Family history: 20 top tips to find your missing ancestors

You’ve decided to trace your family tree, back through the generations. Easy, it’s just a case of trawling through the Birth, Marriages and Deaths records, right? Sadly it’s not always that straightforward… but there are ways to track down missing ancestors. These are the 20 Top Tips by Who Do You Think You Are?’s TV show genealogist Laura Berry. If you have an ancestor who is missing from official records, there are numerous possible reasons for their absence.

missing ancestors

[photo: nationalarchives.gov.uk]

1 Ancestors may have used middle names. I don’t have a middle name but Adeline V Stephen, who was christened in 1882, was known by her second name Virginia. She became the writer Virginia Woolf.

2 Check the mother’s maiden name, not everyone was born in wedlock.

3 If you are really stuck, you can post a question on a genealogy forum such as the WDYTYA Forum. Often other forum users may be able to help.

4 Perhaps your ancestor simply moved. Try searching in a neighbouring area.

5 Names were often misspelt, and the mistake is continued down the line.

6 If you are drawing a blank at your favourite genealogy website, try using a different website which may have a slightly different interpretation of the indexing. And don’t overlook paper records.

7 Check overseas indexes. People more around more than you think.

8 Check Local Register Offices, the primary records are kept here and may contain less errors.

9 Focus on the ancestor’s occupation. For example at the The Genealogist’s website it is possible to make census searches by profession making it easier to find someone whose surname has been wrongly noted.

10 Search the Poor Law records. Could your ancestor have disappeared because he/she is in the workhouse [below] on the night the census was taken?

missing ancestors

[photo: workhouses.org.uk]

11 Try Parish Registers for baptisms and burials are not quite as detailed, but you may find a record there which is missing from the indexes. It wasn’t compulsory to register a child’s birth until 1874.

12 You might not find your relatives in the local Parish records, even though the family was Protestant. Instead look at records for more than one denomination.

13 The forces. Men stationed abroad are not included in UK censuses prior to 1911, except the navy. Some men took their family abroad with them, so you may find everyone missing.

14 Look at old maps. Read more here about how I used maps to research the settings for Ignoring Gravity.

15 Search for a will, the national Probate Calendar was compiled from 1858 onwards. It includes the deceased’s occupation, address, next of kin and executors of the will.

16 Consider that your relative may have changed name. You could change your name without making an official declaration, as long as your intentions weren’t fraudulent. But some people changed their name by Deed Poll. Some records are held at the National Archives in Kew, name changes after 1914 were recorded in the London Gazette.

18 Try the online Discovery catalogue at the National Archives at Kew.

19 Read the newspapers. Not just obituaries and the Birth and Death announcements, but also news stories. Read them online at the British Newspaper Archive and Find My Past.

missing ancestors

[photo: Wikipedia]

20 Was your relative a convict? Possibly in prison [prisoners were noted on census returns by their initials] or possibly transported by ship [above] to Australia. Records at the National Archives, Kew.

If you liked this summary of Laura Berry’s feature, check out Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine for more help. I read it every month.

missing ancestors

Watch this interview with Sandra Danby in which she talks about the inspiration for writing Ignoring Gravity, and her curiosity about how family affects our identity.

 

‘Ignoring Gravity’ by Sandra Danby [UK: Beulah Press] Buy now

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
20 top tips to find your missing ancestors #familyhistory http://wp.me/p5gEM4-1Fz via @SandraDanby

Comments

  1. Terrific post! Much of this applies to British citizens, but some is applicable for Americans. Thanks for a great idea.
    Beyond my grandparents, very little is known about our family. Last name for my mother’s side is one of the most common names ever.
    Still, lots of ideas here.
    How did your own ancestor search go? Want to share the details?