Family records may well contain records of an ancestors work, in particular apprenticeships. There were two types of apprenticeships, the first was for trade apprentices who had to be between 10 and 18 and the second came under the Poor Law Act of 1601 in which children of poor parents were indentured to a trade or husbandry. The indentures were kept between the trade master and the father of the child and therefore could become part of a family’s record which would be passed down. These records may contain the age of the child or will at least infer the period in which they were born.
Passports were not made compulsory until 1914 but would obviously prove to be very useful in determining the birth date of an ancestor. Alternatively if your ancestor lived through the Second World War then it is likely that they would have an identity card this would contain the age of the holder. Driving licences were introduced in the UK after the 1903 Motor Car Act and underwent a number of changes in the years thereafter. Depending on how old they are they may well contain the date of birth of the driver, certainly modern ones will. Service records of family members may also have been collected and stored; this could be enlistment or perhaps pension papers which would contain information on the age of the individual. However, an individual changing their age to make sure they could be enlisted was not unheard of and even my Grandfather did this to join the Navy.
Ironically the death of an ancestor provides ample opportunity to find out about their birth. Along with the death certificate and newspaper cuttings already mentioned there could be a number of memorial cards which may contain the age of the ancestor and therefore you can work backwards to find the birth year. There may also be a copy of a will left by an ancestor which may also give an indication of their age. Between 1540 – 1837 males aged 14 or over and females aged 12 or over could make wills. From 1837 onwards males and females aged 21 or older could make wills.
Some records such as photographs can be used in conjunction with other sources of information to work out a rough year of birth. It could be that there is a date written on the back of the photo or maybe it is a photo of a well known event. This could give you some time reference to infer the year of birth. Even the style of clothing at the time can be used to work out a rough time period. In the following photograph of my Great Uncle Charles Webb there is a sign ‘2 Mons Heroes and still going strong’. This refers to The Battle of Mons in 1914 at the start of World War I. This gives a good indication that Charles must have been born before 1900. Charles was later mentioned in Despatches for his part in the War.
In conclusion, there are many different sources of information that can be used to determine the approximate date of an ancestor’s birth. There are considerably fewer that will give you the exact date of birth but they can be found with a bit of digging.
Sources of Information
Tracing Your Family Tree: The Comprehensive Guide to Discovering Your Family History (Countryside Books 2003) J Cole & J Titford
Who Was Your Granny’s Granny (Foulsham 2004) P Blake & A Collins
Tracing Your Nineteenth Century Family History (FFHS 2005) S Raymond
Dictionary of Genealogy (A & C Black 1998) T Fitzhugh
Succeeding in Family History (Countryside Books 2001) J Titford
Further Steps in Family History (Countryside Books 1990) E McLaughlin
The Family Tree Detective (Manchester University Press 1989) Colin D Rogers
Tracing Your Family History (Collins 2007) A Adolph