Two people with the same name – so which is my ancestor?

Case study: Two people of the same name, age and living in the same place!

Ellen Malser Thorne
Ellen Malser Thorne

I was looking a bit closer at some of my own ancestors for a change today. Normally I am so involved in researching for other people that I can be accused of neglecting my own family tree. But with a bit of time to myself I decided to take a look again at a branch that had an unresolved question. One that I really needed to sort out, as I last wrote about her in a post back in 2012!

In Victorian Portsmouth I have a marriage of a lady in 1859 into my paternal line with the bride, Ellen Malser, being from Portsea and the groom, Henry Thomas Thorn, from Devon.

In the census of 1861 my 2x great grandmother was aged 28, so suggesting a birth year of 1833. In other census her age points to being born in 1833 or 1834 and confusingly there is another Ellen Malser also living in Portsea Island in the 1851 census who is also born in 1833.

One is the daughter of James and Martha Malser, while the other is the daughter of John and Rosanna Malser. Both James and John are Mariners to add to the confusion.

Probably the two Ellens were cousins. But which one should I have been researching so as to include in my family tree as my great-great grandmother?


First Principle: Don’t use only one set of records

To resolve this conundrum I have, of course, to look at some other records to understand more about my Ellen. I turned first to see if I could find the marriage of my great great grandparents and discovered it in the records for Portsea.

Seeking out the image of the parish record held at the Portsmouth Library and History Centre I can see that Ellen Malser married Henry Thomas Thorn in February 1859. Ellen stated at the time that her father is James Malser, a Master Mariner.

Now this record provides her father’s name to add to my tree.


Portsmouth Library and History Centre
Portsmouth Library and History Centre


Two brides or one marrying twice?

A few years earlier, in 1856, an Ellen Malser married a William Bernthall. At first I had to consider if this was the other Ellen Malser, or had my great grandmother been previously married before she wed Henry?

By turning to an image of the actual marriage in 1859, from the documents in the record office, I can see that she is noted to be a spinster. Taking that information away now points to the earlier marriage being for the other Ellen Malser and illustrates why a look at the original document (or an image of it) can be of great benefit to a family history researcher.


Baptism record provides alternative date to the census

From here I now wanted to find Ellen’s birth or baptism, so with the knowledge that she was the daughter of James and Martha I found that the Hampshire Genealogical Society had transcribed a baptism in St. Thomas church, Portsmouth on the 27th May 1832.

Despite the year being earlier than that recorded on the various census, the fact that it reveals that her father, James, was a Mariner and lived in East Street gave me confidence that this indeed was the right woman.

I had already found the Malser family in East Street in the 1841 census where Ellen and her three sisters lived. The other family of Malsers were in another street.


When someone vanishes: follow collateral lines

In 1851, however, James and Martha Malser and children seem to disappear. Ellen is now a servant in a house in Portsea Island but her 14 year old sister, Rosanna is still living in East Street. The difference is that only her 70 year old grandfather, Jas Malser is recorded in the household.

With this additional information, at least, I now have a lead to get the family another generation back, as he had not been under the same roof in the earlier count – but now I wondered why the girls parents were not in the 1851 census?

Checking for deaths I have now found that the younger James (their father) had died in 1845 aged 43 and so I have just ordered a pdf death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO).

Where their mother had gone at this stage I have yet to discover. I do know that she ends her days as a patient in the Portsea Workhouse in 1870 aged 70 from a death record obtained from the GRO.

The older James (Jas) Malser is also recorded as being a Mariner in the census, as had been his son, and Jas’s place of birth is Hythe in Hampshire.

Society of Genealogists

Searching at the Society of Genealogists I came across the Trinity House petitions, though they are also at The Guildhall Library in London, and these records can be used to sometimes find a mariner before 1835.

The Corporation of Trinity House was a guild that assisted mariners and their families should they fall on hard times. By the 19th century the guild was awarding pensions to mariners and housing others in almshouses. To receive help mariners had to submit a petition to the Corporation of Trinity House and we are lucky that these survive from 1787 to 1854.

There are two petitions for the name Malser, one in 1822 for a Thomas Malser aged 75 in the Parish of Hythe and another for James Allen Malser, aged 73 in 1851 at… East Street, Portsmouth. This second one is, presumably, Ellen and Rossanna’s grandfather and the first in Hythe, where James had been born, could be their great grandfather (or another relative) bearing in mind the 29 years between the two petitions to Trinity House. I will have to do more research on this new line of inquiry.

The result of using other records and not just relying on a superficial scan of the census, that many are tempted to be happy with, means that I am more certain of which particular Ellen Malser to claim into my family tree. I was also able to then go on to gather leads to get me back another generation, but time has run out and this further research will have to wait for another day!



I am hoping that this case study has demonstrated why people, who are new to family history research, should try hard to discover what other records are available to help them find their elusive ancestors.


Post Script: On my last visit to Portsmouth I went to the area that now houses the Ben Ainslie Racing HQ. It turns out that this was where East Street once stood, but it has long since been flattened!

Old Portsmouth
Old Portsmouth with the BAR HQ in the distance on the left
Broad Street, Portsmouth,
Broad Street, Portsmouth, off which ran East Street


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