The Joy of Signatures

As family historians, we should never rely on transcripts. Access to original documents, or at least, to digital images of original documents is an essential part of the process of genealogical research. Even the most thorough and comprehensive transcripts are likely to omit something important. It may be a seemingly insignificant misspelling of a particular word or something added in the margin, or perhaps a word that has been crossed out. A transcriber may not see the significance of any of this (or may well have been told not to include such things in their transcription) but to the experienced researcher, it’s these little things that can make all the difference.

And there’s one aspect of an original document that no transcript can ever accurately reproduce; namely the signatures, or other marks, made by our ancestors. Signatures can be an enormously useful problem-solving tool; by comparing a signature on one document with a signature on another we can attempt to work out whether or not the two documents relate to the same person.

First a word of caution: many of the documents that we view online are actually copies of the originals and therefore don’t include our ancestor’s actual signatures. We’re most likely to encounter this with the Church of England’s Bishop’s Transcripts. These were copies of parish register entries, sent annually to the relevant Diocesan archive. The ‘signatures’ on these copies are in fact simply the names of the groom, the bride and the witnesses, written by the clerk making the copy. Similarly, the marriage certificates sent out by the General Register Office are scanned copies of the registers held by them, which are themselves, copies of the originals. Any attempt to use these ‘signatures’ as part of a problem-solving process is doomed to failure!

So, where can we expect to come across our ancestors’ signatures? This list is by no means exhaustive, but the most common sources are:

  •     post-1754 parish register marriage entries
  •     marriage licence bonds and allegations
  •     1911 census schedules
  •     army service records (enlistment papers)
  •     original wills – both as testators and witnesses
  •     merchant navy crew lists

I’m often surprised at how distinctive signatures can be; the idiosyncratic way in which someone adds a flourish at the end of their surname, or the way that they dot their ‘i’s, or consistently use that characteristic capital ‘D’. The best way to understand how diverse people’s handwriting styles were, is to look at how two members of the same family wrote their surname. It’s often the differences which help us to focus on the similarities.


The Wedding Register Edmund Blair Leighton (undated)

Take Joseph Truman for example. Here we have his signature from his marriage in 1773:[1]

Joseph Truman 1773

And here, three years later, we have what is clearly the same Joseph Truman signing the register as a witness to his sister’s marriage – you don’t need to be a graphologist to see the similarities here. And you just need to glance at the signature of the other witness, Richard Truman, to see how completely different that is.[2]

Joseph Truman 1776

I’ve successfully used this process countless times to help with breaking down brick walls. We need to fight the natural desire to see a link when perhaps there isn’t one. One technique that I use to help with this is to spend some time looking closely at the signature that I know relates to the subject of my research, looking for the sort of idiosyncrasies mentioned above, before I look at the potential match. I think carefully about what I’m looking for; which feature or features of the signature am I hoping to see? In the case of Joseph Truman, I would have focussed on the distinctive way that he forms the capital ‘T’ in his surname – and I would have been instantly convinced that I had a match.

Sometimes, there can be no doubt whatsoever. Here are the signatures of Joseph Andrews from an Army Commission paper dating from 1800:[3]

John Andrews 1800

And here’s a signature from the original copy of his 1801 will:[4]

John Andrews 1801

But sometimes, it’s less clear-cut. Here we have the signature of a man called Richard Bushby at the time of his marriage in 1801:[5]

Richard Bushby 1801

And is this the same man signing his army discharge papers in 1814?[6]

Richard Bushby 1814

There are a number of similarities – the pronounced curve on the ‘d’ at the end of Richard, the overall shape of the capital ‘B’ but the final ‘y’ is quite different in the two. On balance, I concluded that there was enough here to encourage me to pursue the line and further research confirmed that it was the same Richard.

We need to bear in mind the different circumstances in which the person was signing their name and we need to remember that different pens are always likely to alter the style to a degree. Most importantly, we need to consider the effects of time. The signature of a young man or woman is always likely to be bolder; more firm and controlled than that of their older self. A few years ago, I found a rather moving example of this.

