Without an exact parish to start looking in, the search can seem hopeless. In such a case, the only thing to do is to build up knowledge of the whole family, perhaps a sibling has a more unusual name, or an occupation for which place of birth would have been recorded. If so, focus your research on that sibling.
When you do have a parish, or a set of possible parishes, make full extracts of all people with the surname in the parish, collecting baptisms, marriages and burials in order to put them into trees. In particular, child burials will eliminate candidates. I reconstructed one family in Wales with the surname Evans who, just to make things fun, had a branch known by the surname Thomas. I did this by focusing very closely on one parish and a couple of farms in that parish, using those people with the more unusual first names to locate other likely areas to search, while at the same time also working up biographies of those family members who had the more unusual occupations. By focusing on people who stood out, with precise locations, the pieces of the puzzle were all correctly fitted into place, both before and after civil registration.
As you search, work out the widest possible scope of the research and don’t give up before you start because there is a very long list of possible names. How many candidates do you actually have, where were they born and when? Get organised and make lists of them. A spreadsheet will help you do this. Methodically eliminate those who cannot possibly fit because they don’t match with what you know for sure about your John Smith.
Be prepared to research people who will not be related to you and will be eliminated. Make up detailed notes on the final candidates into a profile sheet for each of them, along with information about close family members, and as you research, fit the facts into what you already know about them. Note down absolutely everything from each source you find, not just birth, marriage and death information. You must be as exact as possible and keep notes of locations, addresses, witnesses to events, occupations – anything that can help you differentiate between the candidates. Use timelines and chronology in the candidate profiles to help you visualise what was happening in the lives of each person and when. Draw up trees and drop-line pedigrees to visually show how people are connected to each other. Using all of these techniques, you should find that all but the most impenetrable ‘Which one is mine?’ questions can be solved.
Use timelines and chronology in the candidate profiles to help you
Multiple candidates with the same name in the General Register Office birth indexes can prove daunting unless you know where they were born