"Name Histories" and "Family Crests"

Recently, in a preliminary discussion of electronic scam artists selling "Name Histories" and "Family Crests" online, we quoted from the Eastman Genealogical Newsletter. (Dick Eastman is the CompuServe forum manager and edits the Roots Forum Website as well as his own.) Part of the quotation we reproduced was as follows:

Several of the shopping malls near me have pushcart vendors who sell "certificates" and other merchandise that claim to be "the history of your family name" or "your family's coat of arms" or both. Unfortunately, they overlook a few facts. First, in the United Kingdom, Ireland and most of western Europe, there is no such thing as a "family coat of arms." Coats of arms or crests are granted only to individuals. Anyone who displays a crest that he is not authorized to use is, in effect, misrepresenting himself.

Various mail order outfits such as Halberts have been selling these bogus family histories and "family coats of arms" for years even though they have been vigorously prosecuted several times by postal inspectors.

To chase this particular lead we intended to publish an examination of the Halberts product, but this is to be postponed while, instead, we look at the relationship between Halberts and one of the companies trading under the name of Burke's Peerage. As many readers will know, this operation was well publicised by the BBC's consumer programme, Watchdog, which argued that the Halberts product the "Burke's" company was selling in Britain was not quite what the purchasers thought they were buying. It is, to put it bluntly, a list of telephone numbers prefaced by some general and fairly useless remarks about history ~ but more of that next month.

Let's look at the offer letter the "Burke's" company sends out to its computer generated punter list. (Some odd names appear from time to time and are then ridiculed in letters to newspaper editors ~ BUMS, for example, which may have started out as "Burns" and hit a glitch somewhere. DAFTS was another ~ and this prompted its recipient to reply to the offer of "The Burke's Peerage World Book of Dafts" with the offer of a "Daft World Book of Berks".) The quality of the paper is not quite what might be expected by any recipient believing it to come from the famous (and now defunct) Burke's Peerage. The logo at the head of the page is badly printed, but does resemble the arms Sir Bernard Burke (who died in 1892) used when he was Ulster King of Arms.

Dear Mr. Bums,

....... Many Bums inquire often as to when we intend to update out Bums Family Book. Now, I am delighted to share with you an incredible accomplishment. I know it will be of great interest to you and all the Bums.

is now ready for printing!

.......This newly created book is being specially published for Bums only. It is the culmination of Bums information gathered over a period of twenty years, and it covers Bums from 1750 to 1996.

.......Our exciting heirloom book traces Bums through wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. You'll find probate listings .......

[ And so it continues ....... until ...... ]

An elaborate colour reproduction of the Bums Coat of Arms. The original heraldic colours used on this blazon and their significance are fully explained.

[The "original" looks odd ....... and the writer doesn't know what a "blazon" is .......
and the
"elaborate colour reproductions" are truly awful, heraldically and artistically.]

[ And so it continues ....... until ...... ]

.......This special edition Bums Heirloom Book is handmade to order. Each beautifully illustrated book is handsomely bound in a royal blue, leather-grained cover dramatically imprinted with the Burke's Peerage seal and your Bums name. This truly is a remarkable collection of current historical information. It is sure to become a treasured family heirloom -- just imagine how fascinating this book will be for future generations.

[ ....... current (?) historical information ....... ]

[ and future generations fascinated (?) by old telephone numbers ]

Yes, it is all rubbish. The "leather-grained cover dramatically imprinted" is not leather and the imprint is not dramatic. And "Many Bums inquire often as to when we intend to update out Bums Family Book" is untrue. But, nevertheless, Halberts has survived a long time with the help of its clever lawyers, and the operation has always been difficult to nail with a direct proven lie. Until now.......

....... Burke's Peerage, a distinguished British Publisher since 1826, is proud to present the Bums with this important new book. For over a century and a half, Burke's Peerage has traced the lineage of Royal families, the Aristocracy and Presidents.

This important paragraph irrefutably ties the British Publisher of 1826 to the Book of Bums of 1996. The publisher of the 1996 Book of Bums claims in this paragraph of his sales literature to be the Burke's Peerage, founded in 1826, that continued to trace lineages for a century and a half.

But the Burke's Peerage founded in 1826 went into liquidation several years ago. It is defunct, dead, deceased ... like John Cleese's parrot. The Burke's Peerage World Book of Bums is published by a company that pays a licence fee to the entity that bought the name of "Burke's Peerage" from the Receiver. It is thus legitimate (albeit misleading) for this publisher to use the name of "Burke's Peerage" on its wares. But it is not legitimate to claim that it is in fact a company that is dead. It is not legitimate to imply in consequence that the publisher of The Burke's Peerage World Book of Bums has been tracing lineages for a century and a half.

The letter is signed "Yours Sincerely" (yes, a capital S) by "H.B. Brooks-Baker" who describes himself as "Publishing Director" and thus may be the man responsible for this monstrosity.

Elsewhere we have proposed the frauds be fought with publicity. We have tried to ridicule the "Distinguished Surname" merchants with parody, but although the risibility factor may prevent a few punters surrendering their money, it will not remove the nuisance. The law takes a long time to act. Publicity may achieve more a little faster.

Our readers can help. Tell your friends. Spread the word:



(unless, of course, you do collect old telephone numbers)

You are invited to save a copy of this page and to forward it to any of your friends who, interested in family history, may be tempted to answer letters received from Halberts or "Burke's Peerage".

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