On registration certificates and in census returns, you often come across wrong information. There are a number of reasons why information may be wrong.

It’s possible that a person really may not have known their age or their birthplace. And they were under no obligation to give the name under which they were registered at birth or baptised with. They were free to give the name they were known by. I can totally understand why a teenage itinerant labourer called Acquila might want to change his name to Thomas.

The scribe may have been careless and struggled with information from an illiterate person who was telling the truth. I am descended from two sisters who were born in North Sunderland, a tiny village in Northumberland near Bamburgh. Luckily I was told this by my grandmother. Both sisters scrupulously told all the census enumerators where they were born. But few of the census enumerators had heard of this insignificant place. They had heard of the much larger town in County Durham, Sunderland. And as for the great-great-aunt who was born in Ulgham, which is pronounced “Uff-em”, well, you can imagine.

Clips from censuses. Birthplaces of Hannah: 1851 lazy ditto from previous family, suggesting Northumberland Newcastle; 1861/71 Durham, Sunderland.
Mary: 1851 correct, Northumberland, N Sunderland, 1861 Northumberland, then Sunderland crossed out -- enumerator thinks it must be a mistake, 1871/81 Durham, Sunderland.
The birthplaces of Hannah Edwards and Mary Edwards

But this piece is about the relatives who told actual lies on official documents, usually for a reason.

If you were under 21 years of age, you had to get parental consent to marry. My great-great grandmother, Harriet Harper, said that she was 21 when she married William Blewitt in 1847 — she was only 19. In 1851 she said she was 23, but in the 1871 and 1881 censuses she appears to have given her age accurately, though in 1881 and 1891 she is 4 years older. She is 65 in April 1891 and 66 when she dies on 7 March 1894. If you knew your parents wouldn’t or couldn’t give consent, it was sensible to be 21 when you married. Harriet’s father was dead, and her mother either dead or not around.

If you had split up from your spouse and wanted to marry, it was best to declare that your were single, or a widower. Ideally, you should make sure that your new marriage was in a place far from where your previous wife lived. Peter Short did not get away with it when he married my ancestor, Hannah Pollock (she really was a widow). A couple of years later his previous wife turned up asking for maintenance. Hannah Pollock was convicted of assaulting her and Peter did time for bigamy.

Marriage certificate of Peter Short, bachelor, and Hannah Napier, widow, 31 March 1854. Newspaper report for 7 September 1855. "Two females, who both claimed to be the lawful wives of Peter Short, appeared in court. The female who is really his wife, but with whom he does not live, had come for money, on an order made upon Short for her maintenance by the Sunderland Magistrates, when the other female attacked and ill used her. The woman was bound over to keep the peace."
Newspaper report 8 December 1855. "PETER SHORT pleaded guilty to having, at South Shields, married Hannah Napier, on 31st of January [actually March], 1854, Margaret, his wife, being then alive. The prisoner stated that he married his first wife 15 years ago, and that she shortly after left him, and she had not done anything “for his maintenance” since. He was living with the woman he had married as a second wife. The first wife had applied for maintenance, and the women having squabbled, the prisoner was taken into custody.– He was sentenced to be imprisoned for three months."
A marriage and convictions for bride and groom

More innocently, it was easier and cheaper to marry if bride and groom lived in the same parish. If the groom lived in a different parish, it could be a good idea to give the bride’s address as his own. My paternal grandparents were not living together in Jarrow when they married — James William Shields lived and worked in Darlington. I happen to known that he visited Jarrow in order to attend the funeral of my grandmother’s mother and they “fell for each other”.

If you wanted to migrate, you needed to make sure you were the right age. Margaret Macquarie migrated to Victoria with her 10 children in 1853,  through the Highland and Island Emigration Society. The scheme required migrants to be under 45 and Margaret was born in 1804. The shipping manifest gives her age as 44. After she arrived she went back to her real age, so her age at death in 1875 is recorded as 71.

There was no official adoption in England until 1926. In my family entries for the 1921 census there are many “adopted” children, usually the children of unmarried female relatives. But sometimes on a census return you spot a youngest child born many years after the next youngest sibling, with a mother who would have been in her forties when the child was born. And sometimes, that child is actually the child of an older “sister”. Let’s take John White, documented as the youngest brother of my paternal grandmother. That’s how he is described in the censuses of 1901 and 1911, and on his enlistment documentation. He was apparently born after a 6 year gap, when his mother was 50. John is actually the son of my great-aunt, Margaret White, but raised as her brother.

One serial liar on official documents was my great-great-grandmother, born Hannah Napier, and married as Hannah Dryden. She was certainly not going to let people know that she was born out of wedlock, and nor did she want her children to be illegitimate. So she registered her first child two months before her marriage — as if she was already married. And when she did marry, she named her own father, presumably the man her mother had told her was her father. And my DNA matches suggest he might have been too.

A birth certificate and a marriage certificate. Birth of Andrew Davis, 9 April 1862. Marriage of Thomas Davies and Hannah Drydem 8 June 1862.
Hannah registers her first child and then gets married

But the prize for creative registrations goes to the great-great-great grandparents of my grandchildren, John Cottrell and Alice Matthews. Their first child was born in 1874, but Alice was still married to another man, and they did not feel able to marry until 1882. They travelled 260 km in order to marry away from the place they were living, where they had registered births and deaths, and where they would have been known as a married couple. The birth and marriage registrations of the Australian state of Victoria require detailed information on the dates of birth of the children of the marriage, and John and Alice delivered this information with care. The birth registrations of their children, whether born before or after marriage, gave their date of marriage as the date of Alice’s first marriage. The marriage registration showed a similar level of compromise between truth and expedience.

A marriage certificate for 7 September 1882 of John Cottrell and Alice Matthews (widow). Alice declares one living child and nil dead. In fact, in addition to this child, Alice and John had had 4 children, 3 of whom were dead. The youngest was 1 year old.
A birth registration, of Herbert George Cottrell, born 24 October 1886. Identifies all 8 children of Alice. Gives date of marriage as 9 December 1867. the date of Alice’s first marriage. Margaret Jane was the child of the first marriage and the next 4 children were with John, before John and Alice married.
The careful lies of John and Alice