My fifth great grandfather John Harris [Harris-45579, MD3B-8L4] appears on the 1861 Census (RG9/1420/110/7) with his brother, Robert Harris. John is 56 years old (born ca 1805) and Robert is 47 (born ca 1814). We also have several other census records for John, and apparently the same Robert on the 1871 Census (RG10/78/72/17) as a Chelsea Pensioner.

From this, it should be simple to find who their parents were by cross-referencing with baptisms.

Unfortunately, we find the following baptisms, all in North Huish:

Clearly this implies that John is the son of John and Sarah, and Robert is the son of Robert and Hannah – and yet they are supposed to be brothers!

Working out which John we are looking for is actually quite simple, because John the son of Robert and Hannah died when he was one year old, so he can’t be the one we’re looking for. In addition, we have plenty of other census records for John that point to his year of birth as being about 1805. Therefore we can say that John is the son of John and Sarah.

The Roberts are more complicated, however. It turns out that the 1861 Robert and the 1871 Robert are actually two different people, and that both Roberts may have served in the army.

Robert the son of Robert and Hannah was in the 17th Regiment of Lancers from 1840 til 1865, and spent a significant part of that time overseas. This explains why he doesn’t show up on the census before 1871 – and also demonstrates that he cannot be the Robert who is John’s brother on the 1861 Census, as that Robert is already a pensioner and therefore no longer an active member of the military. We can also see from this Robert’s service record that he was admitted as a Chelsea Pensioner in 1868 and died in 1877.

Robert the son of John and Sarah died in 1877. On the 1871 Census (RG10/2095/90/6), he is in the Totnes Union Workhouse. There’s no mention of him being an army pensioner, and so far no service record has been found – so it is possible that the description of him as an army pensioner on the 1861 Census might be incorrect. Certainly his age is incorrectly recorded, so it’s entirely possible that his occupation was as well. The fact that there happened to be another Robert with exactly the correct age for this Robert’s incorrect age on this census is just a coincidence.

Incidentally, both sets of John and Robert were first cousins of each other. Their fathers (John and Robert senior) were brothers.


Many thanks to the volunteers at the Devon Family History Society for the huge amount of work they put in to figure out all of the above.

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