Leopards may not change their spots but chameleons can change their colour and markings to suit the situation they find themselves in. I reckon that some of our ancestors are a bit like chameleons, changing their name, both officially and unofficially if it suited them, or as a result of their personal circumstances. It may just be the case that an ancestor is not recorded under the name that we expect. It is perhaps not universally known that it is perfectly legal to call yourself what you like, as long as you are not using a new name for fraudulent purposes. As far as the law is concerned, a name is just a label under which a person is known. Most people, saddled with a name they dislike or want to change, take no legal action whatsoever. They just quietly use the name that they want and there is no publicity. Although a change of name could be recorded officially, (more of that in Part 2), it is likely that you will find evidence of either a former name or a new name more indirectly.

I decided to write about this topic after reading the recent edition of Family Tree Magazine (U.K.) (February 2021). In “Your Questions Answered“, readers write in with their research problems and queries and here were two letters describing ancestors who could not be found. One reader’s grandfather had disappeared without a trace in 1926. He had told his daughter that he was going away and handed her a silver sixpence in the playground. He was never seen again and no death certificate was found. It seems quite probable that this man changed his name. Perhaps he had financial problems that he wanted to escape from? Maybe he felt trapped in an unhappy marriage and wanted to leave it all behind? He could have even emigrated to start a new life. Another reader had a similar problem but the other way round. She knew all about her husband’s grandfather from the time he got married in 1919, but could find no reference to his birth or earlier life. What was his former name? Nowadays it is more difficult to assume a new identity but in previous generations, it was quite easy. In this two-part series, I will be looking at the reasons why names may be recorded differently and examining the research strategies that might enable you to trace your missing person.

I Hate my Name!

We have all heard of the whacky forenames given to the offspring of celebrities: who could forget Apple, (Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter), or more recently, X Æ A-12, (the son of Elon Musk and his partner “Grimes”)! Children with a colourful first name often see it as a liability and upon reaching adulthood, want to be called something else. There are clearly some names that our ancestors also must have hated and dispensed with as soon as possible. Some years ago, I ordered the birth certificate of my husband’s great grandfather, Stanley Vernon Woodcock. According to the census, he had been born in Limehouse, Middlesex ca. 1877 and his father was George Woodcock, a shipwright:

1881 Census 81 Locksley Street, Limehouse, Middlesex
National Archives (UK) RG 11 470 65 49
via Ancestry –

The birth of Stanley V Woodcock was registered in Stepney in the September quarter of 1877 in the General Registration indexes. At the time when I ordered the certificate, to ensure that one had identified the right birth entry, you could put the father’s name as a checking point. This was particularly useful if it was a common name and there was more than one candidate, as it reduced the risk of obtaining the wrong certificate and incurring greater costs. Out of habit, I put the father’s name of George on the form and was disappointed to find that my application was subsequently rejected. I applied again, this time leaving the father’s name blank, and obtained the certificate. This revealed that the father of baby Stanley Vernon was named Mathuselah Woodcock:

Birth Certificate of Stanley Vernon Woodcock
b. 13th August 1877, 723 Commercial Road, Limehouse, Middlesex

In fact, Mathuselah’s real name was actually Methusalem, (according to his birth and marriage certificate), but that isn’t really much of an improvement. You can imagine that he wasn’t all that fond of his name. He is missing from the 1871 census, perhaps at sea, as his wife and family are staying with her relatives, but certainly by the late 1870s, he had changed his name to plain George. Why George? I discovered that this was, in fact, the name of his older brother. Methusalem was born in the Scilly Isles but whereas he had left to find work in the busy London Docks, George had stayed behind. George died in the Scilly Isles in 1867 and it would seem that Methusalem decided to adopt the name of his brother, shortly after the latter’s decease. Had he always wished that he had a more “normal” name like his brother? Having moved far away from the rest of the family, did they ever know?

Closer to home is my Uncle Peter. As a child I was surprised to learn that his actual name was not Peter after all, but Albert. Apparently, after he was born, my Granddad had the task of registering his birth. Grandma was keen on the name Peter. It was a popular name at the time and probably sounded fresh and modern. Granddad, on the other hand, thought that their son should be given a family name and be called Albert, ironically after Grandma’s own father. Since he was the one registering the birth, Granddad put down Albert on the certificate. You can imagine the trouble he got in when he returned home! However, Grandma had the last laugh as she insisted on calling him Peter, and the name stuck. Some years ago, Uncle Peter was awarded an M.B.E. but in the local newspaper, his name is given as Albert, not Peter. Future family historians may be forgiven for thinking that Peter and Albert were different people.

Pet Names and Middle Names are Better!

