1 Try different spellings
This may seem obvious, but it is still my first go-to technique for finding someone ‘missing’ from records. One of my ancestors married a Frenchman, and I’ve not found his surname spelt the same on any official document. Even common names can be mistranscribed if the handwriting is tricky to read (‘James’ instead of ‘Jones’), or misspelt if the person writing it down misheard what was said. We have featured not one, but two cases in the magazine of a baby Henry (‘enry) being recorded as ‘Emily’! There are a few ways to tackle this obstacle. One is to use ‘wildcards’ in your research. This is when you substitute a letter or letters with an * or ? to widen the search. The asterisk replaces any number of letters, so if you write ‘Shep*rd’ it will look for ‘Shepherd’ or ‘Shepard’, whereas ? just replaces one letter, for example ‘S?mes’ will look for ‘Simes’, ‘Symes’ or ‘Somes’ – but it won’t include ‘Soames’. The main subscription sites have built ‘fuzzy’ searching into their standard search algorithms, so it is not necessary to use wildcards. Where they come in handy is when you feel the name you are searching for is the least reliable piece of information you have. In this instance wildcards stop the website’s search engine from prioritising a spelling that may in fact be wrong. They are also useful if you have an ancestor with an unusual or foreign name that is frequently mistranscribed.
Another way to combat a suspected misspelt surname is to search without the name altogether. Most sites allow you to search using just a first name along with the names of other people in the family ( thegenealogist.co.uk is particularly good for this). To reduce results, you may need to include where you expect to find them. Occupation can also help to narrow down results, although ancestry.co.uk has not indexed occupation for all of its censuses.
I’ve also heard of researchers finding people by saying the surname in the right regional accent and experimenting with spellings! If someone moved from Scotland to Norfolk and had to say their name to an enumerator without knowing how to spell it, it could have been written down in all sorts of ways. The enumerator will have been busy, and won’t have expected his scrawl to become a key part of your family history puzzle.