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My research this week has hit a number of the inevitable brick walls that most family history researchers find litter the path to seeking out our elusive ancestors in the records.
I know just how frustrating it can be when we are trying to add people to our family tree and the wretched people just don’t seem to be anywhere to be found.
If you find yourself in that situation then my advice to you is, 1 – Don’t panic! 2 – Take a deep breath and 3 – Take a step back.
I was asked to write a piece for TheGenealogist on the actor Sir Ian McKellen to be live on their website before the Who Do You Think You Are? programme went out.
The very first thing I did was to see if I could find his birth in the General Register Office (GRO) birth records. To my frustration he was not there!
What did I do? I calmly considered what was the likelihood of him not being recorded, against there having been a mistake made in the records (I didn’t panic, or curse the online portal that I was using). I took a deep breath (point 2) and ran the same search at a second site to see if the record would be returned there. Unfortunately, there was no sign of him there either. It was time to take a step back (tip 3).
Often, when we can not find an ancestor, it can be for the reason that some sort off error has crept into the data; or the record was incorrectly written down at the time it was created. A little lateral thinking and Ian McKellen was eventually found to have been mistakenly recorded in the GRO Index for the April-June quarter of 1939 under the surname McKellar.
This neatly illustrates what can happen in the official birth, marriages and death records, as well as in other sources. The birth would have been reported to a local registrar shortly after Ian McKellen was born on the 25 May, 1939. Perhaps the writing was not clear at that stage? With census records, or baptisms, we have to also consider that the official, such as a census enumerator or the vicar in the church, misheard the name.
Even if the surname had been given correctly to the local registrar and faithfully noted in their records, they would have copied their information and sent it on to the GRO – did they make a mistake at that stage? Or was it when the GRO collated it into the index that most of us will use to order a certificate from?
Another stage that mistakes can happen, although not in this particular case, is when these indexes go online. The website will have created a transcription of the data in order that their search engine can find the entries when we type a name into their search box.
This week I came across an example of a transcription error, one that can be easily forgiven when I opened up the image of the census to see a florid capital J that looked exactly like an S. I was searching for someone with the first and middle names of Frederick and John. For some reason, however, they had been enumerated by only their initials F.J. and then their surname. The top of the J had a short twist to the right and nothing to the left so making it look for all the world like an S.
My advice for family history researchers, who are having difficulty finding their ancestors in the records, is to stop; breathe; and think. Consider the possibility that your ancestor really is there in the records, just not quite correctly recorded as you, or probably they, would have liked.
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In my recent video for my YouTube Channel I looked at three brick walls a researcher may have finding their ancestors birth certificates in England and Wales.
Mistake number one that people make is to believe that their ancestor would have been registered with the name that they went by for the rest of their life; but this is not always the case.
What if, in between registration and baptism, the parents decided to change the name of the child? It would have been possible, under the law, for them to amend the birth registry by going back to their local registrar to give them the new name – but very few of our ancestors would have actually bothered.
Another thing to look out for is that some people prefer to be known, when they have grow up, by their middle names. Now I know of a family where the father, the mother and all the children all go by their middle names making them impossible to find in the official documentation of census and poll books.
Here is another scenario: let’s say there are two brothers who have two sons roughly about the same time and they both decide to call their sons John, in memory of their grandfather John Snr. Well the two cousins, as they grow up, may want to adopt different names in order to differentiate themselves from their cousin.
Mistake number two I like to call ‘Surnames Surprise’.
Where parents are not married then in most cases the birth is recorded under the mother’s surname and usually that’s going to be her maiden name. But consider a case where she is a widow and so her legal surname is that of another man; so that the child will have been registered with that surname because its mother still has that name!
A slight variation to this is where somebody takes their stepfathers name. Maybe you found them in the censuses using the stepfathers name and because when you come to look for the registration you’ll find them registered under the name of their father, who perhaps has now passed away.
The third mistake that people make I will call ‘Who’s the father?’
So what if your ancestor never knew their father and then, when they come to their wedding day, what is the name that they are they going to enter (or give to the vicar or the registrar to enter) in the marriage registry? If they don’t know what their father was called then they may well make it up.
Also people can make their fathers names up and their occupations to make themselves more important. I had a case researching a client’s family where we found a soldier marrying in a garrison town. He gave his father as being Colonel Hamish Brown. It turned out, through my research, that his father was actually Reg Brown, a policeman.
