Walls Come Tumbling Down

Brickwalls are an inescapable component of every family historian’s world. If you think about it, every line you’ve ever researched starts (or ends, depending on which way you look at it) with an individual whose parentage is unknown. So, for example, if you’ve traced each line of descent back as far as your 4x great grandparents – and no further – you effectively have 64 brickwalls on your hands! One generation further back and you’ve got 128 … and so on. In fact, whenever you break down one of your brickwalls, you instantly create two more!

But isn’t that what makes family history research so fascinating? It’s the challenge of discovery; the detective work; the intellectual process of exercising our enquiring minds. It’s what keeps us interested and after all, we wouldn’t want it all handed to us on a plate, now would we? We wouldn’t want it all to be as easy as certain websites might try to persuade us that it is. “You just type in your name and out come your ancestors!” That’s not the way it is and it’s not the way we want it to be…

I’ve spent a lot of the last 40 years of my life attempting to break down brickwalls, both as an enthusiastic hobbyist working on my own family history and as a professional researcher working for many hundreds of clients and I’ve learnt a lot of tricks on the way.

It’s fair to say that we can get stuck at just about any stage of our research. Tracing a line back to medieval times is perhaps the aim of most genealogists but the reality is more often that we come to a grinding halt sometime in the 17th or 18th century. Our brickwall might even be much more recent – we probably all know someone who’s struggling to find details of a grandparent – but by far the most troublesome period is the 30 or 40 years prior to the introduction of civil registration (in 1837) and the establishment of the name-rich decennial census returns (in 1841). It was a period of great upheaval in the population; the Industrial Revolution was in full flow and people were moving in their thousands from their rural ancestral homelands into the (mostly northern and midlands) towns and cities, desperate to find work in the factories and mills.

Ancoats, Manchester. McConnel & Company’s mills, about 1820. From: Wikimedia Commons (copyright expired)

All of this can make it particularly difficult to trace people in the records. We might, for example, have an ancestor who married in Manchester in the 1820s and then died before 1837 – or at least before 1851 – leaving behind next to nothing in the way of clues to their origins. How do we begin to find out where they came from?

Over the years, I’ve developed a methodology that helps me to work through the trickiest problems. Clearly, every case is different, each with its own distinct range of challenges, so I have to be flexible in my approach and adapt as I go, but what follows is a brief summary of the process that I use when I set out on the quest for one of those elusive early 19th century ancestors.

1 Evaluate

The first step is to assess what we actually know about the person whose origins we’re trying to trace. Ideally, we want to know as much as we can in the following three areas:

  • when they were born
  • where they were born
  • who their parents were

If we’re lucky, and they married after 1 July 1837 and/or went on to appear in the 1851 census, we should have some good, solid information to work with. We might only know their father’s name and not their mother’s but this would at least help us to identify any potential birth records, and combined with an approximate age and place of birth it might be all we need.

We may find that the evidence we have for someone’s age is contradictory, with different sources giving us conflicting information, and the same can happen with birthplaces. In that case, the best we can do is assess the evidence and keep an open mind about what we know. We might, for example, have five pieces of evidence, four of which (roughly) agree; experience tells me to question the ‘outliers’ when it comes to someone’s age but to pay close attention to an unexpected birthplace.

The less we have to go on, the harder our job is going to be but we can make some intelligent guesses based on whatever limited information we have. We can theorise that our early 19th century ancestors would have married in their early 20s – the grooms, generally, slightly older than the brides – so if we know when they married, we can estimate when they might have been born. And we can use the names of our ancestors’ children as clues to their parents’ names. If the surname is at all uncommon we might even be able to work out which part of the country they’re likely to have come from. Lots of English surnames (and even some forenames) have quite specific regional origins.

The Village Wedding by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes, 1883

2 Investigate

Of course, what we’re really looking for is a record of baptism – birth records prior to 1837 (in England and Wales anyway) are relatively uncommon – but most people were baptised (if they were baptised at all) within a few months of their birth so in most cases we can use the information we have about their age to search for baptismal records.

