Brick Walls – 5 Actions to take when you have too many results

brick wallThis is a problem that is all too common when you have an ancestor with a common name.  Unless you have extra information that might help you to pinpoint your ancestor out of a long list of possibilities, this can be really infuriating.  One of those ‘John Smith’s is your great-grandfather, but you have no way of knowing which one he is!  The problem is even  more complicated if you have an ancestor with a name that can be easily shortened or changed (think how many variations of Elizabeth there are: Betty, Betsy, Lizzie, Liz, Eliza….)

It is not always possible to find out which, of all the many possibilities, is your ancestor.  However, there are some strategies you can try which may lead you to the right one.  The following actions are what I usually try when attempting to break through this particular brick wall:

  1.  Research other known family members.  Do you know of any brothers or sisters who might have a more traceable name (for example, Nicholas is a lot less common than John)?  Are there any people named as witness on your ancestor’s marriage who might be siblings, parents, uncles or cousins?  Are there any visitors or boarders in the census household who could be relatives (they are not always described as a relative, even though they often should be).  A careful perusal of all documents you have for your ancestor may given you some relatives you can trace, which might at least give you an idea of the area your ancestor came from.
  2. Eliminate as many as possible.  Sometimes, if there are just a few possible candidates for your ancestor, you may be able to shortlist them by a process of elimination.  For example, let’s say you have found three possible baptisms for your ancestor, James Brown, all born in Warwick in 1812, who might all be your ancestor.  You have three sets of parents.  Note down their names, and find the names of all of their children.  Do you see any naming patterns?  Might your ancestor have named some or all of his children after his parents and/or siblings?  Check burial records to see if you can ‘kill off’ one of the candidates – burial records for children usually give the parents’ names, so this is often a way of eliminating baptisms from your searches.  Can you find any marriages for any of them, that you can definitely say is not your ancestor (be careful though – it could be a previous marriage that you did not already know about).
  3. Do Further Research on the Shortlist. Sometimes, when you end up with two or three candidates, it is worth researching back on each family to see if there are any similarities of occupation, naming patterns and familiarity with places your ancestor lived.
  4. Look for Wills or other documents. Make sure you check for any wills, not only for your direct ancestor where he might name siblings, but also any wills in the area with the same surname within his lifetime.  If he is named as a relative, then you will have identified his family.  Also, check documents such as apprenticeship records, where the father is often named, or land records (if the family owned property) which might given detailed of lands/property gifted to children.
  5. Keep Going. In the case of too many possibilities, there are often just too many results to carry out the above, unless you have lots and lots of time and patience!  But it might be something you can keep coming back to while you work on other lines of your family tree.  Make a shortlist of the most likely individuals and find out what you can about them, eliminating where you can, making notes until you have a list of possibles.  One of them might just jump out at you.  However, it is likely in this case that you are never going to be 100% certain, and often we have to live with a probable rather than a definite.  Just make sure you have stated that this is not a proven ancestor in any notes or histories you write.


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The Life of a Victorian Actress

The article below is one I recently published on my writing website at – but I thought it would be of interest to anyone with theatrical ancestors too! 

The novel I am currently working on, and which should be out in autumn, is set in the theatre world of the 1830s to 1850s, and tells the story of my fictional character, Isobel Brite, a shoemaker’s daughter who leaves the restrictions of her ordinary life to join the theatre, where she finds a freedom as an actress that the vast majority of women of the time would never experience.  There will, of course, be many challenges for my heroine to face, and I’m not going to give away any spoilers here!  However, as a little taster of the kinds of themes I explore in my novel, I thought I’d write a bit about what it was like to be a Victorian actress.

Victorian actress
Scene from “The Princess”, The Olympic Theatre 1870

In a time when women were more or less the property of men, actresses, and other female entertainers, had a rather unique place in society.  Following a ‘profession’, the kind of career choice that was barred to most women, gave the actress an autonomy that has more similarities to a woman of the late 20th century than those of her own age.

While this sounds like rather a pleasant position to be in, it was, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword.  To many people who lived within the social mores of the period, the actress was a monstrosity.  They threatened the general beliefs about female capabilities, which were that women were unable to work in any job that required physical, intelligent or creative activity, which were seen as the masculine domain.  Acting demanded all three of these, and in the twisted logic of Victorian values, therefore, these women were not truly women, but a kind of curious inhuman being whose morals were not to be trusted.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the word ‘actress’ was often synonymous with the word ‘prostitute’.   Some of those men who went to see their favourite actress on the stage either viewed her as some kind of mystical goddess, or as a person of easy virtue who they might fraternise with in a slightly more dignified way than a visit to the local whorehouse.

