Wrong certificate: a lesson for family historians

The wrong certificate

A death certificate that turned out not to be the person I was looking for isn’t all ‘bad news’. It eliminates that possibility. And this being Cumbrian Characters, won’t ‘go to waste’.

The story of Thomas Bell who died in 1871 may not be that much of a ‘story’, but below you can see how starting with a death certificate (and a subscription to a genealogy website or other access to census records), you can piece together more about someone than bare dates.

It also proves that without sources like certificates, you cannot be 100% sure ‘something you found on a website’ (especially someone else’s family tree) is accurate. And a wrong certificate can prove useful.

The wrong Thomas Bell

Thomas Bell died February 6, 1871, at Glassonby. Someone had seen the death index listing and put the date down for another Thomas Bell, on their family tree. This Thomas Bell is also on my tree and I was told by great aunts he ‘died at sea’. I’ve never been able to confirm that, nor find a death certificate. The wrong certificate shows the online tree is wrong. The date of ‘my’ Thomas Bell’s death remains unsolved.

Piecing a life together

Thomas Bell of Glassonby was just 38 when he died, and had been suffering from pulmonary consumption for ‘a long time’, along with chronic bronchitis.

The informant was his brother William Bell, who was present at the death.

William lived at Todd Bank, Kirkoswald, where he farmed what looks on the 1861 census to have been 74 acres of land. It appears variously as Todd Bank and Tod Bank, by the way.

Search for ‘Tod(d) Bank’ today and it suggests it was built in the late 1890s. Is this wrong, or was the farmhouse rebuilt?

In 1861, William Bell was not long married to his wife Jane. They had a daughter Rachel, aged one year. And Jane must have fallen quickly pregnant again, for there was also a three-month-old baby, called William. Thomas Bell was living with them then, his occupation listed as carter. And they were doing well enough to employ a domestic servant. 

The 1871 census was taken two months after poor Thomas Bell died, so we don’t know if he stayed with his brother.

However, a check for a death notice finds one in the Penrith Observer that tells us he died ‘at Glassonby, at the house of his mother’.

Jane Bell had by now had two more children (at least). Rachel was now 11 and William 10, but there was gap of two years then to daughter Hannah. Youngest daughter Margaret was just two – a gap like that sadly suggests other children had been born, and died, between.

Jane, by the way, was born Jane Tuer, about 1830.

Jane Tuer married William Bell at Kirksoswald on January 28, 1858. Was Rachel (Rachel Hannah Bell was born in the first quarter of 1860) their first child, or the couple did suffer terrible loss before having her?

Common surnames

Unfortunately, Bell is an extremely common surname in Cumberland. (You can read more in this post). And as Kirkoswald came under Penrith district, it would be an expensive task to order all the Bell birth certificates from March quarter 1858 to June quarter 1859 (allowing for Jane being pregnant with Rachel after then) to see if any fit. You could narrow that down by only looking at names where there is a birth and a death in that time frame. Eg, there’s a Robert born June quarter 1859 and a Robert died September quarter that year. But you’d still likely end up with a wrong certificate or two.

Don’t assume Jane Bell was a chaste bride, by the way. It was very common for pregancy to pre-date marriage.

Jane Tuer was a housekeeper for a family in Great Salkeld in the 1851 census. She was the daughter of farmer Joseph Tuer and his wife Rachel – after whom baby Rachel Hannah was named. 

So if ‘Rachel’ was after Jane’s mother, then ‘Hannah’ surely…? 

Well, 1841 has a William Bell aged 14 with parents William and Hannah, in Kirkoswald, and happily, it’s at Tod Bank. (So don’t fall for a William in  Westmorland in 1851 with parents John and Hannah – don’t mistake Ancestry ‘suggestions’ for certainties. 

The census page is very faint and hard to read, but looks to have ‘James, eight years’. This should be Thomas, but either the transcriber gave it their best shot, or the enumerator made a mistake. Which is always possible.

In 1851, ‘our’ William, and his brother Thomas, were with their widowed mother Hannah at Todd Bank.

Margaret Bell wasn’t the last child to be born to William and Jane Bell. For on March 19, 1873, Jane gave birth to another son – and they named him Thomas. Which would seem a tribute to William’s poor brother.

And to continue the sense of a cycle… in 1911, Thomas Bell the namesake was living at Tod Bank – with his older brother William.

A final note of caution

While I was able to piece the above together in a couple of hours, it isn’t cast-iron. To be 100 per cent sure you have the right people on your family tree (and why would you want strangers?!), you need to verify each of them with ideally at least three sources. That includes paying for certificates.

You can read more about the terrible disease consumption in this post.


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