When is Heenan not Heenan?
No that isn’t a trick question.
Census enumerators in England and Wales clearly had a problem with the Heenan surname. Perhaps the householder trying to answer their questions had a strong Irish accident so the enumerator misheard what they were told. Or they had never come across the name before and had to guess at the spelling.
Either way, the census returns for England and Wales show some very creative approaches to the surname.
Versions I’ve come across include Hernan, Feenan, Henan, Hernan, Hanan and Herron.
I shouldn’t have been surprised because my own experience over the years has been that people do find it difficult to spell my surname. I regularly get letters with incorrect spellings – some even more creative than the census versions. I’ve been called Eynon and Heinon for example.
In my Heenan research I’ve come across many cases where the error lies not with the enumerator but with more people who are involved in transcribing the original records to produce an index of the kind found on Ancestry or Find my Past.
Here the most common error is to transcribe Heenan as Keenan. It’s easy to see how the error happens – some writers do in fact have an H that looks very much like a K and its only by checking other text by the same enumerator that you can work out which is the correct spelling.
Take a look at this entry from the 1891 census. It’s of a family in Tranmere, Cheshire, England.
Which of them was correct?
You have to look carefully at the way the letter H is written by this enumerator. The shape used for the word ‘Head’ and the description “Housekeeper” and distinctly different to the way the first letter of the surname is shown. On that basis I’d say the Find My Past transcribers were right to decide this is Keenan.
They are not always right so I have to check every entry from the index with the original.
There are a few lessons here for all researchers:
- always check the original document rather than relying on the transcription
- try using different versions of the name when doing a search of records. The person you think was called Heenan may be lurking under a different name.
- it’s worth learning how to do wild card searching – they can often throw up unexpected results.