Because of her lifestyle, an actress was not seen, by the outside world at least, as a fit person to be a wife and mother, and so if an actress married, she was often expected to leave the stage behind her completely in order to lead a respectable life.  Astonishingly, this was not always limited to marriages outside of the business.  During my research I have read accounts of actors who expected their actress wife to give up the theatre.  The American actor, George Parks, threw himself into the river and drowned himself when his actress wife refused to give up her career.  This was probably an exceptional case, however.  In one travelling theatre company in the Midlands (where I have my heroine learn her trade), most of the acting company were children of the management, married to other actors in the company.

Victorian actress
Fanny Kemble

While I am sure that there were many actresses who did deserve the reputation they had, I think that, on the whole, the belief that actresses had extremely low morals was an erroneous one.   Many may have had affairs (e.g. Ellen Ternan who had a long-standing affair with Charles Dickens), or co-habited without marriage, but these situations are far (in our 21st century eyes at least) from prostitution.  But I think many did lead quite virtuous lives.  One of the books I have been reading as part of my research is the diaries of Fanny Kemble, a member of one of the best known acting families of the early 19th century.  She is an example of a truly intelligent, sensible and thoughtful woman who also wrote plays (another activity usually confined to men), and there is no hint of any scandalous behaviour!  She did give up the stage when she married, and later campaigned against slavery America where her husband owned plantations.  After her marriage ended (rather inevitably) she returned to the stage.

If you were happy to be single, or marry within the business, and were tough enough to ignore the views of those who might consider you no more than a prostitute, then there was the challenge of earning enough money to be comfortable.  For the provincial actress, touring in a traveling theatre company in the early days of the 19th century, this could be tough, but you had the companionship of your fellow actors as you travelled by foot from theatre to theatre, and the occasional benefit night, where the profits were given to the actor or actress whose benefit night it was, would often help see you through difficult times.  In these companies you would also be expected to muck in with setting up the scenery, making your own costumes and other practical matters, as well as being an all-rounder: singing and dancing would be part of your repertoire.

If you were lucky enough to find work in one of the big London theatres, then your salary could be extremely good for the times, especially if you were the leading actress.  An actress at the Haymarket Theatre, one of the major London theatres in the 1850s, could bring in £20-25 a week.   But for most jobbing actors and actresses the wages were much less than that, and could be as low as £2 – still well above the national average.   For all actors, whether male or female, the career was a precarious one – as it always has been – and once you fell out of favour, it could be a slippery slope to poverty and obscurity.  While there were some theatrical charities that could offer some help, there was no welfare state or national insurance, and no doubt many ended up in the workhouse.

Still, despite all of the above, I think the life of a Victorian actress was often an enjoyable and interesting one, as long as you were not too keen on being a wife and/or mother, and as long as you could shrug off the way the world saw you, and as long as you could stay in work and earn enough money to keep you comfortable in your old age.

Life on the stage for a woman was certainly not for the faint-hearted.  But for many it provided an alternative to the restrictions of ‘normal’ Victorian life, and it provided a vehicle for self-expression that most women were not allowed.

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Visiting Your Ancestors

Alton, Staffordshire

When you are next thinking about where to go on holiday, why not try an ancestral trail, and visit the homes and places where your ancestors lived and worked?  If you have done a lot of research, and have some idea of where they lived and what they did, visiting your ancestors can give you a richer understanding of their lives, as well as a real emotional connection to them.


Before setting off on your trip, you need to do a bit of planning first.  First of all, you want to find out whether the houses they lived in still exist.  For the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specific addresses can be found on most of the later census records, on birth, marriage and death records, and on electoral registers.  Earlier addresses may not always be so easy to find unless the place they lived in was a large, well-known house, a pub, or a farm. Continue reading

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Brick Walls: Unknown Birthplace

Unknown birthplaceOne of the most frustrating brick walls in genealogy is when you cannot find an ancestor in the local baptism registers, and they have died before the 1851 census when specific places of birth were given.  You might even have found that in the 1841 census they are described as ‘not born in county’, which is about as helpful as a chocolate teapot.  This is especially difficult when the name is a common one.

