Marriage records after 1753 contain the signatures or marks of our ancestors, and these are often seen as evidence of our ancestors’ ability to read and write.  One of the biggest mistakes family historians can make, however, is to assume that if they made their mark, then they must have been illiterate – meaning they could not read or write.  The question of literacy has been investigated for a long time, usually looking at the ability to write as this was easier to prove.


Even in our own lifetimes the ability to read is usually achieved before we learn how to write, and so it was with our ancestors.  Until 1880 when education in the UK became compulsory, schools and their individual curriculums differed from village to village and between the towns. Some taught reading, others taught reading and writing, whilst others did not teach either. Many historians have proved that there is little to link improved literacy with school based education. In fact literacy levels were improving before the 1870’s when ‘school boards’ were set up to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed, even though attendance at that stage was not compulsory.

Even if your ancestors did not attend school as a child, they may still have been able to read if they had been taught at home. Working class people may have been able to read, even if it was just reading the bible ‘by rote’.  Studies have shown that in some cases men and women of different classes could read the bible but would struggle to read anything else.

In 1838 in the area of Hernhill, Kent there was a revolt by agricultural workers and one of the outcomes of this was a survey of the inhabitants of the area, which included questions regarding their ability to read and write. This survey showed that one third of the children who were under the age of 13 years and attended school could not read or write, however 14% could read and write, the remainder could not write but could read either fluently or just a little.  The survey also found that 41% of the men, who could not sign their name, could read.


How much can be learnt by looking at people signatures?  Did they sign their name or make their mark? If they signed, was it a confident signature or more tentative?  As today, children may have learnt how to write their own names before they wrote anything else, therefore it is feasible that a tentative signature may mean that the writer could only write their name and nothing else, that they were not used to writing and found the pen difficult to use, or (as is the case with my own signature at the time of my marriage) the bride or groom was so nervous and filled with excitement that their signature appears shaky even though they could write perfectly.

Just because they had been taught to write as children does not mean they kept that skill.  Family historians may be forgiven for believing that if a young person signed their name at the time of their marriage, they would be able to do the same later in life. Research, however, has proved that this is not the always the case and a young woman may have been able to sign her name when she married, but, due to a lack of practise, could not when she remarried several years later.

In the survey mentioned earlier, 64% of men and women who could sign their names, could read and write, 27% could only read, and 9% could not read or write.  The majority of those who could read, but could only sign their names or make their marks, were agricultural labourers.


Illiterate or could they read?

Whereas being unable to read or write today is seen as shameful, in the time of many of our ancestors the ability to read and/or write may have been seen as a luxury.  Many children were taught the skills they needed to live and work, which for boys often meant using the different tools and knowledge for farming the land, or becoming skilled at another occupation, for the girls, how to run a household.  In addition the cost of paper, pens, ink and books would be beyond the reach of many.  It would have been common for some people to be able to read, even just a little, and yet not be able to write their names. Some of the adults may have been taught how to read, and possibly write, as children but through a lack of practise had since lost the ability to do either.

So the next time you see the mark or signature of your ancestors remember that they may still have been able to read, but not necessarily known how to write anything other than their name.


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Read More:

Going to School.

Neuberg, Victor E. (1969) Literacy in 18th Century England. A Caveat. The Local Population Studies Society. No: 2 (Spring 1969) p.44-46.

Reay, Barry (1991) The Context and Meaning of Popular Literacy: Some Evidence From Nineteenth Century Rural England.  Past and Present Society No: 131. p. 89-129.

Stevens, W.B. (1990) Literacy in England, Scotland and Wales, 1500-1900. History of Education Quarterly, Vol: 30. No: 4. p. 545-571.