THE November meeting was held on Zoom, which allowed both out-of-county and out-of-country members to join in the well-attended talk. Dr Frances Hurd gave a fascinating, and at times humorous, talk entitled Secrets and Lies, which she illustrated using examples from research she has carried out.

Dr Hurd said that these secrets and lies reveal much about the people involved and there is always a back story. The most common reason is illegitimacy, which features somewhere in almost all families. Other common reasons for family secrets and lies are incest, suicide and murder. Of course, there were other reasons for a lie to be told, an example being men who lied about their age, birthplace, next of kin, hair colour, etc. when enlisting in the army.

Dr Hurd also reminded us never to take any document at face value, especially birth certificates, marriage certificates and census returns. Illegitimacy was a stigma for a mother and child and quite often a fictitious father was included on the birth certificate. On marriage certificates examples of incorrect information include ages, rank or profession and addresses. Ages were often increased to allow under-age couples to marry and rank or profession enhanced to impress. One party to the marriage may even have changed their name. Exaggeration and lies were common on census returns.

A description of being married could be incorrect, especially where an illegitimate child was included on the return. The description of being a widow could have been used when it was a case of separation or even divorce. Birthplaces could be incorrectly recorded, sometimes to impress. Some people in subsequent census returns appear to get younger as time passed. This could be a lie or simply that they did not actually know hold old they were. Illegitimacy can also explain any changes of surname from census to census.

Another example that Dr Hurd gave was the attitude towards mixed-race marriages and links to slavery. Mixed-race marriages were frowned upon and often names and father’s occupations were changed to hide this fact. Regarding slave owners, clues can often be found in marriage notices or obituaries where an occupation is given as ‘Jamaica Merchant’.

Family legends often pass through the generations. On investigation most prove to be false, but sometimes there is some small element of truth. Modern research facilities allow us to find out much more than ancestors thought possible so we are able to unravel some of those secrets and lies.