I’m just on my way back home from visiting the Who Do You Think You Are? Live Show at the NEC where I had a brilliant time catching up with all the latest record releases and making new friends, while renewing acquaintances with old ones in the family history world.
The new venue at the NEC is certainly impressive with much more space in the aisles to walk down. The talks were good and the main data sites were there, as you would expect, though I couldn’t see GenesReunited anywhere. It looks like they didn’t come!
On that subject, it was good to see that many family history societies were there in strength from all over the country, but those that didn’t make it to the show (especially those from the London and South East corner plus no family history stands from Scotland) were very much missed. Over the course of the three days I was aware of several disappointed visitors that had come especially expecting to find help for their brick walls from these missing areas. Next year it would be so good to see you back!
I’ll do some more updates soon, but for now I have a flight to catch back to Jersey.
Learn more about English and Welsh family history resources which can be used to find your elusive ancestors with the Family History Researcher Course,
This week, on Thursday 16th, Friday 17th and Saturday 18th of April the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show rolls into the National Exhibition Centre for the first time. The largest Family History Show in the U.K. it has moved up to the Midlands from London.
For those of us seeking answers, to family history brick walls, this is one of the most exciting times of the calendar as it allows us a chance to get to listen to all manner of experts gathered under one roof.
Apart from the main celebrity speakers, such as Reggie Yates, Tamzin Outhwaite and Alistair McGowan there are many other presentations that I am looking forward to.
One talk that I spotted in the email news from S&N Genealogy supplies is Our Ancestors’ Working Lives by Celia Heritage, Professional Genealogist & Author. Celia will be explaining how we can find out more about an ancestor through the records of their working life in TheGenealogist’s talk theatre, situated just by the entrance.
There are, of course, so many other workshops to take in that a little bit of planning may be needed to fit in what appeals to your particular interest. Take a look at the Society of Genealogists Workshop programme online. One of the other great strengths of the show is being able to chat with the knowledgeable people from the various family history societies, or to sit down with a Society of Genealogist expert. Maybe you will be in luck and meet a person that is researching a collateral line to yours!
To emphasize just how much of a breakthrough a chance meeting such as this can be, here is a little story to end with.
This weekend I was taking a break in a small Leicestershire Bed & Breakfast and was talking to another guest who had discovered a whole batch of new ancestors by meeting someone whose ancestor had been employed as a ship’s captain by my fellow guest’s ship owning ancestor. The Captain’s descendent was able to fill in the ship owner’s descendent about people that, until then, he was completely unaware of. This just emphasises how making connections at events such as Who Do You Think You Are? Live can be priceless.
Learn more about English and Welsh family history resources which can be used to find your elusive ancestors with the Family History Researcher Course,
Its only three weeks to go before many of us descend on the NEC in Birmingham for the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show.
One of the most interesting parts of this event are the number of fascinating talks given both on the stands and in the various Society of Genealogist workshops around the hall. They can open up your mind to new places to look for your ancestors or give you tips and tricks to use that you hadn’t considered before.
The Society of Genealogists will be running an extensive programme of workshops by leading genealogists over the course of the three day show. You can choose from a vast number of subjects, for instance: different research techniques, how to record your findings and using parish registers.
Taking place in four theatres (SOG Studios 1, 2, 3 and 4), sessions last for approximately 45 minutes with a fifteen minute break in between. All workshops are free to attend* and subject to capacity – for this reason, you are able to pre-book a seat at your preferred workshops for just £2 when booking your tickets to the show.
Don’t forget the Keynote Workshop** will talk place every day at 1.15pm – 2.30pm in SOG Studio 1.
Heading over to TheGenealogist’s talks stand, that on the plan is near the entrance of the hall, I am looking forward to the Tracing Military Ancestors with Chris Baker, Military Expert & Author, Breaking Down Brick Walls with Mark Baley, Online Expert and Celia Heritage talking about our Ancestor’s Working Lives.
I’ve been off line for some days now as the family home, that I was visiting for Christmas, has been suffering from a basic lack of broadband. BT were persuaded to check the line, but the signal remained elusive to all my devices until now. This, I hope, explains my lack of posts on the blog and on Facebook for more than a week.
Fancy that, days without any proper connection to the outside (virtual) world with only the snatched five minutes here and there, when out at a public hotspot. How did we all survive prior to the web connected world we are so wedded to today?
So what did we all do, over the festive period, without being able to check the web, read emails or post on Facebook?
