Two of the things that are pointed out to people starting to research their family history are that they must be sure to check all possible sources, and that they are almost certain to find skeletons in the cupboard. My own experience bears this out.
I have spent the past three years trying to find the birth of my wife's grandfather, William George Cornish. We knew that he was married to Helena Jervis at Brighton in 1902. They lived in Hackney in 1904 when their son William Jervis Cornish was born. They moved to Haywards Heath, Sussex, and he died at Plungar, a small village near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire in 1908, where he was buried as there was insufficient money to take the body back to Sussex. From the marriage and death certificates I calculated that he had been born in about 1873, but diligent searches at St Catherine's House revealed no trace of the birth. Nor was there any record in Scotland.
I tried working from the other end. We knew that my wife's great grandfather was William Cornish, a pharmaceutical chemist who had a business in Modbury, Devon and them Brighton, Sussex. At least, we assumed that this was my wife's 2 x great grandfather as we had an illuminated address presented to William and his wife on the occasion of their golden wedding in 1889.
That led me to the wedding of William Cornish and Thomasin Smale at Topsham, Devon in 1839, and subsequently the birth of another William Cornish at Exeter in 1840. But there was no trace of him marrying. Indeed he disappeared completely after the 1861 Census when he was living with his parents in Brighton and assisting his father in the family business.
It was only this year that I decided to look for the dates on which William the elder and Thomasin died and to obtain copies of their death certificates. The certificate for Thomasin , dated 1893, showed that the informant was her grandson, William George Cornish of 191 Ditchling Rise, Brighton.
The 1891 Census showed that Thomasin was at that address then - together with her grandchildren William George Cornish and Florence Cornish, both born in Melbourne, Australia.
A look at the Victoria state registers on microfiche at the Society of Genealogists soon provided details of the marriage of William Cornish to Mary Ann Boyd, the birth of their four children (and death of two), and the death of Mary Ann. If only I had checked all sources earlier!
The biggest skeleton discovered so far concerns my wife's mother. She was born in Brighton in April 1904, given the names of Kathleen Eva, and her birth certificate shows her parents as William Packham and Catherine Emma Packham formerly Packham . Naturally her surname was recorded as Packham. But in August that year she was baptised at Streatham as Kathleen Eva King . There is no apparent reason for the trip to Streatham or for her surname being shown in the church magazine as King.
Eight years later, Kathleen's sister Ivy Vera Packham was born and her birth certificate shows the parents as being William Packham and Catherine Emma Packham, formerly Packham. And then in 1918 another girl was born - Winifred May. But her birth certificate shows her parents as Joseph King and Catherine Emma King formerly Packham.
Win has never married, but both Kathleen and Ivy gave their names as King when they married, and their marriage certificates both show their father as Joseph King. When their mother, Catherine Emma, died in 1942 her name was given as King.
Joseph, if that was his name, left his Catherine only months after the birth of Win. To add to the mystery, when Win started work there was a boy about her age named Islip who was working in the same factory. He claimed that his father was also the father of Win.
I have been unable to find any trace of a marriage between Catherine Emma Packham and either William Packham or Joseph King. Indeed I suspect that William and Joseph were one and the same, but can offer no reason for the change of name. And why was Kathleen registered as Packham but baptised as King? And why go to Streatham for the baptism? It seems likely that the answers would involve some sort of nefarious activity.
Unfortunately both Kathleen and Ivy died before we realised that there was any mystery and Win knows nothing about it, so no doubt it will remain a mystery for evermore. I am only sorry that I cannot provide a better conclusion. But this only underlines the fact that skeletons can and do surface in the most surprising places.