Using census records to trace the owner of a birthday book… with an unexpected twist!

This guest post comes from Dr Lauren O’Hagan, sociolinguistic researcher of Edwardian material culture and class conflict.


In 1798, statistician John Rickman wrote an article stressing the need to conduct a census in Britain. He argued that “the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy” and “an industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known.” Two years later, the Census Act was passed in Parliament and in 1801, the first ever detailed, national survey was carried out. Since this date, a census has been conducted in Britain every ten years.

While the census can help the Government to develop policies, plan public services and allocate funding, for researchers, historians and genealogists, it is an incredibly valuable tool for discovering the lifestyles and characteristics of past generations. Census records provide official evidence that enables stories of individuals to be pieced together, retold and preserved for the future. When working with book inscriptions, these records are particularly useful in solving provenance mysteries. Indeed, I have the census to thank (partially) for unravelling a mystery I encountered in the Janet Powney Collection last week.

The mystery concerns a beautiful pocketbook, bound in brown cloth boards and published by Ernest Nister in the late nineteenth century. The book was entitled The Poetical Birthday Book and as the title suggests, it features a short poem per day by such popular poets as Tennyson, Longfellow and Wordsworth, with a blank space alongside where family, friends and acquaintances of the book owner could mark their birthdays.

Birthday books were a Victorian invention, which grew in popularity in the 1860s as a result of increased popular interest in graphology, personalisation and celebrity culture. For the increasingly literate population, they were seen as status symbols and were particularly used by middle-class men and women to map their expanding social circles.

Throughout my research, I have come across many birthday books and the owner’s name is usually inscribed somewhere on the front endpapers. However, the endpapers of this book were surprisingly bare. Always enthusiastic about a provenance challenge, I decided to track down the owner by researching the other names inscribed in the volume… all with the help of the trusty census, of course!

I began by making a list of all the names in the book. There were twenty-three in total, of which seventeen were women and six men. Given the social taboos of the time about women socialising with men, I started with the assumption that the book’s owner was likely to be a woman.

Next, I grouped the names together according to surnames. This resulted in nine Murrays, two Goldsmiths, two Taylors, two Watts, one Grange, one Sewell, one Collings, one Hallam, one Humphrey, one Dickinson, one Armstrong and one Pakeman. The large number of Murrays suggested that the book’s owner may also be a member of the Murray family.

Without any knowledge of the address or location of these individuals, I decided the best way to start researching would be to look up the people who had included their middle name when inscribing their birthdays in the book. The inclusion of a middle name drastically narrows down results and can make all the difference when trying to pinpoint the correct person in a record. Of course, in this case, having the specific day and month of their births was also incredibly useful.

I started by inputting the name George Cameron Murray (January 19th 1892-1978). Luckily, this only brought up one result. Bingo! The 1911 census confirmed that I had the right George when I learnt that his sister was Winifred Hannah (December 23rd 1885-1935), his brother was Norman Ramsay (July 29th 1882-1945), his father was Patrick (September 14th 1849-1919) and his mother was Hannah (April 18th 1851-1925). All of these names and birthdays were also inscribed in the birthday book. This evidence gave me my first possible clue that either Winifred or Hannah may be the owner.

The census records informed me that Patrick Ramsay was a bank manager who was born in Rothbury, Northumberland, but had moved to Cambridge as a young man and then later to London. From 1891 onwards, he and his family lived in Chiswick – an area on the outskirts of the city that became popular amongst the upper-middle classes in the late nineteenth century. His daughter Winifred was a physiotherapist, his son George was a bank clerk, while his son Norman was a solicitor. Norman was an interesting character; immigration records show that he settled in Australia in 1908 and became involved in various cases of fraud and bigamy. He appears regularly in the Adelaide police gazettes throughout the 1910s and 1920s and even served four years in prison for his crimes.

Next, I turned to Sarah Hall Murray (March 7th 1880-1974). I decided to limit my searches to either Rothbury, Northumberland (Patrick Murray’s place of birth) or Chiswick, London (Patrick’s current address). This proved fruitful. I immediately found her in Rothbury and confirmed that she was the daughter of Patrick’s younger brother, George. I was also able to establish that the other Murrays in the book (Ada, Thomas, Evelyn and A [Anne]) were other nieces and nephews of Patrick. Again, this indicated that either Hannah or Winifred was the book’s owner.

As I began to research the other names in the book, I quickly established a trend. Like Patrick and his family, most lived in Chiswick and were linked to the banking trade. Matilda Humphrey (May 9th 1865-?) and Katie Goldsworth (July 7th 1864-1933) were wives of bank managers, while Kate Pakeman (June 21st 1863-1911) was the wife of the manager of a financial firm. These facts now started to make me lean more towards Hannah Murray as the book’s owner. Perhaps the wives of these bankers socialised regularly with one another?

Then, I found the name Duncan ‘Dodo’ Goldsmith (July 4th 1895-1915), the son of the aforementioned Katie Goldsworth, also recorded in the book. Being of a similar age to Hannah’s own children, Duncan may have socialised with them or attended the same school. The affectionate nickname ‘Dodo’ certainly suggests some level of intimacy with the family. Equally, Beatrice Madeline Grange (October 30th 1885-1969), recorded as ‘Madeline’, was found to have been a schoolfriend of Winifred, as were Birdie Dickinson [née Cooper] (May 21st 1885-?) and Louisa Hallam [née Halt] (May 27th 1885-?). Seeing the amount of young girls the same age as Winifred in the book, I now began to think that she was the book’s owner and not her mother.

Of the remaining names, most were found to be located in the Chiswick area. Hilda S. Armstrong (August 17th 1884-?), Julia Taylor (July 12th 1899-?) and her sister Ann E.F. Taylor (July 24th 1818-1896), as well as Elizabeth A. Watts (May 24th 1856-?) and her daughter Emma Watts (March 1st 1882-?) all lived in the same street as the Murrays at one time or another. Unfortunately, Harry Collings (August 25th) was too common a name to be traced with certainty in the records, while A.F. Sewell (October 18th) was too vague.

So, after five hours of extensive research, I had narrowed the owner down to two possible candidates: Hannah or Winifred.

I decided to take a break from researching to photograph the little volume. As I set the book up on the supportive cushion, I noticed that its two front pages were stubbornly stuck together. I carefully pulled them apart and you would not believe what I found underneath… an inscription hand-written in black ink: “To dear little Wynnie Murray as a well-earned prize June 1893.” Argh! So, after all that effort, the book had contained an inscription all along; it was just buried under years of stiff pages from non-use. Despite this frustration, I still felt pleased with my Holmesque detective work and that the book’s owner had finally been determined. However, I also vowed to myself never to make such a simple mistake again!

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