Family historians often overlook ordering death certificates because they’re not always essential for taking a family tree back in time.
But they frequently provide the all-important story that we need to make an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? work.
“How extraordinary! It is like something out of Sherlock Holmes… We’re going back into some real turn-of-the-century derring-do here,” exclaimed the actor and comedian Griff Rhys Jones while on the hunt for the death certificate of his great grandfather Daniel Price.
In the episode, broadcast in 2007, Griff unearthed two Daniel Prices who had been poisoned before finally identifying the correct certificate for his ancestor, who was killed after a drunken brawl.
Dealing with death
Civil registration started on 1 July 1837 in England and Wales and on 1 January 1855 in Scotland.
Prior to these dates, burial records are the most common evidence of a death.
Although these rarely state the cause of death, they can be equally emotive.
For example, in 2014 the conclusion of Brian Blessed’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at his great grandfather’s graveside moved him to tears for the first time in his adult life.
Perhaps you’ve hit a brick wall and can’t find anything that looks likely for your ancestor in the death indexes, or you’ve found a death certificate but are struggling to establish whether it’s the right person because it wasn’t registered by the deceased’s next of kin.
Either way, these tips are designed to help you hone in on a missing record and find out more about the deceased.
1. Try the General Register Office’s website
The free England and Wales death index has recently been extended to cover 1837–1957 and 1984–2019.
It provides full middle names rather than just initials.
The early index gives ages when alternative versions of the same index on commercial sites do not.
Full copies of certificates should be ordered from the GRO to make sure you’ve found the right person in the index.
This will provide the date, place and cause of death, the deceased’s occupation/marital status, and the informant’s name and address.
If your ancestors lived in Scotland, the statutory registers of death on ScotlandsPeople provide extra information, including father’s name and profession, and mother’s maiden name.
Scottish registers for 1855 also give the deceased’s place of birth and children’s names and ages.
2. Check probate records
The National Probate Calendar for England and Wales offers a free index to wills and letters of administration from 1858 onwards.
It might also give the deceased’s marital status, address, occupation and next of kin.
Copies of wills cost £1.50 and could name even more relations.
Prior to 1858, you’ll need to check if the deceased had a will proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (digitised on the major commercial websites) or in a lesser ecclesiastical court locally.
The originals at The National Archives may contain biographical notes about beneficiaries.
People often posted notices in the local press advising of the demise of a loved one.
If your ancestor was well known within the community or the victim of an unfortunate incident, there’s a high chance that a journalist picked up on the story.
News reports of a death add a lot more colour to a certificate, so it’s worth checking for death notices and obituaries at the British Newspaper Archive, which provides access to hundreds of historic newspapers from all over Britain and Ireland dating from the 1700s and is also available on Findmypast.
4. Postwar shortcuts
The post-1969 England and Wales death indexes on major commercial genealogy websites give dates of birth.
So if you already know your ancestor’s birthdate, you can be sure you’ve found the correct death record, but conversely it can be helpful for identifying a birth record and taking your family tree back further if you know roughly when a relative died but aren’t sure when they were born.
The full copy of the death certificate should also state where the deceased was born.
If you already know your ancestor’s date of birth, you can enter that into the search engine on Ancestry to hone in on the correct death record – a boon if your ancestor had a common name.
The 1939 Register is excellent for using in conjunction with postwar death indexes, because it was annotated with updates right up to the 1990s.
Also if a woman married after September 1939 then all of her surnames should be provided, which is particularly helpful if she married more than once.
5. Trawl electoral registers
Vast, regional collections of electoral registers have been digitised on Findmypast and Ancestry and are great for tracking people after the 1911 census, given that more people were enfranchised after the First World War.
If your ancestor had a particularly common name, an annual trawl of electoral registers may assist with narrowing down a timeframe for their death.
You might find them listed at the same address for several consecutive years and then suddenly disappear.
While it’s possible they had simply moved home, it’s also worth investigating whether they died around that time, especially if other family members subsequently remained living at the property.
Article extracted from Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine February 2020