We first meet John Barber (in a signature sense) in 1789 at the time of his first marriage, where he displays a firm hand:[7]

John Barber 1789

Note the distinctive gap between the ‘Bar’ and the ‘ber’ in his signature. This was a feature that I was able to track down through the years.

In 1812, John was appointed to the role of parish clerk (in Poynings, Sussex) and his signature starts to appear regularly in the marriage register:[8]

John Barber 1812

By February 1838, now aged 70, his signature is showing the signs of age:[9]

John Barber 1838 (1)

And in October the same year, we have what turned out to be John’s final signature – or rather, his final attempt at a signature:[10]

John Barber 1838 (2)

John died seven years later.

Of course, not all of our ancestors were literate – in fact, large numbers of them weren’t – but we need to be careful here. An inability to sign the register might be temporary – a sprained wrist or a broken arm could be the explanation – and there is another possibility to consider, referenced by Charles Dickens in Bleak House:[11]

I happened to stroll into the little church when a marriage was just concluded, and the young couple had to sign the register.

The bridegroom, to whom the pen was handed first, made a rude cross for his mark; the bride, who came next, did the same. Now, I had known the bride when I was last there, not only as the prettiest girl in the place, but as having quite distinguished herself in the school, and I could not help looking at her with some surprise. She came aside and whispered to me, while tears of honest love and admiration stood in her bright eyes, “He’s a dear good fellow, miss; but he can’t write yet—he’s going to learn of me—and I wouldn’t shame him for the world!”

The marks left by our ancestors in the registers are, by default, indistinctive. I haven’t yet been able to prove that two marks made on different documents relate to the same person – that may be a bridge too far!

A final thought: there is one vast source of signatures – probably the biggest source out there – which is currently inaccessible to us. Since 1837, every time one of our ancestors was born and every time one of them died, someone – usually a relative – registered the event, and as part of the process, they were asked to sign the register. These registers are still in the hands of the local registrars but usually, when we order a copy of a certificate from a local register office, what we get is a written or typed copy. We have no legal right of access to the original and although some local offices now produce copies by scanning their original registers, the registrar’s obligation is simply to provide a copy so, in the vast majority of cases, we don’t get to see the informant’s signature. Maybe one day this will change. The oldest records are now nearly 183 years old; their legal purpose has long since passed and they’re now only of historical interest. There’s a good case for any records over 100 years old to be deposited in the relevant local archives – but I’m not holding my breath!

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 May 2020

This blog was originally published as part of the A-Z Blog Challenge 2020 at:

[1] From marriage of Joseph Tru(e)man & Elizabeth Ellis, 11 April 1773, St John, Horsleydown – London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) P71/JN/040 p.175
[2] From marriage of Samuel Port & Elizabeth Truman, 9 June 1776, St Olave, Bermondsey – LMA P71/OLA/024 p.74
[3] From Memoranda of appointments, promotions and resignations: 7, 14, 21, 28 August 1800 (Army commission papers) – The National Archives (TNA) WO 31/100
[4] From Prerogative Court of Canterbury original will of John Andrews, 1801 – TNA PROB 10/3576
[5] From marriage of Richard Bushby & Jane Jordan, 26 January 1801, St Mary, Lambeth – LMA P85/MRY1/394 p.229
[6] From Army service record of Richard Bushby, 1793-1814, 1st Foot Guards – TNA WO 97/159
[7] From marriage of John Barber & Sarah Gumbril, 30 November 1789, Holy Trinity, Poynings – West Sussex Record Office (WSRO) Par 451/1/1/5 p.2
[8] From marriage of Thomas Burtenshaw & Elizabeth Barber, 11 October 1812, Holy Trinity, Poynings – WSRO Par 451/1/1/5 p.8
[9] From marriage of James Burchall & Mary Graimes, 11 February 1838, Holy Trinity, Poynings – WSRO Par 451/1/3/2 p.1
[10] From marriage of Henry Hollingdale & Eliza Aylesbury, 27 October 1838, Holy Trinity, Poynings – WSRO Par 451/1/3/2 p.2
[11] Bleak House, Charles Dickens (1853) Chapter XXXVI – (accessed 30 May 2020)

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