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I am in the process of researching my father’s family tree and I have encountered problems trying to trace his paternal line. Having a common surname like WILSON is presenting obvious difficulties. I have been unable, with any degree of confidence, to progress any further back than my great-grandfather, William (Gerrard) WILSON (1877–1943).

            According to his birth certificate, William was born on 20th Jan 1877, at Kew Road in the Southport area of Birkdale. His father was Robert WILSON, railway guard, and his mother was Mary Janet (née DICKINSON). The middle name ‘Gerrard’ appears only once – on the family headstone in Leigh Cemetery, Lancashire.

            In 1899 he married Mary Elizabeth ECKERSLEY. I managed to obtain a copy of his and Mary’s marriage certificate of 1st April 1899. William’s father is listed as being James Robert WILSON (deceased), a bricklayer by profession. They had four children: James Robert Wilson (my grandfather), Lilian, Thomas and Mary. In the 1901 census William is living, with his fledgling family and several in-laws, in Leigh. His birth place is given as ‘Southport’.

            I then managed to find what I think is some relevant information from the 1881 census for Newton in Makerfield (now Newton Le Willows) in Lancashire. In this instance, the head of the household is James WILSON, born c1844 in Seaforth, near Liverpool. He is a bricklayer by profession. His wife is Mary Jane WILSON, born c1844 in Waterloo, also near Liverpool. There is also a William WILSON, born in Birkdale in about 1876.

            I searched for William WILSON but the closest match I came across was for a William Wilson born in Ormskirk in 1877. I have been led to believe that Ormskirk was the civil district that Birkdale would have come under during this period. From this information I managed to obtain a birth certificate for this particular William Wilson. He was born in Birkdale in January 1877. His father was ROBERT WILSON, a railway porter, and his mother was Mary Janet WILSON, formerly DICKINSON. I then managed to trace basic details of a marriage between a Robert WILSON and a Mary J DICKINSON in the West Derby area of Liverpool in 1866.

                My problem is that there are variations between the pieces of information on the documents. Some of the changes may be slight but this makes me think that I may be on the trail of the wrong William WILSON with regard to his parentage and that all the various documents I have may be totally unconnected to each other.

            Is it possible that the form of a name can change over time, ie Robert WILSON to James WILSON to James Robert WILSON? Also, was it common for a person’s occupation to change so radically, ie from railway porter to bricklayer? I know that I have presented you with quite a convoluted problem but I hope you can set me straight. To assist you I have enclosed copies of some of the relevant documents with some common factors highlighted.


George Wilson


I note, firstly, that the marriage of William WILSON and Mary Elizabeth ECKERSLEY, in 1899, took place in the Methodist Chapel, Cook Street, Leigh. This may indicate previous, and future, connection with Methodism on one or both side of the family.

            Having looked at a copy of the entry for the household of James Wilson in the 1881 census (directions) that you have referred to, I note that the family consists of the following: James and Mary Jane Wilson, their children Elizabeth M (aged 11, born Sutton), Mary H (aged eight, born Liverpool) James R (aged six, born Birkdale) William (aged four, born Birkdale) and Cecelia A (aged one, born Newton le Willows).

          You have identified a William WILSON, born in 1877, but the Indexes to Births include three possible entries in the period in Ormskirk RD, which you rightly say covers Birkdale, in September Quarter 1874, March Quarter 1877 and June Quarter 1878. The last of these could be a possibility.

          To confirm if any of these does relate to your William WILSON, you could search for the birth of one of his siblings listed in the 1881 census. For example, there is a probable entry for his next brother, James R WILSON, who was said to be born in 1874. The entry was in the December Quarter 1874, in Ormskirk RD. Applying for this certificate will give you the names of both parents which will confirm, or not, the William Wilson certificate you have. On the face of it, it does seem less than likely that Robert WILSON, a railway porter, is the correct parent. 

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