Lost in transcription

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Abcherley. Etcherley. Alcharley. Otcherley. Atsbutey. Staterley. Atckeriny. McKerley. Atchuley. Wehlrsay. All of these are transcriptions of the surname Atcherley. Source: various online genealogy record sets.

Parish registers, census schedules, passenger lists, indexes of birth, marriages and deaths. These and many other sources contain records which are vital for building family trees and for learning about the lives of the people in those trees. When I first started researching my Atcherley ancestors, I imagined that finding the records I needed would be a doddle. I was, after all, looking for a surname which is quite distinctive and fairly rare – how difficult could it be to track down all the records relating to people with that surname? Well, it turned out that sometimes it can be very difficult indeed. People named Atcherley can all too easily become “lost in transcription.”

For the most part, finding Atcherley records in the various online databases has been the easy task I thought it would be. I soon became aware of the two common variants of the name, Atcherly and Acherley. Gradually, however, I came to realise that the record sets I was searching contained many other different spellings of the name, which were mainly the result of transcription errors. The combination of a rare and therefore unfamiliar name, and the less than clear handwriting that is often a feature of the documents from which family records are sourced, means that in many cases the name ‘Atcherley’ is not recognised and so is copied incorrectly.

While we often speak of “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” it seems that people didn’t always cross their t’s in days gone by and so there are records which appear to relate to people named Alcherley. Any one of the letters in the Atcherley name can be mistaken for another though, and I have found Abcherley, Archerley, Ataherley, Atcharley, Atchesley, Stcherley and many others. These errors however seem quite tame in comparison with those in which two or more letters have become mangled. Examples include Alchreley, Aldersley, Athelly, Atckeriny, Stcharles and McHaley! Typos can also occur, resulting in one or more letters being duplicated, transposed, missed out completely, or replaced by a neighbouring letter on the keyboard. Hence the appearance of Attcherley, Atchery, Atcherlet and others.

Lost in transcription: two for the price of one!

Another source of ‘transcription’ errors is Optical Character Recognition or OCR software. This is used to translate (or ‘machine read’) scanned pages from books into text, so that the content of those pages can be indexed and made searchable. By and large this works well and I have found numerous valuable references to Atcherley ancestors and cousins in old books (at Google Books and Archive.org), historic newspapers (various sites covering the UK, America, Australia and New Zealand), county and city directories (at Ancestry and the Historical Directories website), the London Gazette and even telephone directories (Ancestry again). OCR works best when the printed words it tries to recognise are nice and clear. When they are not, errors occur just as when we humans try to decipher old handwriting. There are several groups of letters which can be regarded as interchangeable in machine-read text such as c, e and o; i and l; l and t; b and h; h and k; h and n, and even n and u. If the tail of a y isn’t clear, it can become a v. OCR errors include Atcberley, Ateherley, Atckerley, Atoherley, Atchorley, Atchertey, Atcnerley and Atcherlev. (The example shown above is from the Papers Past website.)

Sometimes Atcherley is mistaken for other, similar names (and variations of them) such as Atherley / Atherly, Atchley / Atchly and Ackerley / Ackerly. Atherleys and Ackerleys in records from Shropshire usually (though not always) turn out to be Atcherleys. Move north into Cheshire however and it tends to be the Ackerleys (who occur frequently in that county) who are lost in transcription, only to be replaced by bogus Acherleys!

Variations of Atcherley do not always arise from mistakes made in copying or transcribing written records. Errors can occur in the original source documents because the people creating them simply wrote the name as they heard it. This is the most likely explanation for the Atcherleys who have had their surname recorded as Hatcherley, and it might also account for the occasional Hetcherley and Etcherley.

How did I find all those Atcherleys who were lost in transcription? In many cases, by searching census record sets using just forenames with birth years and places, looking for possible matches and confirming them by viewing the images of the census schedules. By making extensive use of wildcard searches of databases that allow this (e.g. “a*cherl*y” or “*tch*l*y”). By writing (or scribbling!) the name Atcherley on a piece of paper in different styles and guessing how the letters might be interpreted by others. By learning from the transcription and OCR errors that I have found, and searching for variants of the name which I would not otherwise have considered. By taking account of the usual geographic distribution of surnames similar to Atcherley. And sometimes by accident or good fortune!

My knowledge of the Atcherleys and their lives has increased considerably as a result, and I have had the occasional laugh along the way. How else could I react when I found Tom Atcherley Pugh (son of James Pugh and Lucy Atcherley) transcribed as Gone A. Pugh?!?