Step 2 is all about identifying possible candidates. A well-constructed search on your genealogical website of choice, using the information you’ve gathered in Step 1, will, hopefully, present you with a potential record of your ancestor’s birth. More likely you’ll have more than one candidate or you might have none at all (see Step 5). Each of these eventualities leads to its own research path which we’ll look at next.  

3 Eliminate

The most likely outcome from Step 2 is that you’ll end up with a list of two or more potential candidates and you’ll need to begin a process of elimination. I like to think of this in terms of chickens and eggs. Stay with me on this…

Our ancestor is the chicken, a fully-formed adult, and our challenge is to find the egg that they hatched from. We need to look at the eggs in our basket and attempt to eliminate each of them, one at a time. The first thing to look for is records of burial. If we can show that one (or more) of the candidates on our list was buried as an infant, we can instantly eliminate them from our enquiries. If they died aged 3 months, they can hardly be our ancestor. We can then attempt to trace each of the remaining candidates forward in time, looking for marriage records and entries in census returns. If we can find an alternative future for them – evidence that they grew up and became a different chicken! – then we know that they can’t be ours.

Ideally, this process will leave us with just one candidate (or maybe we started with just one in the first place) and we can move onto Step 4. Alternatively, we might have eliminated all of our candidates and we can go to Step 5.

Moving On by Sir Hubert Herkomer, 1881

4 Assimilate

The fact that we only have one candidate doesn’t, by any means, suggest that this is the person we’re looking. We’ve got a long way to go before we can reach that sort of conclusion.

Step 4 is all about a process known as Family Reconstruction (or Family Reconstitution). The idea is that you attempt to find out everything you can about the family of your potential ancestor.

You might start by looking at the baptisms of their siblings, and the marriage and the burials of their parents – and you’ll definitely want to see if any of them left wills. You’ll want to follow up each of the siblings to find out what happened to them. So often you’ll find references to family members in later documents; they might appear as witnesses on marriage records, or as beneficiaries in wills, or they might just turn up unexpectedly on a census return.

You’re looking for just about any clues; perhaps an unusual name given to a child which also occurs in your family – or a distinctive occupation or a link to a familiar address.

Putting all of the available information together in a logical and organised way can help to make sense of what, at first sight, can seem to be a jumble of names and dates. This process helps us to see individuals as part of something much bigger; a family, with links and connections that can last for several generations. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces; they’re all part of the story and they all have the potential to provide that vital clue.

5 Speculate

There’s nothing more frustrating in genealogy than when your well-constructed search turns up … absolutely nothing! It’s as if you’ve stepped on a stair that isn’t there.

It’s important to bear in mind that there are any number of reasons why the record of your ancestor’s birth may not turn up as the result of a simple online search. The relevant record may not have been digitised and you may have to go to an archive to search actual physical records or microfilm (you really CAN’T do it all online) or the transcription may be so bad that the record is effectively unrecognisable. The record you’re looking for may not even exist – the register may have been damaged or lost entirely – or it may never have existed.  

There’s a danger that we become too fixated on finding records of our ancestors’ births when what we really need is evidence of their birth, or, at least, evidence of their parentage and this evidence can come from a wide variety of documents, such as census returns, wills, manorial documents, poor law records etc.

My first step in cases like this is to look for any other references to the surname in the area that I’m focussing on. It’s about looking for gaps in the records. Perhaps there’s a family producing children every two years but there’s a gap of four years between two of them. Could the person we’re looking for have been born in that gap? I’d want to look at the register itself and not rely on a transcript. Perhaps a page is missing or damaged, or the entry is there but has been missed or mistranscribed. It’s surprising how often the answer is something as simple as that.

Again, it’s about family reconstruction. By piecing together the story of our potential family, we can start to understand them not as random individuals but as a structured group and we can begin to speculate about how our ancestor might fit in.