Pet names are a particular trap. Frank for Francis, Polly for Mary Ann, Dick for Richard, Maggie for Margaret, Dot for Dorothy and so on. Some of these pet names become names in their own right. Maybe you can’t find a record of an ancestor because they appear under a shortened version of their name or even a nickname? Bear in mind too that some shortened names bear little resemblance to the full name. There are also plenty of people who choose to use their middle name rather than their first name, purely as a personal choice. This seems to be particularly common when sons are named after their fathers. My great grandfather had younger brothers named James William and John James. James was the name of their father and I guess there was extra security in giving his name to two of his sons. However, James William was known as Bill, short for William, his middle name, and John James dropped his first name of John and was known as Jim! It can get quite confusing, especially when you add shortened versions of the names into the mix.

Another ancestor of mine was called Benjamin Powell. This was the name he used when his children were baptised and on the marriage certificate of his son. Here is the entry for his own marriage, recorded in the parish of Chiswick, Middlesex in 1827:

London Metropolitan Archives, Saint Nicholas, Chiswick: Hounslow, Transcript of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1827 Jan-1827 Dec, Dl/DRO/BT Item, 007/015
London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921

If you look very carefully, you can see a small scribble to the left of Benjamin, where the groom signed the register. This is in fact the initials of his first name: “Wm” (William). Clearly this chap preferred to be called Benjamin and this is the name under which he usually features. I have yet to trace his baptism but I might easily miss it if I was only searching under Benjamin. Remember too that only one forename was recorded in the 1841 census so countless individuals must be recorded only under their middle name.

Mistakes can Happen!

Transcription errors or mistakes made in the original record can mean that names are recorded incorrectly. When my great grandfather, Albert Simeon Bullock married in 1896, his father was named Joseph Bullock in the register. I had already got a copy of Albert’s birth certificate and this clearly states that his father’s full name was, in fact, Josiah David Bullock. I think it is probable that Josiah was always called Joe, Josiah being a rather old-fashioned name, even then. When asked the name of his father, Albert probably just said “Joe Bullock” and the clergyman wrote down Joseph to be more formal. I wrote about Josiah in The One-Armed Railwayman and discovered that he was also named Joseph Bullock in the newspaper report that provided information on the railway accident in which he lost his limb. This mistake undoubtedly occurred because he was known universally as Joe.

To counter transcription errors, try to look at an alternative transcription, where the name might have been recorded correctly. For example, if you can’t find an ancestor in Ancestry’s census collection, try FindMyPast or The Genealogist. Perhaps a local family history society has made their own (and better!) transcription of a record. Rather than being over-reliant on search engines, try searching the original record instead for the entry you are seeking.

Deficiencies in Information

The brother of my ancestor, Josiah David Bullock was just plain James Bullock. Perhaps to make up for the fact that he had only one forename, he decided to give three to several of his children. His eldest children were Josiah Simeon Thomas, Miriam Anne Godwin and Ernest Bruce Wright. A younger son was given the bizarre name of “North” Rees but that’s another story! The census enumerator, (or possibly even James), thought it was far too much trouble to record all those pesky forenames on the form so instead, they are just recorded in the 1881 census under their initials:

1881 Census Far Forest, Worcestershire – National Archives (U.K) RG 11 2626 6
via Ancestry –

If someone is recorded in a record under their initials, they can be much harder to find in search engines. It is particularly common for people to be recorded under just their initials or title in newspapers and passenger records. Women in particular may only be referred to as “Mrs” along with their surname. When conducting searches, it is necessary to look out for abbreviations and be open to the possibility that ancestors have been recorded only under their surname. It can be a challenge to locate them, especially if the name is common.

A recent search for the burial of my ancestor, Anna Maria Hammond, proved difficult because the incumbent of the parish of Holy Trinity, Queenborough, Kent, only recorded the burial under her initials:

Queenborough Holy Trinity Register of Burials 1811-1845,
Kent History and Library Centre P295/1/E/2 –
via FindMyPast –

In the burial entry above Anna Maria, only the surname Hammond was recorded in the register, which makes identification very difficult. Was it the burial of a man or a woman?

Were they Illegitimate?

Illegitimacy is frequently a reason why someone might be known by a name other than that recorded on their birth certificate. Usually, a child born illegitimately would automatically take the surname of their mother though sometimes, the surname of the reputed father would be added as an additional forename. If you are unable to find the birth certificate of an ancestor, it may be worth checking under the maiden name of their mother if this is known or can be ascertained. In some instances, the parents married shortly after the birth, so it would not be apparent that their child had been born illegitimately. Alternatively, the mother might have married someone else and the child may have taken the surname of their stepfather. Usually, the forenames will stay the same, even if the surname has changed. Occasionally, the birth certificate will provide the names of both parents, even though they were not married, and the birth will be recorded in the indexes under both the mother’s and the father’s surname as a dual registration. Be warned though that in the GRO online indexes, the birth will only be recorded under the father’s surname.

