Methodology Spotlight

Corrected birth record of Wilhelmus Bernardus van Elk

Civil records are one of the most reliable sources. That is what we teach beginning genealogists in the Netherlands. In general, that statement is correct. Nevertheless, civil registrars were and are human beings and we all make mistakes. What if a name in a birth record was wrong?

The birth record of Wilhelmus Bernardus van Elk (Appeltern, 1835) has a remark in the margin that says his family name was changed into Van Eldik.
Civil registration (Appeltern, Gelderland, Netherlands), births 1835, record no. 45, Wilhelmus Bernardus van Eldik, 20 August 1835; “Personen zoeken,” database with images, GeldersArchief ( : viewed 26 July 2020), image 111 of 454.


The original record shows the birth of Wilhelmus Bernardus, son of Jacob van Elk and Johanna van Rossum. As we explained in a previous article, Dutch birth records typically mention only the first names of the child and not the family name. As a result, Wilhelmus Bernardus’ official family name was Van Elk.

When we read the note in the margin, we see that the family name Van Elk was apparently wrong. The note says:

“By judgment of the District Court in Nijmegen dated 17 August 1858, the document to the right was corrected, namely that the name Jacob van Elk contained therein must henceforth be read as Jacobus van Eldik.”

The civil registrar placed this note in the margin of the original record on 29 August 1858.

John Boeren served for a couple of years as a wedding official. After he took an oath, he was authorized to sign marriage records.
John Boeren as wedding official of the municipality of Tilburg, dressed in the accompanying gown (photo credits: private collection of the author)

Correcting civil records

Civil records – birth, marriage and death records – are official documents. Only authorized municipal officials can draw up these acts. To become officially recognized, civil registrars take an oath before the district court.

According to Dutch law civil records have legal power: judges accept them as a piece of evidence in a lawsuit. For this reason, it is not easy to change the text of civil records. Two situations are possible [source]:

  • simple errors in the spelling of names or other simple clerical mistakes: a municipal official can correct the record
  • all other corrections or changes: only judges can order modifications

In the case of Wilhelmus Bernardus van Elk, the court allowed a correction of his father’s family name. By changing the name of the father, the civil registrar also changed the name of the child. From 29 August 1858 on, Wilhelmus Bernardus’ family name was Van Eldik.

You may ask: why did the family wait for 23 years before they asked of a correction of the birth record? Most likely, the family had no idea of the error. A family in the Netherlands did/does not receive a copy of the birth record at the time of the registration. The civil registrar probably could not compare his own spelling of the name with that of the father’s signature: Jacob van Elk/Eldik was unable to write.

If nobody ever saw Wilhelmus Bernardus’ birth record, they would not know about the mistake. The ball started rolling when Wilhelmus Bernardus had wedding plans. He needed a copy of his birth record when he asked the municipality to register his marriage intentions. That was probably the first time anyone spotted the error.

Wilhelmus Bernardus van Eldik's name was written correctly in his marriage record, 1858.

Wilhelmus Bernardus van Eldik married Johanna van ter Hatert in Wamel (Gelderland, Netherlands) on 2 September 1858, only four days after the name change. [source]


Always keep in mind that – especially when people did not know how to write a specific name – different spellings of the name are very likely to occur. Therefore, make a list of all possible variants, either used by mistake or on purpose. Use all of them when searching databases. Also keep in mind that the way names were pronounced and understood was influenced by dialects in a certain language.

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