In 2012 at Alona Tester blogged about ‘X is for signatures’. She included examples of certificates where ‘X his mark’ showed that someone could not sign his name.

I looked though my collection of birth, death and marriage certificates for examples of people who could not sign their name.
On the birth certificate of Alice Young, born in 1859, the informant, her mother Caroline née Clark, could not sign her name and made an X. On the birth certificate of Caroline Young in 1867, the informant was her father George Young. He signed his name. In 1878 the birth of James Ernest Young was registered and the informant was Caroline. This time she appears to have signed her name. The informant’s name is in a different handwriting to the details on the rest of the certificate. Perhaps Caroline had learned how to sign her name in the twenty years between the births of Alice and James.

Informant’s details from the birth certificate of Alice Young. Birth registered in Victoria number 4807 of 1859. Caroline was also the informant on John Young’s birth in 1856. She signed with her mark on that certificate too.


Informant’s details from the birth certificate of James Ernest Young. Birth registered in Victoria number 20382 of 1878. Other details from the certificate and from the preceding certificate have been left to show the difference in handwriting, which suggests that this might be the signature of Caroline.
Sarah Way née Daw was the informant on the 1868 birth certificate of her daughter Emily Way. She could not sign her name and made a mark. However, in 1896 Sarah’s husband John Way signed his name as the informant for the registration of the death of his son John.

When she registered the birth in 1864 of Henry Dawson at Corby, Lincolnshire, Eliza Dawson née Skerritt, his mother, could not sign her name. Her husband Isaac was able to sign his name when they married in 1855. She signed the marriage register with her mark.

These are the only examples I could find in my family documents of people who could not write their own name. All three women were great great great grandmothers of my husband. Eleven of his other great great great grandparents could sign their name.

These women were all born in the first half of the nineteenth century. All their husbands could sign their own names. In the next generation, their children, both girls and boys, could write their own name.

Some demographers have argued that illiteracy is linked to the size of families, in particular that education diminishes fertility. For example, a study of demographic changes in Britain from the 1850s to the early twentieth century found that “the extension of basic literacy is related to increases in female labour market participation, which is in turn related to fertility reduction”. (Newell and Gazeley) The data from my family does not support this hypothesis. None of the women in the table below were ever in paid employment. I cannot see any link between the literacy of my own and my husband’s great great great grandparents and the size of their families.


Age at marriage, children and dates of birth for our great great great grandmothers


Name Ahnentafel number literacy number of children age at marriage age when first child born age when last child born age at death lived Notes
Caroline Clarke 33 no 13 18 18 43 44 1835-1879 Includes one set of twins.
Sarah Daw 35 no 10 17 18 37 58 1837-1895  
Ellen Murray 37 passenger list stated she could read and write 11 19 20 41 64 1837-1901  
Margaret Smyth 39 passenger list stated she could read and write 7 21 19 38 63 1834-1897 had a child before she married
Eliza Sinden 43 signature appears on birth and death certificates 8 25 26 41 85 1823-1908  
Eliza Skerrit 45 no 10 21 24 38 65 1834-1899 Includes one set of triplets. This is the only English family. The last child was born at the time Eliza’s husband, Isaac Dawson, died.
Caroline Ralph 47 signature appears on marriage certificate 10 20 21 43 46 1850-1896  
Annie Frances Chauncy 49 yes 2 20 21 24 25 1857-1883 died young
Jeanie Hawkins 51 yes 4 21 22 31 79 1862-1941  
Margaret Budge 53 yes 13 21 22 44 67 1845-1912  
Ellen Jane Mainwaring 55 yes 10 20 20 37 75 1845-1920  

The women in this table were Australian, with the exception of that of Eliza Skerrit, wife of Isaac Dawson, who was from Lincolnshire, England. I have not included my German great great great grandparents as I do not have the relevant data.

A graphical representation of the above data for our great great great grandmothers

click to enlarge


  • Newell, A. and Gazeley, I. (2012) The declines in infant mortality and fertility: Evidence from British cities in demographic transition, Economics Department Working Paper Series, University of Sussex, No. 48-2012 retrieved from 27 April 2014