While this can sometimes be an almost impossible brick wall to break through, there are some strategies you can carry out to make sure you have turned over every stone.  Here are a few that I use:

Check the Marriage

From 1837, marriage records give the father’s name, which can help considerably, but is still a problem with common names as, for example, there will be several hundred William Collins, son of John, born in about 1790 throughout the country.

From 1754, marriages in the parish registers have the signatures of two witnesses.  Make a note of these witnesses.  Often they are relatives of the bride or groom, so they are worth following up.  If you can find these on the census, or other records, you may be able to get some idea of where they were from, and therefore, particularly if they are siblings, where your ancestor is from.

Poor Law

If you think your ancestors were poor, then it is very worth while checking the Poor Law Records in the local record office (or do a search on the National Archives Discovery search engine).  If your ancestors were receiving parish relief they may have had to make a statement to prove why they were eligible for relief in that parish.  In some cases, they and their family may have been removed back to a parish where they were born.  These are known as Settlements and Removal Records.  These records can be extremely useful where you have no other records to tell you where they came from, and often give detailed accounts of the person’s family and circumstances.


On the other hand, if your ancestors were wealthy, then you should always check any wills indexes (Ancestry, National Archives – plus local record office indexes).  If your ancestor left a will, he may not mention where he came from but the places where he has property may be a clue, and also you can look at all the relatives he mentions in the will (particularly any siblings, cousins or older relatives) and you then then research them and find out where they are from.  Also look for any wills who might be relatives of your ancestor to see if they mention your ancestor.  You can then get further information about your ancestors’ family, and where they might be from.

Apprenticeship Records

If your ancestor had a trade, then it is worth checking to see if he was an apprenticed to a master when he was younger.  FindMyPast has a good collection of these.  Sometimes apprenticeship records give the name of the apprentice’s father, and some cases the master is the father, so they can be useful to identify a parent, and hopefully from there a place of residence.

Newspaper Records

This is unlikely unless your ancestor was involved in some sort of incident, or was important enough to warrant an obituary, but it is always worth checking newspapers and see if your ancestor has been mentioned for any reason.  FindMyPast has a good collection of newspaper archives – and you can also try the BritishNewspaperArchives.  This is a bit hit and miss, but you never know, and an article or obituary may just mention where the person was born.

Once you have exhausted these possibilities, and you still have not found your ancestor, then the chances are you will have to leave this one for a while, and hope that something else comes to light at a later date.  I never like to totally give up on an ancestor, but sometimes you do have to let go – at least for a while!


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Short History of Immigration in the UK and how to search the records

In the light of recent political events, immigration is a subject that has been very much on my mind lately.  While not wishing to get on any kind of political soap box here, as a professional genealogist I am very aware that many, if not most, of us are the descendants of immigrants, without, perhaps, even realising it.

Jewish refugees – Liverpool 1882

Some of us, in fact, owe our very existence to those brave souls who left their homes behind to escape war, discrimination or famine, and make a new life in this strange, rather wet and cold new land, having to face the problems of finding work, fitting in, and learning a new language, not to mention being looked on with suspicion by the local natives.  Most of them would never see their homeland, or those they left behind, again.

My own ancestry includes several Irish immigrants, most likely escaping the potato famine that swept Ireland in the 1840s and 50s and caused thousands of families to die of starvation.  I also have an ancestor who came from the United States of America, who himself was descended from early 17th century settlers in Massachussets, originally coming from Lincolnshire in the UK.  My best friend has ancestors who came from Prussia in the early 19th century, possibly political or religious refugees.

Britain’s culture has evolved and been created by immigration from its very dawn of existence right up to the present day.  Some of the things we think of as being inherently British were in fact introduced by immigrants.  Fish and chips, for example.  You can’t get more British than that can you?  In fact, fried fish was introduced by Spanish Jews in the 19th century, and first sold with chips in the first fish and chip shop in London, by Joseph Malin, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe.

Wherever you look, much of our British culture has been introduced from outside the UK.

1963 Mini

Tea, of course, was introduced from China, Christmas trees from Germany, curry from India.  The Mini – probably the most iconically  British car – was designed by a Greek assylum seeker.  Our own Royal Family of course have a heady mix of European blood.