Our extended family reverted to a more traditional Christmas of socialising with each other, eating food around a huge dining table and playing games. One day we all donned costumes, on a Gilbert & Sullivan theme and so I am happy to reveal my true self on this page as Nick the Pirate from Penzance! This was a planned competition that forced everyone to join in an make a spectacle of ourselves – the reward being a Christmas cocktail brought back from the Merchant Navy in the Second World War by my dad and now a tradition in the Thorne family. It seems that if the troop carrier ship, on which he served, was at sea for Christmas then the Shaw Savill Line provided the officers with a bottle of Gin, a bottle of Martini Rosso and a bottle of Martini Bianco. What did they do? They mixed them together of course!
We had quite a few tipsy Pirates in our house that day, with one Lord High Admiral trying to keep order.
Many people that I speak to seem to relish the prospect of finding a felon, such as a pirate in their family tree. Much as I have tried to root one out in my tree and despite that many of my ancestors were from the West Country and sailed the seas as mariners, I have yet to find one.
I have found mariners in the Shipping Crew Lists, such as that available from TheGenealogist, but no Pirates. I’ll keep looking as revisiting brick walls several times often results in a break through.
The Nosey Genealogist
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I’ve got some advice for you to break down a brick wall.
Have you been stuck trying to find an ancestor?
Thought you might have been!
Maybe what I relate below will help you too.
The thing was that some while back, I was getting quite frustrated by being unable to trace a person in the records.
I was completely stuck finding this person’s birth, marriage or death and I had tried looking online and off without any luck.
Maybe you are in this position too?
What broke the problem for me?
Well it was avisit to a Family History websitewhile surfing forkeywordsto do with the ancestor and then a little bit of time spentbrowsing the transcripts featured on the platform.
There were some other factors, such as trying different spelling variations of first and second names, as advised by my family history teacher at the time and a visit to an archive.
What it boils down to is using a bit of lateral thinking in our family tree research and most importantly finding out about alternative records to the ones that we might have already used.
The family branch that has presented me with the most frustrating problems has been that from Devon. I was fine going back through the census years, 1911, 1901 and so on back to 1841 but then it became more of a problem.
Perhaps this story resonates with some of you to?
I had figured out that my 3x great-grandfather was called John Thorn. This was provided in the information he had given to the census enumerators over the years, along with the fact that he had been born in about 1795. His wife, Elizabeth, had been born about 1798.
As I belong to The Society of Genealogists I took a trip to their headquarters in Goswell Road, London knowing that they have the largest collection of Parish Records in the country on microfiche. They’ve also got some transcripts of parish registers in their library, which I thought may be worth looking at.
If you are in the area I highly recommend you visit the Society of Genealogists.
Unfortunately for me, at the time of my research, the Dartmouth parish records were not on microfilm at the SoG. But I was over the moon to find a great selection of Devon Family History Society booklets for marriages taking place in the churches of the town, including St. Saviour’s, Dartmouth. Browsing one book for any likely ancestors I spotted that on 13 April 1817 one person called John Thorn got married to an Elizabeth Sissell.
I opened up the internet and began searching using my new lead. My mission was to hunt down any evidence that this was the marriage of my ancestors.
Doing a search-engine query for Dartmouth + family history steered me towards the Dartmouth-history.org.uk website belonging to The Dartmouth Archives. I discovered that this voluntary organisation had a really broad family history section and included a number of transcribed baptisms, burials, marriages and census records.
I could read the very same information, as I had seen at the SoG in London, on this niche site. The data began in 1586 and ran to 1850 and there was the marriage of John Thorn to Elizabeth and this time I noticed that the witness were given as John Adams and Sunass (sic) Sissell.
At the time I made an assumption that this last person was more than likely some member of the bride’s family. Could it perhaps be the father of the bride?
But that name “Sunass” just didn’t seem likely to me. Now I know that it was the best guess by the transcriber as it couldn’t be read properly in the original record.
From the information I knew that they had signed with a mark, thus they were illiterate and so the first name and the second had not been written down by the ancestors themselves.
When you are doing your own research you should bear in mind that our ancestors may not have had the ability to read or write and the minister may have interpreted the name as he had heard it said to him. In my ancestor’s case the surname “Sissell” could possibly have been “Cecil” or something entirely different. Consider saying the name with the regional accent and seeing what you come up with.
As for Sunass – at this point I was clueless!
The Dartmouth Archives website had not got any early enough christening records for John and Elizabeth and so I went over to the Latter Day Saints (LDS) website or FamilySearch.org and here I did a search for Elizabeth’s christening.
