Birthday Mystery

Birthday Mystery

This unsolved mystery, while trivial, gives insight into the difficulties of historical research.

In his Autobiography, Eyre records his birth date as the 5th August 1815. However, on his tombstone it is given as the 15th August 1815.

Which was accurate, the 5th or 15th?

Perhaps there was an error in the Autobiography because such errors creep in at editorial or typesetter level? Or perhaps Jill Waterhouse (who composed Eyre’s Autobiography from his previously unpublished papers) misread Eyre’s faint yellow scrawl when transcribing the sentence? Personally, I have found some of his writings to be illegible even using a magnifying glass.

Or is the tombstone correct? Usually a headstone is completed after the burial and, if the date was in error, this may have passed unnoticed by the family. However, Ada was buried beside him 3½ years later. Surely, at that time the error would have been noticed and instructions been given for it to be corrected? But perhaps they considered it best to leave it be?

This should be an easy detail for an author to resolve, shouldn’t it? All we’d have to do is chase down the birth certificate and check the date on it, right? Wrong! I found that the Whipsnade Anglican church records went only as far as 1812 on the internet, so emails flew back and forth. Here is an extract from an email from Bryan Payne of the Bedfordshire Family History Society in response to my enquiries. His reply is self-explanatory:

I can tell you that church records do not stop at 1812. However, that’s as far as they are transcripted and indexed at the moment. Work is going on to transcribe the later record up to 1837. 1837 is when civil registration started and therefore you can get birth, marriages and death certificates from that date on.

You are not going to be able to get a birth certificate for 1815, just the baptism date, which could be a few days or months different from the birth.

My last hope was for the date on the baptismal certificate to lie between the 5th and the 15th, in which case the earlier date would be correct. However, further research showed that the baptism was on the 17th August. This favours the earlier birth date but is not conclusive; babies considered at risk were sometimes baptised very soon after birth.

My last resort was to investigate the original page in Eyre’s autobiography in case there had been an unnoticed “1” in front of the “5”. Tracy Bradford, Head of Manuscripts Section at the Mitchell Library in Sydney that houses the original, kindly looked for me. Her reply included:

I have looked at the volume A1806 this afternoon, and the entry definitely reads ‘The 5th of August was my 23rd Birthday…’. Eyre’s handwriting is quite small and difficult to read in parts, but it is quite clear that there is no ‘1’ preceding the ‘5’.

Whatever the reason for the disparity in birthdates, it was not because Jill Waterhouse missed anything. Not that I had thought she would. Just checking!

There it is then. Eyre’s true birth date will have to remain a mystery.

In the book I assumed August 5th to be correct, but nothing important would have to be changed should it be discovered some time in the future that August 15th was actually his birthday.

As a consequence of similar uncertainties in birthdates, a few ages given in the text may not be precise despite efforts I have made to verify them. The errors, should there be any, would comprise a maximum variation of one year.