What we’re trying to do in all of his is to develop a theory that this person or that person might be our ancestor. And then we try to disprove the theory – finding ‘negative proof’ is always easier than finding ‘positive proof’. It’s the tried and tested process used by scientists and mathematicians and if it’s good enough for them…

The final message is to persevere. Sometimes the best option is to put it to one side for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes – you may have missed something obvious. Chip away at it; think outside the box and spend time off the beaten track looking at some less-obvious sources.

Most importantly, don’t give up. The answer is out there!

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 25 June 2021

This entry was posted in Document Sources, research and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Walls Come Tumbling Down

  1. Thank you for an excellent blog post. I’ve found that most of my ancestors in this difficult period moved to London rather than the North or the Midlands. My West Country ancestors mostly ended up in Bristol.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. GeniAus says:

    5 Ates of Genealogy such a useful research process


  3. EJ Jackson says:

    Excellent advice, David! I’ve been researching my family (and more recently, my husband’s, and now my brother-in-law’s) families since around 2003 and I’m not nearly done yet, I almost certainly never will be! So many of the steps you mentioned are second nature now, but it is always useful to have a reminder, and confirmation that I am still doing it properly, LOL.


  4. Glenys Sykes says:

    A useful reminder, thank you.
    Unusual names can be useful. My husband’s family moved from a village in the Forest of Dean to the city of Gloucester in the 1800s but changed their surname along the way. We were sure this was the correct family as both parents had unusual Christian names and the children born to them stopped being baptised in the Forest and started in Gloucester at the relevant time. But their name had been recorded as Predeth in the Forest (which borders with Wales, of course) and became Preedy in Gloucester. I’m not Welsh and don’t speak it but would lay odds that Predeth is pronounced in such a way that a different priest in Gloucester heard Preedy.
    In my own family in the early 1800s the spelling of their name varies from Horton to Haughton and back again, several times in the same Register, varying with the Clerk or Priest. Interestingly, although I’m pretty sure the family were illiterate at that early time, I have a handwritten list of relatives drawn up by a granddaughter of the couple I was researching (Yes, I know, family history Gold!) where she spells it Haughton, not the easy way. The family also consistently spell another family name on the same list as Bridgwater, without an ‘e’ in the middle as do several branches of the same family in the area.
    I so often hear of people starting out in family history who dismiss possible matches because a name is spelled differently from their expectation, perhaps not appreciating how few humble folk were literate. It sometimes helps, too if you try pronouncing names with the local accent!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Absolutely. ‘Correct’ spelling is a very recent concept!

      Liked by 1 person

    • EJ Jackson says:

      I have Chirnside/Churnside on my father’s side… used as a middle name almost exclusively for femaie offspring, which led me to discover a Chirnside maiden name, which was connected to another middle name used only for male children, Kinghorn… or Kingcorn! Fascinating and took several years and many chats with other people looking for the same people in Scotland/the borders before I was able to say with confidence that I had found the link. It didn’t help that the Chirnside lady didn’t marry my Thomson ancestor, but they did have a child together (my 3 x great grandfather). Have been unable to find any siblings or even a death for either of his parents, so the trail has gone cold around 1783-85… but I haven’t given up yet! 🙂


      • Glenys Sykes says:

        EJ – Yes, if I come across an unusual name as a middle name I always have a look to see whether I can find it as a surname somewhere in the family. And cross border families always add to the interest! My home village was right on a County boundary and the area boundaries have since been re-organised twice so keeping track of where records went is all part of the challenge.
        What an interesting family you have. I found my 4xg-grandmother in the 1841 Census, slightly to my surprise as she was 80 by then, a very good age for that time. That discovery allowed me to solve various other family puzzles and to obtain her death certificate from 1850 (don’t you hate it when people die just before the census?!) which confirmed her late husband’s occupation of carpenter – forty years after he died. The trade went down the generations from him to my own father so it gave me a thrill when I found that. But now I’m stuck, like you, in finding out any more about him but, as you say, I haven’t given up either. Though I have noted that it is extraordinary how many Hopkinses in Gloucestershire were carpenters back then!


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