I was rewarded by a lead to a baptism in one of the other churches in Dartmouth, St Petrox, on the 16 September 1878. This child was the daughter of James and Sarah Sissill and she was christened Elizabeth Gardener Sissill.
You may notice that the spelling had changed to Sissill with an “i” and not an “e” again pointing to the vicar writing it down the way that he heard it.
I now jumped to a conclusion that the witness to Elizabeth’s marriage could have been her father “James” and this has been interpreted as “Sunnas” because a flowing “J” for James had looked like an “S” to the transcriber and the other letters had been misread as a “u” for an “a” and the double “n” as an “m”. All easily done.
So what I am emphasising here and I continue to do so in modules from my Family History Researcher Course, is to be wary of names and the way they were spelt. If you keep this in mind then some of the logjams we find in our research can be got past.
This breakthrough I had was down to finding that Dartmouth has an active family history website and then using their indexes in conjunction with other internet resources, such as the LDS site.
The first learning point is that you should always find out what other research may have been done, for the area your ancestors came from.
If you find a family history society, or local interest group with a website, can any of their publications or website pages help you with your quest?
Secondly, always keep in mind that names were misspelled in many records. In my own family research I have had to think of other spellings for the Sissells, and indeed names that may have sounded like Sissell in order that I may trace this line back further and break down the brick wall.
I have made some fantastic strides in my family tree research and it is mostly down to learning as much as I can from other’s experiences and finding out as much as I can about what records and resources are available.
Last year I put together some modules for a course of 52 guides, aiming at passing on my experience. Perhaps they can help you become a more knowledgeable researcher?
I had some professional genealogists and data providers also contribute to the project to make it well rounded.
As you have come to this page I am sure that you must have an interest in family history and I am betting that you to have some brick walls to knock down as well. So take a look at the report below that is based on some of the material from the Family History Researcher course…
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I was having a chat with a professional genealogist recently.
During the discussion I mentioned a particular brick wall that I had in my family tree.
“When was the last time you reviewed it?” he asked.
“Ah, I see what you mean!” I replied. “It is over six months since I sent it to the back burner and concentrated on other easier to find people.”
It is a lesson that even I forget to do and that is to periodically go back and see if, with new information you can now make some progress.
New record sets may have become available in the time since you last looked at your ancestor. It may be the release of yet more transcripts by Family History Societies, or those of the genealogical retailers that can now aid you. New parish records may have been uploaded to the likes of Ancestry, TheGenealogist or Findmypast.
Your ancestor may appear in one of the more diverse data sets that the subscription sites are releasing such as the Tithe Records on TheGenealogist, new occupational records on Ancestry, or The British in India records on Findmypast.
It is not just the case of reviewing the recently released documents on the subscription sites, that I am advocating. Take a look again at sets you may already have used. Perhaps, in the light of your experience and any new found knowledge that you have gained since last you looked, the answers may now be clear.
With my friend’s advice I set about looking again at a brick wall that I had in Devon.
In 1794 I have a John Thorn marrying a Sarah Branton in Plymouth in the parish of Charles on the 12th January. This John Thorn is not listed as being of the parish, yet his wife is.
They then move quickly to Dartmouth where their son, also called John is born with the child being baptised on the 28th September of the same year. In the marriage register, in Plymouth, John Thorn Senior was listed as a mariner and so it does not surprise me much that they pitch up along the coast at another port. But then what happens to them?
We are taught to always kill off our ancestors as good practice. In my case I had not found the death records for John Thorn Senior, nor of his wife Sarah. I had an inkling that they probably settled in Dartmouth, as the line remains there for another two to three generations, but I did not know if they stayed or not.
Since reviewing my notes on the searches I made, in the parish records at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter, I have now realized that I had indeed found a possible burial of a John Thorn in Dartmouth in January 1810, but had not entered it into my family tree.
The page from the parish of St Saviour’s, Dartmouth, had helpfully given me the information that this particular John Thorn was only 41 at his death This means he could be a candidate for the marriage in 1794, as he would have been 25 in that year.
When I last looked at the parish records, on the visit to the Devon Heritage Centre (previously the County Record Office), I had been disappointed not to have found the burial entry for his wife Sarah in the same parish and so I had put this line of enquiry aside.
But now, as I looked back at my notes, I see that I had also done a thorough job and looked at all the other churches in the town. I had found, among all the people buried in Dartmouth, and with the correct surname, one Sarah Thorn aged 50.
