When I am running a family history course or carrying out a series of lectures one of the biggest obstacles that my students have problems overcoming is the spelling of the surname. The same is true for a lot of clients that I do research for, in that they spell their surname in one particular way, and therefore it must always have been spelt that way. A classic example of this was in the Somerset record office a few years ago when a lady was adamant that as her surname was Stephens and she was looking for a Bartholomew Stephens. The census had told here where he was born around 1789. Finding a Bartholomew Stevens baptised in 1788 in the same very small parish she had expected to find him, she would not accept that this was the correct person because the name was spelt with a “v” and hers was “ph”. She went home very disappointed lady even though to everybody else she had found the person she had been looking for.
We have to remember that the vicar or rector did not always fill in the parish register straightaway, in fact he might not have filled it in at all but left the job to one of the Church officials such as a churchwarden or overseer to make the entries, and we cannot be sure of what degree of literacy they possessed. They would have written down exactly what they heard, or thought they heard, and if you consider that a lot of the parishioners would have spoken with a heavy West Country accent it really is a miracle there was any consistency at all.
An exercise you might like to try is to take the surname that you’re interested in and make a list of as many variants as you can. Remember that most vowels are interchangeable, as well as TH can be changed for F or even PH, in some early writings the letter I and J were interchangeable. This is a worthwhile exercise and keeping the list as it will prove to be a very handy reminder when you are looking for that elusive ancestor. Try also to stretch your imagination as you never know what you might come across. The highest number of variations that one of my students has managed to produce was over thirty variants from a single surname. One of the strangest spellings of my surname that I have come across was WELSCHEMAN, were it appears that the clerk putting all the possible letters just to be on the safe side. So keep an open mind and never dismiss anything that looks as though it could vaguely be what you are looking for.