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
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...
MAY HAVE USED MIDDLE NAMES
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.
2CHECK THE MOTHER’S MAIDEN NAME
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.
3 TRY THE WDYTYA? FORUM FOR HELP
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.
4PERHAPS THEY HAVE MOVED?
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.
5USE WILDCARD SEARCHES
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.
6TRY SOME DIFFERENT DATABASES
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.
CHECK OVERSEAS INDEXES
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.
8CHECK LOCAL REGISTER OFFICES
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.
9FOCUS ON OCCUPATIONS
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.
THE POOR LAWL RECORDS
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.
11TRY PARISH REGISTERS
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.
12MAKE THE MOST OF NONCONFORMIST REGISTERS
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.
13ARE THEY SERVING WITH THE FORCES?
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.
14LOOK AT OLD MAPS
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
17DID THEY OFFICIALLY CHANGE NAMES?
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.
18TRY THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
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.
19 CHECK OUT NEWSPAPER ANNOUNCEMENTS
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.
20WERE THEY A CONVICT?
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