwall – if so, it was under the names Thomas Wilshire and Ann Furze. Thomas was quite old by that time, and he may well have been widowed and had a previous wife – you need to buy the marriage certificate to find out.

In any event, there is much you should be able to investigate, using the above information, and remembering to consider all possible spelling variations – already we have Willsher, Willshire, Wilshire and Wiltshire and it is likely that you will discover others! Good luck.’

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