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Kimberly Powell

J.K. Rowling's Case of Mistaken Identity - Why Genealogists Caught What Others Missed

By August 2, 2011

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When BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? airs the second episode of its latest series in Britain on Wednesday, August 17, viewers will see a very emotional J.K. Rowling come to grips with learning a cherished family story was not entirely true -- that the WWI hero she thought was her great-grandfather was actually a case of mistaken identity. Yet her real great-grandfather was a WWI hero as well and the mistake was an honest one that could easily have happened to any of us.

According to recent interviews, J.K. Rowling was understandably surprised to learn that the great-grandfather Louis Volant she had come to know as Legion d'Honneur recipient Louis Francois Alexandre Volant, was not actually her great-grandfather at all. Instead, a family story of a WWI medal and an aunt who received the military records of the incorrect Louis Volant when requesting them many years ago from the what she called "the war department" (likely either the military archives at the Chateau de Vincennes or the National Archives in Paris) combined to create a case of mistaken identity.

It is possible that the records received by the family detailed only Louis Francois Alexandre Volant's actual military service, or his citation that earned him the Legion d'honneur. The registres matricule (military conscription record) of Louis Francois Alexandre Volant, however, available online from the departmental archives of Ain, has several details that just don't match up with what is known of J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather, Louis Volant. The Rowling family may or may not have received a copy of this particular record, although a genealogist would have recommended that they do so. The family also may not have noticed the slight discrepancies, or just overlooked them as unimportant, due to their likely lack of familiarity with these records. That's what professional genealogists are trained to do: to analyze every piece of information contained in a document and to investigate all discrepancies, no matter how small.

Portion of Registration 499, Louis Francois Alexandre Volant, Departement de l'AinWhile one of the two men named Louis Volant was born in 1878 and the other less than a year earlier in 1877, the first discrepancy arose in the dates of his military service. Men in France at this time were required to register at the local conscript's office at the age of 20 in the town of their birth. If selected to serve, the men spent their first two years in the active Army, before being moved to the active Army Reserve for a number of years and finally moved to the Territorial Army and its reserve to complete their term of service. These records are maintained for the period 1867 to about 1906 in each Departmental archives in the Series R. Registres Matricules are even available online for a number French departments, including Ain, Deux-Sèvres, Doubs, Eure, Hérault, Rhône, Seine-et-Marne, Territoire de Belfort and Vienne.

Louis Francois Alexandre Volant, according to his registre matricule, did not complete his period of active Army service with the 23e Regiment d'Infantrie until 24 September 1900, months after J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather is documented as marrying in Gorleston, Suffolk, England, and living in London.

Portion of Registration 499, Louis Francois Alexandre Volant, Departement de l'AinWhile it is possible this discrepancy could be somehow explained away, additional conflicts are found in the list of his residences during his 20-year term of military service. On 24 February 1903, Louis Francois Alexandre Volant was documented as living on Rue des Fontaine in Amplepuis, a commune in the Rhône department of France. In 1904 his move to the nearby commune of Villefrance is recorded, and he is noted as still living there at 11 Rue de Tarare in 1910. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather is still living in London, working as a waiter, having children, and raising his family. These are alarm bells for a professional genealogist, as evidenced by the genealogists working for Who Do You Think You Are? finally getting the story straight for J.K. Rowling and her family.

Portion of Registration 782, Louis Volant, Departement de la Seine (Paris)The registre matricule of the other Louis Volant, born 31 July 1877, tells a different story -- one that parallels the stories and records of J.K. Rowling's great-grandfather. This Louis Volant, also a WWI hero awarded the Croix de Guerre (not too far a stretch for a family story to turn that into a Legion d'honneur), completed his period of active army service on 30 December 1899, just weeks before his marriage to Eliza Mary Ann Smith in Gorleston. His recorded residences match with the records and family stories as well, including 95 Mortimer Street in London as his residence following discharge, followed by 85 Seymour Place in London on 29 January 1900 (where he is enumerated in the 1901 British census), and Rue Albert Street in Camden, London at the end of 1918 (directly from the family stories).

It's an easy catch for any experienced genealogist, but also an easy mistake for any family to make in a similar situation. My heart goes out to J.K. Rowling to discover this so publicly. Although I'm sure she handled it with her usual grace and dignity, and is likely very happy to learn the true story of her French ancestors, it is still quite a shock when research such as this collapses a treasured family story.

The "Real" French Ancestry of J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling's French Family Tree

August 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm
(1) Randy Seaver says:

Excellent explanation of what happened. Do you know who did the research for WDYTYA? They deserve a medal.

I’m really glad that WDYTYA found the correct result – it would have been embarrassing for a folllowup researcher interested in these records to make this discovery if WDYTYA had not found it first.

August 2, 2011 at 4:50 pm
(2) ~Kimberly says:

Thanks so much, Randy. I do not know who did the Rowling research for “Who Do You Think You Are?” but hope we will find out after the episode airs. I’m sure Joanne Rowling was very appreciative to finally learn the truth. The research is actually fairly straightforward and would have been caught by any experienced French genealogist so I expected the show to have it right. I ran into the conflicts from more than one direction when I dug into her French ancestry two weeks ago – not only the discrepancies in the military record, but also the birth record which lists the marriage of Louis Francois Alexandre Volant to a woman who was not Eliza Mary Ann Smith. The Paris marriage banns online at Ancestry.com were the find that then sent me in the right direction. It was interesting that they posted banns in Paris and then married in England.

August 2, 2011 at 6:38 pm
(3) Brandt says:

Will there be a way for American viewers to see this episode?

August 3, 2011 at 2:41 pm
(4) Margaret says:

Yes- it would be nice if we could see all these shows in America. Would they be on BBC America?

August 3, 2011 at 2:53 pm
(5) Margaret says:

I checked on the WDYTYA website – looks like this show has been going on since 2007 in the UK! There is a BBC iplayer program but alas, it can’t be used in the US. They have a way to view them in the EU, but not the US due to rights issues. They said they are aware of these issues so presumably they are making efforts to change this. I also checked on the BBC America site, and WDYTYA is not listed as one of their shows. There are millions of amateur genealogists in the US now – maybe we can mount an email campaign to BBC America to add this to their lineup.

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