This year or last year

Have you ever caught yourself, during the first week or two of a new year, out of habit still writing or typing the old year? It’s too easy a mistake to make: for 52 weeks you’ve been using the old year and it takes a week or two to absorb the novelty of the new one.

The BT27 passenger lists show us that this error has probably always been with us. The archive box full of passenger lists says they date from 1909, say. But you take out a list and there on the front page, as clear as day, it says January 1908. Surely, you think, the list couldn’t have taken a full year to reach the Board of Trade, the British government department for whose use and enjoyment these meticulously compiled lists of passengers were originally intended. No. You turn to the summary page, which usually bears the imprimatur of the Board of Trade, and sure enough this is endorsed by a BT official with a rubber stamp giving a date in January 1909. Then you realise: a clerk simply forgot the recent change in the calendar when writing out the list. Doubtless the Board of Trade officials were not infallible either, although I have yet to discover my first instance of them getting the year wrong. But it is another illustration of how errors abound in original, primary source material and how all of us researchers need to remain alert.

The accompanying image shows a variation upon this theme. In this case, the clerk (seemingly the Emigration Officer Mr Findlay) has unwittingly written the date on the top of this single page passenger list as 2nd January 1896, while at the foot of the page Mr Sargent the Officer of Customs, who received and countersigned the document a couple of days later, has dated it correctly as 4th January 1897.



One Response to This year or last year

  1. Sarah B. says:

    A great example of why you need to take official records with a pinch of salt – and also why you must look at the document, rather than just a transcription, to understand the context of an historical record. Just wanted to say how much I’ve been enjoying all the idiosyncasies you’ve been uncovering in these records. Keep up the good work!

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