Here is the family of John and Caroline Bishop in the 1851 census of Romford, Essex:

1851 Census, Romford, Essex, National Archives (U.K.) HO107 1772 172  23
via Ancestry

You would imagine that the births of the children would be registered under the father’s surname of Bishop but in fact, the births of [Clara] Eliza and Henry are registered under their mother’s maiden name of King. A search of the baptismal registers of Romford reveals that all the children were baptised on the same day but only Elizabeth, who was born after her parents’ marriage, was recorded with the surname Bishop. Her elder siblings were born illegitimately and have the surname King, though they later assumed their father’s surname of Bishop:

Romford, Essex, Parish Registers, Essex Record Office –
Essex Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1918

via Ancestry

If you are having trouble finding a birth certificate, a baptismal record may be a useful alternative. If you already know the individual’s date of birth, this can act as a useful corroboration, as sometimes this is also recorded in the baptismal register.

What’s on the Birth Certificate?

Some parents failed to name their child when they registered the birth. This may be a reason why you can’t find a birth certificate for an ancestor. In these circumstances, the birth entry may be found in the GRO birth indexes as “Male” or “Female” along with the surname. A baptismal record may confirm whether you have the right certificate. Incidentally, it is also perfectly legal for the forename of a child on a birth certificate to be changed within 12 months of the birth being registered, if the child has not been baptised with the registered name. However, this is not a frequent occurrence and luckily, the birth record should be indexed under both names.

Alternative Custody

Not all children grew up with their parents. Some children were orphaned at an early age or grew up with extended family. Others were fostered, placed as a nurse child, sent to an industrial school or spent their childhood in a home run by a charity such as Dr Barnardo’s. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that children were often called something other than the name that they were given at birth. If they had been abandoned as a baby, their birth name might not have even been known and a new name and identity would have been created. If a child was adopted informally, the child might have taken the surname of their guardian or foster parents. Formal adoption was not instituted until 1927 and the certificate, which provides the register entry after the court made an adoption order, does not reveal the child’s name on the original birth certificate. Access to the original adoption papers will be needed to find more information on the birth and the name(s) and address of the parent(s).

Research Strategies

Rather than just focussing on the name, the family historian needs to search more creatively. It could well be the case that an ancestor is missing from a record because they were recorded under their middle name, a nickname or pet name, or under just their initials or title. Searching under just the surname (and its variants), though often laborious, may be the key to finding them. Mistakes might also have been made by the creator of the record, which may account for their apparent disappearance. Conducting searches using a known address or place, an occupation or the name of another family member can bear dividends when a person is missing from the records. Find a better transcription and look at the original record where possible. Perhaps an alternative record, such as a baptismal register, rather than a birth certificate, may provide the key. In addition, find out as much as you can about the person’s wider family, their friends and their neighbours too, in the hope of picking up some clues. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to uncovering the full story when a child has not grown up with their birth parents and their name is different from the one they were given at birth. It is best to have an open and questioning mind. Searches need to be wide-ranging and not necessarily focussed just on their name alone. Could the child have been brought up by their grandparents, or an aunt and uncle, even if census records state a different relationship? Are there any institutional records in the vicinity in which they might feature? Did they enter the workhouse? Can you find a baptism with a date of birth that matches, even though the name is different? Have you identified them in every census? DNA testing may also provide you with some answers. Newspapers are also a valuable source for finding out information on a family that cannot be found anywhere else.


Tracing a person whose name is not consistent within the records can be a big challenge. There are obviously individuals who deliberately sought to hide their past but sometimes, a person may not have consciously changed their name as such. They might appear in a record with their pet name, their middle name or simply with just their initials or title noted. Many people did not like their first name and perhaps changed it to something else. The information on a person’s name may also be incomplete or even incorrect in the records. Perhaps the circumstances surrounding their birth resulted in them having a different name to the one they were originally given as a baby. Children who were illegitimate, orphaned or abandoned may well take on a different name. Unfortunately, whatever the reason, they may be under our radar. With the rise of online search engines, we habitually type in a name on a website, hoping that our ancestor will automatically pop up in the list of entries. If nothing promising is noted, we may give up, whereas in fact, they may still feature in the records: just not under the name we were expecting. We may therefore need different and more creative research strategies to find them.


In my next post, Part 2, I will be looking at people who made a conscious decision to change their surname for good, perhaps adopting an alias or pseudonym. There could be many explanations for this choice. It could be for a nefarious reason, if a person was trying to evade creditors or family responsibilities. Perhaps they had a criminal past that they needed to hide so they assumed a new identity. Maybe a different surname was used out of convenience, or as a professional name. Alternatively, a new surname could have been a necessary prerequisite, which had to be formally adopted to enable a person to claim an inheritance. A formal change of name is often well documented and publicised. I will be examining the sources that can provide evidence of a change of surname and look at how you can trace those who used aliases or pseudonyms.

© Judith Batchelor 2021

2 thoughts on “Chameleon Ancestors – Part 1

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