This Sarah Thorn is buried at the Parish church of St Clement’s, Townstall, Dartmouth on the 21st June 1818. At 50 she would have been born in 1768 and so she may well have been the wife of John, who was buried 8 years prior in the daughter church of St Saviour’s that is closer to the port.
Looking back at my visit to the record office I can recall that I finished my trawl of the parish record microfiche as a deadline for me to leave approached. I had a flight to catch from Exeter Airport and a connecting bus from outside of the Met Office to get me there. In my rush I had noted down the finding but had not looked at it in the right frame of mind. So perhaps here is another reason for reviewing your brick walls.
Now that the Devon Parish Records are on Findmypast I was recently able to go back and look at them at my leisure. This time without the pressure of missing a flight and so I can hypothesize that these two individuals are very possibly my direct ancestors.
Regretfully, with the paucity of information to identify someone contained in the pages of most parish records, I can not be completely sure. As with anyone with a common name there is always the possibility that they are simply namesakes.
If you would like to learn more about Death records, parish registers or good practice in doing English/Welsh family history then take a look at joining the Family History Researcher.
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These knowledgeable interviewees include practising professional genealogists, with years and years of experience to offer.
Yet others are from the very highest levels of the online data provider companies, like Ancestry and TheGenealogist.
Listen to the download and learn some plain tips that will simplify the often confusing business of researching English/Welsh ancestors. I am going to give you access to these eight professionals so that you can use their advice to break down several brick walls that you may have.
3. The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA) Member. What would the advice be from a professional genealogist practitioner?
Well as many serious professional genealogists belong to this association, I headed over to the AGRA stand and asked a member for his research tips. Points he brought up included the information on documents being only as good as that given by the informant and what to do about conflicting data. There is more to hear in the full interview that you can download here .
4. Families in British India Society (FIBIS) Expert. In family history we often have to think a bit outside the box. Well have you considered that your missing ancestor had moved abroad? With 3 million Brits having gone out to India then if we have a missing forbear it could certainly pay us to take a look at the records from this part of the British Empire. Its not just soldiers, the list of people who went out to work there is long as we hear from this FIBIS expert.
5. Celia Heritage – Professional Genealogist, Author and Family History Teacher introduces us to an often under used set of resources in her piece: Death Records. She explains how to use these records to flesh out the bones of our ancestors lives.
Celia is an excellent and knowledgeable speaker and you can just hear the passion that she has for her subject as she dispenses some gems of advice in the free downloadable audio presentation. Its not just death certificates that Celia brings to our attention in this part of the recording!
6. Dr Ian Galbraith – The National Wills Index explains about one of the best single major sources for family historians when I asked him to talk about Wills and Administrations for this audio.
Ian explains why wills can be an important resource with an average of 10 names per will and with half of them being different from that of the testator. Many people are surprised by the fact that all sorts of people left wills, but you won’t be when you have heard the full interview.
7. Brad Argent – Content Director for Ancestry advises family historians to drill down for the information in the online databases in his contribution to the recording. Brad suggests we use the card catalogue to seek out data sets and then use the advance search facility of “exact”, “soundex” and “wildcards” when we are on this large data provider’s site. His advice is compelling.
8. Mark Bayley – Head of Online Content at TheGenealogist, a site that gives really fantastic value and a very wide range of data, introduces us to a great name-rich resource recently published by TheGenealogist, in association with The National Archives.
What is this important resource for England and Wales?
It is, of course, the Tithe collection.
I have been using this set recently to great effect with my own rural ancestors and so I have included a module in my Family History Researcher Guides about the tithes.
The beauty of this data is that it includes both sides of society, with landowners and tenants being recorded and giving names and addresses. As a pre-census data set it is hugely valuable to us! Listen to Mark explain about these exciting records in the free recording you can download now by clicking the link below.
Now you may be asking why I am doing this for free?
Its because I want to introduce you to a set of guides that I have put together. A series of pdf modules that takes the information I gleaned at Who Do You Think You Are? Live and incorporated it, along with much more content into a year’s worth of weekly written guides.
There are extra contributions from various other professional experts who have penned some of the reports, as well as those modules written from my own extensive experience.
I am guessing that, if you have read this far, you are interested in English/Welsh family history and that you have hit at least one of the inevitable brick walls. The solution is to understand more ways to find your ancestors.
So if you would like to dramatically increase your knowledge then I think you will enjoy being a member of my Family History Researcher Guides. This is a 52 weekly series of guides written in an easily accessible form and you can take a two week trial for just £1 by going here: