20 TOP TIPS to find your miss­ing an­ces­tors

Learn the tips and tricks used by the Who Do You Think You Are? TV re­searchers to find lost fam­ily

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Hav­ing trou­ble find­ing fam­ily on the census or in birth, mar­riage and death in­dexes? You’re not alone, it hap­pens to ev­ery ge­neal­o­gist at some point for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Per­haps your an­ces­tor is there, you just haven’t found them yet, so it’s a mat­ter of tweak­ing your search tech­nique. Many lo­cal li­braries and fam­ily his­tory so­ci­eties of­fer reg­u­lar work­shops to help mem­bers im­prove their com­puter skills and get the most out of ge­neal­ogy web­sites.

Peo­ple didn’t van­ish into the ether, and there are many good rea­sons why they might not be listed on the census or in civil reg­is­tra­tion in­dexes.

A miss­ing an­ces­tor can be a clue that fam­ily life wasn’t quite as you ex­pected to find it. The stan­dard for­mula for build­ing a fam­ily tree us­ing birth and mar­riage cer­tifi­cates in com­bi­na­tion with census re­turns works on the pre­con­cep­tion that most peo­ple in the past mar­ried, then had kids and set­tled down to a quiet life, but it’s im­por­tant to keep an open mind. Some­times a twist of fate dra­mat­i­cally changed the course of events. Chil­dren could be fos­tered out and adopted, though a le­gal adop­tion process didn’t ex­ist un­til 1927 – such in­for­mal ar­range­ments can be tricky to un­cover and could lead to changes of name that throw you off the trail.

Thank­fully, the rea­sons why many peo­ple did not ap­pear with their fam­ily in the census are well doc­u­mented, and we needn’t al­ways sus­pect the worst. Not all records are on­line, of course, so you may need to ven­ture into an ar­chive to find the so­lu­tion.

Read­ing up on the so­cial his­tory of the area where your rel­a­tives lived can re­veal sim­ple ex­pla­na­tions for why their cir­cum­stances might have changed – a shift in the eco­nomic cli­mate could have forced them to move away, and might have even split a fam­ily up tem­po­rar­ily.

There are many pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios to ex­plore, so be­fore giv­ing up hope make sure that you’ve tried th­ese 20 ex­pert tips...



It was sur­pris­ingly com­mon for peo­ple to be called by their middle name – a girl chris­tened Ade­line V Stephen in 1882 went on to be­come the fa­mous writer and in­tel­lec­tual known as Vir­ginia Woolf. First and middle names could be used in­ter­change­ably, even on of­fi­cial doc­u­ments like cen­suses. It was not un­heard of, and per­fectly le­gal, for some­one reg­is­tered as Fred­er­ick Ge­orge Wil­son to also go by the names Ge­orge Fred­er­ick Wil­son, Ge­orge Wil­son or Fred­er­ick Wil­son. The clue to de­cid­ing whether you’ve found the right per­son is to make sure that all other de­tails match what you’re ex­pect­ing to find.


Don’t as­sume that all of your an­ces­tors’ chil­dren were born in wed­lock, it’s al­ways im­por­tant to keep an open mind. When the WDYTYA? re­search team for the TV se­ries can’t lo­cate a child’s birth in the civil reg­is­tra­tion in­dexes it of­ten tran­spires they were born prior to the par­ents’ mar­riage and the birth was reg­is­tered un­der the mother’s maiden name. We most com­monly en­counter this with the first-born, who may ap­pear on early cen­suses un­der their mother’s maiden name but adopted her mar­ried sur­name on later re­turns. Whether or not the mother’s hus­band was the child’s bi­o­log­i­cal father of­ten re­mains a mys­tery.


Post­ing on ge­neal­ogy fo­rums ask­ing for help with a tricky line can reap re­wards. The WDYTYA? team can’t find all the an­swers all of the time, and there have been oc­ca­sions when view­ers have got in touch af­ter the TV show to share what they know – Griff Rhys Jones’s episode is a clas­sic ex­am­ple. Griff’s grand­mother Louisa Price was adopted as a child and never talked about her par­ents, but the fam­ily be­lieved they died in a train crash. We dis­cov­ered Louisa’s father Daniel was ac­tu­ally killed in a street fight in Llanelli in 1897 but the fate of her mother Sarah and three sib­lings re­mained a mys­tery be­cause their sur­name was so com­mon. Whilst watch­ing the episodeep­isode, viewer Ray Fran­cis re­alised that his grand­fa­ther was one of Louisa’s brothers. Ray’s mother had told him that Sarah went into the work­house af­ter Daniel’s death, where she stayed for many years and be­came the cook. Thanks to Ray post­ing a mes­sage on the WDYTYA fo­rum ( whodoy­ou­thinky­ouaremagazine.com/

fo­rum) we learned about a whole un­known side of Griff’s fam­ily. “My mother be­lieves Sarah could have left and lived with the fam­ily, but she de­clined and was quite happy liv­ing in the work­house,” Ray said. She died there peace­fully in her 70s.


You’ve found your an­ces­tor on the 1891 and 1911 Scot­tish cen­suses, for ex­am­ple, but there’s no sign of them in 1901. Could they have skipped over the bor­der to Eng­land for a short time in search of work, or even gone as far afield as the Isle of Man or Ire­land? It’s al­ways well worth dou­ble-check­ing records in neigh­bour­ing ter­ri­to­ries when some­one goes miss­ing – rel­a­tively few peo­ple were home­own­ers in the Vic­to­rian pe­riod and rental agree­ments tended to be short-term, so our an­ces­tors were more itin­er­ant than you might imag­ine.


The most fre­quent rea­son that peo­ple seem to be miss­ing from records is be­cause their name has been in­cor­rectly tran­scribed, and there were sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties for this to hap­pen. Tak­ing the census as an ex­am­ple, an il­lit­er­ate an­ces­tor may have en­listed the help of a neigh­bour to com­plete the house­hold sched­ule, which was later tran­scribed into an enu­mer­a­tor’s book. The books were more re­cently tran­scribed into a data­base to make them elec­tron­i­cally search­able, so there were at least three stages in the process where a mis­take could have been made. I found my an­ces­tor James Berry by typ­ing in James B*ry, which re­vealed him on the 1881 census as James Bury.


Most of us will have a favourite ge­neal­ogy web­site that we rely on for all census re­turns and BMD in­dexes with our re­search, but if you can’t find what you’re look­ing for it’s worth ven­tur­ing to other sites that hold the same datasets. Each of the main com­mer­cial providers has a cus­tom-made in­dex­ing sys­tem, of­fer­ing slightly dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the same records. A ran­dom search of all doc­u­ments rather than a par­tic­u­lar col­lec­tion may bring up some­thing that you weren’t ex­pect­ing, like a school record with bi­o­graph­i­cal leads. Don’t over­look the old pa­per and mi­cro­fiche name in­dexes that are avail­able in ar­chives, and check out those re­leased on CD by fam­ily his­tory so­ci­eties that are lo­cal to the home­town of your an­ces­tors.


Billy Con­nolly’s great grand­mother Mary Doyle ini­tially caused us some con­fu­sion. Mary was mar­ried in Scot­land in 1896 and the 1901 census clearly stated she was born in Ire­land. How­ever, hav­ing checked the birth in­dexes for Ire­land, Scot­land, Eng­land and Wales to no avail, we looked fur­ther afield. Many peo­ple trav­elled to ex­otic cor­ners of the Bri­tish Em­pire dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, with thou­sands lured to In­dia where the Bri­tish Govern­ment as­sumed power in 1857. Even­tu­ally, we lo­cated Mary Doyle’s birth in Ban­ga­lore in 1871 and dis­cov­ered, much to Billy’s sur­prise, that three gen­er­a­tions of his ma­ter­nal fam­ily were in fact born in In­dia. The births, mar­riages and deaths of Bri­tish peo­ple who lived in In­dia are recorded in the In­dia Of­fice records held at the Bri­tish Li­brary, now on find­my­past.co.uk. The web­site also pro­vides ac­cess to pas­sen­ger lists for ships car­ry­ing peo­ple to des­ti­na­tions out­side of Europe be­tween 1890 and 1960, and reg­is­ters of over­seas births, mar­riages and deaths lodged with the Bri­tish Consul and UK High Com­mis­sion in other coun­tries from 1818. Fam­i­lysearch.org also col­lects many records for peo­ple liv­ing all over the world.


In the same way census tran­scrip­tions con­tain er­rors and omis­sions, the Gen­eral Reg­is­ter Of­fice’s civil birth, mar­riage and death in­dexes are not per­fect. This na­tional col­lec­tion was com­piled from quar­terly re­turns sub­mit­ted by lo­cal reg­is­ter of­fices, so the cen­tral in­dex used to lo­cate cer­tifi­cates is ac­tu­ally a sec­ondary source. The pri­mary in­dexes are still main­tained by district reg­is­ter of­fices and are less likely to be er­ro­neous. A se­lec­tion of some pri­mary in­dexes can be searched via ukbmd.org.uk but most district of­fices pro­vide a look-up ser­vice. This is use­ful if you have an idea of where your an­ces­tors were liv­ing when a birth, mar­riage or death should have been reg­is­tered.


Data­bases usu­ally en­cour­age us to search for names, but if that proves un­suc­cess­ful you need to think cre­atively about how else you might find peo­ple. Skilled trades­men with set job def­i­ni­tions such as butch­ers, bak­ers and blac­ck­smiths, can ac­tu­ally be eas­ier to lo­cate usinng those search terms. The­ge­neal­o­gist.

co. ukk dis­plays pro­fes­sions on the census re­sults pagge, so en­ter­ing just a first name, year of birth andd job de­scrip­tion in the key­word search box cann be an ef­fec­tive way of iden­ti­fy­ing some­one whose sur­name has been mis­tran­scribed. Em­ploy­ment records, like law lists and trade di­reec­to­ries, also pro­vide street ad­dresses that cou­uld be looked up in the census.



Cou uld your an­ces­tor have been in the wo rk­house on the night a census was taken? The masters of many in­sti­tu­tions listed hun­dreds of pau­pers only by their ini­tials on the census, mak­ing them easy to miss, but Poor Law records in­clud­ing work­house reg­is­ters of ad­mis­sions and dis­charges pro­vide quite de­tailed bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. Sur­viv­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion will be found in the lo­cal County Record Of­fice, though some reg­is­ters are now on­line, such as Ances­try’s ex­pan­sive Lon­don col­lec­tion at tinyurl.com/ob­sa2al.


This is sage ad­vice even af­ter the ad­vent of civil reg­is­tra­tion in Eng­land and Wales in 1837, be­cause it wasn’t com­pul­sory to reg­is­ter a child’s birth un­til 1874, which may ex­plain their ab­sence from the in­dexes. It was also pos­si­ble for deaths to slip through the net as the onus was on reg­is­trars rather than next of kin to en­sure deaths were reg­is­tered prior to 1874. Parish reg­is­ters of bap­tisms and buri­als are not quite as de­tailed as civil birth and death cer­tifi­cates, but mar­riage reg­is­ters af­ter 1837 of­fer iden­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion to GRO cer­tifi­cates and were signed in your an­ces­tors’ hand­writ­ing.


You might not find your peo­ple in the lo­cal parish records, even though they were

Em­ploy­ment records, like law lists and trade di­rec­to­ries provid­pro­vide street ad­dresses

Protes­tant. This could be be­cause they fol­lowed one of the many ‘non­con­formist’ de­nom­i­na­tions that took root af­ter the Tol­er­a­tion Act of 1689. In such cases, you will prob­a­bly have to look to the reg­is­ters o of f more than one de­nom­i­na­tion. Just be­caus se some­one bap­tised all their chil­dren in a non­con­formist chapel, for in­stance, doesn n’tt mean their burial will be found there – you u’l ll need to search Angli­can parishes and ceme­ter­ies, too, be­cause few chapels had d burial grounds. You can ex­plore an ar­ray y of non­con­formist reg­is­ters at bm­dreg­is­ter rs.

and read an in-depth guide at co.uk na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk/records/re­seae­sea rch-rchguides/non­con­formists.htm.


Per­haps your an­ces­tor’s line of duty took them over­seas. Men from all walks of life joined the army, navy, marines and later the RFC and RAF, though a brief stint with the forces may not be ap­par­ent from later records. Those sta­tioned abroad will not be found in UK cen­suses prior to 1911 (with the ex­cep­tion of men at sea on naval ships, enu­mer­ated in 1861–1881 and 1901). Some re­cruits were al­lowed to take their fam­i­lies away with them, ex­plain­ing why the whole clan could be miss­ing. Read guides for lo­cat­ing ser­vice records and lists of per­son­nel at www.na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk/records/ look­ing-for-per­son.


A re­cently digi­tised col­lec­tion of tithe maps and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ap­por­tion­ments on the­ge­neal­o­gist.co.uk will help many peo­ple to pin­point ex­actly where their an­ces­tors were liv­ing around the 1840s–1850s. Though the ap­por­tion­ments only name the head of the house­hold or prin­ci­pal lease­holder, th­ese land records should prove in­valu­able to re­searchers who are strug­gling to find an­ces­tors at home on the night of the 1841 and 1851 cen­suses. The­Ge­neal­o­gist has so far digi­tised 11 mil­lion If an an­ces­tor in your di­rect line is prov­ing prob­lem­atic to find, shift the search to a sib­ling or child, prefer­ably one with a dis­tinc­tive name. You’ve got more chance of eas­ily lo­cat­ing Barn­abas Smith than Thomas Smith. The youngest child’s age and place of birth are more likely to be ac­cu­rate, too, if lit­tle time has elapsed since their birth.

How­ever, your dif­fi­culty in trac­ing some­one may be a clue to some­thing more sin­is­ter. Af­ter strug­gling to lo­cate Twiggy’s great grand­par­ents El­iz­a­beth and Wil­liam Mead­ows on the 1901 and 1911 cen­suses we tried to hunt down the young chil­dren they were with in 1891. The youngest, Fred­er­ick, could not be found, but his 13-year-old brother Henry Mead­ows was even­tu­ally lo­cated in 1901 at Hor­ton Kirby District Home for Home­less Lit­tle Boys in Kent, where he was listed as ‘Harry Mead­ows’, many miles from the fam­ily home in North Lon­don.

The next ques­tion was what was he do­ing there? This led us to a doc­u­ment trail re­veal­ing the fam­ily’s tragic break­down. Since El­iz­a­beth was ab­sent from the census and her son was home­less, we looked for her death and es­tab­lished that she per­ished in the work­house aged 51. Harry’s father Wil­liam was even­tu­ally lo­cated in Pen­tonville Prison in 1901, hav­ing aban­doned his fam­ily. ap­por­tion­ment records, plus maps from Buck­ing­hamshire, Mid­dle­sex, Le­ices­ter­shire and Sur­rey, but a na­tional col­lec­tion of 11,000 maps will ap­pear on­line soon.



The Na­tional Pro­bate Cal­en­dar which was com­piled from 1858 on­wards pro­vides the de­ceased’s oc­cu­pa­tion and ad­dress, as well as the names of next of kin who acted as ex­ecu­tors, which is par­tic­u­larly help­ful for iden­ti­fy­ing the cor­rect death of some­one with a com­mon name. Even if your an­ces­tor didn’t write a will, they may still ap­pear in the Cal­en­dar if Let­ters of Ad­min­is­tra­tion were

If find­ing an an­ces­tor in your di­rect line is a prob­lem, shift to a sib­ling or child

is­sued to wind up their es­tate. The Cal­en­dar can be searched for free from 1858 up to the present day at gov.uk/search-will-pro­bate and Ances­try has a more flex­i­ble search en­gine cov­er­ing 1858 to 1966 which can be found at



It was le­gal for any­one to change their name with­out mak­ing an of­fi­cial dec­la­ra­tion to the au­thor­i­ties, so long as their mo­ti­va­tions weren’t fraud­u­lent. How­ever, a mi­nor­ity of peo­ple did choose to go down the of­fi­cial route and changed their name by Deed Poll. Reg­is­ters of a small per­cent­age, those that were en­rolled in the Supreme Court of Ju­di­ca­ture, are at The Na­tional Ar­chives in Kew in se­ries C 275 for 1851–1903 and in J 18 for 1903–2003. The govern­ment-run Lon­don Gazette pub­lished an­nounce­ments of all th­ese changes of name from 1914, which can be searched for free at www.thegazette.co.uk. There’s more in­for­ma­tion at www.na­tion­alarchives.gov. uk/records/re­search-guides/change-of­name.htm.


A sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of records that are held at The Na­tional Ar­chives in Kew have been cat­a­logued in great de­tail in re­cent years, so the Dis­cov­ery cat­a­logue which is found at

dis­cov­ery.na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk acts as a name in­dex to many col­lec­tions even where the pa­per records have not been digi­tised. Th­ese are par­tic­u­larly use­ful for find­ing an­ces­tors who came un­der the radar of govern­ment de­part­ments re­spon­si­ble for jus­tice, de­fence and im­mi­gra­tion. A search for Ju­lia Marie Durin, for ex­am­ple, who was born in France re­veals a Bri­tish nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion record from 1866 in­di­cat­ing that she also went by the alias Eu­ge­nie Durin.


Lo­cal and na­tional news­pa­pers are se­cond to none for di­vulging long-for­got­ten facts about an­ces­tors, which may shed light on why they are miss­ing from the record col­lec­tions you’ve searched. We knew that Reg­gie Yates’s English great grand­fa­ther Ge­orge Wil­liam Yates lived for a while in Ghana, where Reg­gie’s grand­fa­ther was born, but Ge­orge’s obit­u­ary re­vealed that for the best part of 18 years his ca­reer in the min­ing in­dus­try also took him to South Africa, South Amer­ica and New York in search of lu­cra­tive con­tracts. This partly ex­plained why the pa­per trail for him in Ghana pe­tered out.

Dig­i­tal news­pa­per col­lec­tions are usu­ally the quick­est way to find out if your an­ces­tor had been up to no good and was in prison or in the work­house at the time of the census. Birth, mar­riage and death an­nounce­ments and obituaries might also pro­vide ad­di­tional bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion to help you de­cide whether you’ve found the right civil reg­is­tra­tion cer­tifi­cate when you’re un­sure. Thou­sands of pa­pers held at the Bri­tish Li­brary are be­ing digi­tised at and

so you can search quickly by name, but lo­cal li­braries and ar­chives also hold copies of re­gional ti­tles on mi­cro­film.


It is well worth check­ing out crim­i­nal records just to dis­cover if your miss­ing fore­bear was in­car­cer­ated. Re­mem­ber that not all con­vic­tions made it into the pages of lo­cal and na­tional news­pa­pers, par­tic­u­larly if the crime was petty, and gaols were an­other type of in­sti­tu­tion that were prone to list­ing in­mates by ini­tials on census night. An­ces­tors who com­mit­ted theft or more se­ri­ous crimes could be trans­ported to Aus­tralia, which may ex­plain their ab­sence on the census re­turn. The av­er­age term was seven years and con­victs could re­turn home once their sen­tence was served, though many chose to re­main in the colony. Links to on­line crim­i­nal reg­is­ters and trans­porta­tion records will be found by fol­low­ing the guides to Crim­i­nals, Bankrupts and Lit­i­gants at na­tion­alarchives.gov.uk/records/look­ing­for-per­son.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Griff Rhys Jones’s grand­par­ents Evan Jones and Louisa Price, front row, cen­tre

Billy Con­nolly found three gen­er­a­tions of his fam­ily were born in In­dia

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