Top 5 ways to break down family history brick walls

By Guest, 19 April 2018 - 9:50am

Brick walls can be frustrating, but using your ingenuity to overcome their challenges is part of the fun of family history. WDYTYA? editor Sarah Williams shares her expert advice

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Children of domestic servants sit on a wall in Chelsea, London, 1937 (Credit: Fox Photos/ Getty Images)

Family history is a funny business. Sometimes we love it the most when we can’t do it. Of course it’s enormously satisfying when you hit a rich vein of relatives – a family baptised, married and buried in the same parish for generations, or people who stick conveniently in their family groups for the census. But let’s be honest, we all love a bit of a challenge.

For the full version of this article with all 10 of Sarah's tips, don't miss Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine May 2018, on sale now. 

Over the years I have spent many hours chasing lost family, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. It can be frustrating, but it never feels like time wasted. When you hit a so-called ‘brick wall’, it makes you slow down and reflect. Why can I not find this person? It’s a chance to think about different records, different routes and also to ponder what your relative might have been doing at that time.

I think I’m actually fonder of the family members I had to chase to find. I’ve spent more time with them, and the satisfaction you get on finding them makes all the effort worthwhile. And as the TV series has often shown, the tricky ancestors sometimes produce the best stories. Hopefully my tips will give you ideas for new avenues to explore, and bring out the detective in you.

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 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 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.

2. Research other family members

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Searching for a sibling can allow you to find a child's birth certificate

A birth record for a ‘John Smith’ may be tricky to find, but if you know he had a sister Miranda, then her birth certificate should provide the same parental details. The new birth index on the GRO’s website will then let you do a search using the mother’s maiden name on Miranda’s birth certificate to track down John’s. The same approach can be used to track down people missing from the census who can often be found visiting family, so cast your net a bit wider. You may also find that the person you are looking for has had their name mistranscribed, but if you search for someone you expect to be in their household, you may find them that way.

3. Less is more

You might have thought that entering everything you know about someone into the search fields of a family history website would be the best way to flush out all of the records held on them, but this is not always true. The more details you put in, the more the website’s algorithm will prioritise those facts. For example if you include year of death in your search, then records that include that will be bumped up higher in the results. Play around with what you enter and what you leave out. Each time you will get different results, and there may be a perfect combination that helps you find what you are looking for.


4. Understand the record set that you are using

Guildhall City of London Plan of Wards and Parishes, 1885 (Credit: The Print Collector/ Getty Images)

When searching online, it’s really important to understand the scope of any datasets you are using. If you are looking for a baptism, for example, and your subscription website says that it has baptisms for the relevant county, but you can’t find the one you are looking for, then there’s no point playing around with alternative spellings if the parishes you are interested in are not included in the collection, or baptisms for the years you are interested in have not survived. Also what may seem to you to be an unusual name could be fairly common in the area you are searching, and this can lead to false positives. If you find someone with the right name, born at the right time, in the right county, it could still be the wrong person if it’s not in a parish where other family events have occurred. Always check which parishes (and which years for those parishes) are included in any online collection or index. GENUKI is very useful because it lists surviving parish records and where to find them.


5. Ask for help

Sometimes a problem just needs a fresh pair of eyes. Our forum is a very easy way to get friendly help from other family historians who might come up with that elusive solution. Other forums (eg the excellent Great War Forum) specialise in particular topics, and attract experts who are keen to help. Joining a family history society can get you access to local advice that may solve your case. You can search for family history societies by location at the Federation of Family History Societies website for England and Wales or the Scottish Association of Family History Societies website for Scotland.

The professional genealogists who help our readers via our Q&A pages offer another option. When submitting a query to a forum or a magazine, make sure you state your problem clearly with all of the necessary information, including what you know already and any options that you may have ruled out, and why – you don’t want to waste other people’s time replicating your research. You can also opt for professional help – try the Register of Qualified Genealogists, the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives, the Association of Professional Genealogists or the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives.

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