Here is a brief chronology of immigration into the UK, starting with the Romans:

  • 1st Century BC: Romans invade Britain, settling and creating many of our place names.
  • 5th to 7th Centuries:  Anglo-Saxon invasion sees migration of Germanic peoples into Britain.
  • 8th to 11th Centuries:  Viking invasions bring people from Scandinavia who settled in much of East Anglia.
  • 11th Century:  The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought much of the French aristocracy into Britain, and with them the beginnings of many of our surnames.
  • 11th Century onwards:  Jews, often fleeing persecution, settled in the East End of London.
  • 17th Century:  Huguenots – French protestants fleeing persecution settled in North and East England, the East End of London and elsewhere.
  • 17th to 21st Centuries:  Indians seeking work, many settling in Port towns and London
  • 18th to 21st Centuries: Africans, originally brought in slave ships.  Later on fleeing from war, and in recent years many have come seeking work.
  • 18th to 19th Centuries:  Germans, often political or religious refugees, settled in the North of England and elsewhere.
  • 19th century:  Russian Jews fleeing persecution, setted in East London.
  • 19th century:  Irish immigrants fleeing from famine.  In fact, the irish have steadily arrived in Great Britain throughout history, but the early 19th century was the largest wave, when they settled in Manchester and London.

Huguenot Weavers’ Cottages, Canterbury

There is no such thing as pure British blood.  We are truly global citizens.  Immigrants have not only enriched our blood, but have enriched our culture.  We would not be who we are without them.

If you are searching your British ancestors, then you are very likely to come across at least one ancestor who came from elsewhere in the world.  Whether they were Irish, Jewish, Huguenot, or other, there are genealogical sources that will be of some help.   For example, there are the Huguenot Society and The Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain.

Census records can sometimes give you the country, or if you are lucky, the town, of origin.  Make sure you check every census your ancestor was on to see if any of them give more specific details.  From there you should search any available immigration records such as passenger lists or natualization records.  These are available to search on websites such as and

For baptisms and marriages outside of the UK, your first port of call should be the FamilySearch website, which is made up mostly of the International Genealogical Index.  Not every country, or every area of a country, is covered, though.  So if you can’t find your ancestor indexed on that site, you may need to seek expert help.

Some Irish records can be searched online (although Irish records can be patchy because so many were destroyed in a fire), but other countries are not always so easy, especially if their websites are only in the language of that country.  Once you have exhausted the searches you can do online, then you will need to consider contacting a genealogist in the country of origin of your ancestor and find out how feasible further searches would be in that country.

728x90: Free Immigration Records





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Brexit, Trump and Pandora’s Box – some thoughts on 2016



This is a little bit of a deviation from the usual subject matter of genealogy here.  But in the aftermath of the American Election, I felt the need to put pen to paper and post it somewhere.  However, it does have a link to history – in that we don’t want to repeat it.  So – here it is:

I have never thought of myself as a particularly political person, and I admit that I do not always understand political systems and the nitty gritty of party policies.  I don’t know everything, and I don’t pretend to.  But I do know about integrity, decency, compassion and love, and when I see any politician or party ignoring or opposing these basic human essentials, then I usually grumble and sign petitions and vote and perhaps have the occasional political discussion with like-minded friends, but on the whole I don’t put my head above the parapet, and usually am just happy to get on with my own life and hope that things will get better.

Then along comes 2016.

The whole strange grimy mess of this year appears to have started on the day that David Bowie left the planet.  A whole host of beloved celebrities followed him, and following that we had Brexit, and the long drawn out terror of the American Election.   It really did feel to me as though Pandora’s Box had been opened, and all the evils of the world flown out.  Did those celebrities know something we didn’t?

With Brexit and the American Election, suddenly, I’m a raging, ranting Ms. Angry Person, posting and sharing on social media, shocked and dismayed by the seemingly sudden upsurge of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny and stupidity that have gone hand in hand with the UK vote to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States (I still can’t believe I’m actually writing those words).  I am not by any means saying that everyone who voted to leave the EU, or vote for Trump, is a racist or any of the above.  However, one cannot help but notice that there is a deep correlation between racism and those particular votes.

I can fly off the handle at times; I will say what I feel at the time.  On the morning of Brexit, and in the last few hours on the morning of Trump’s triumph, I posted some bleak and generally ‘pissed off’ posts.

It is easy to feel angry with the world when things do not go the way we feel it should.

But I am also a philosopher, and after stomping around and throwing my toys out of the pram, I tend to sit down and have a think about things, and being a positive optimist at heart, I like to pick out the silver lining.  I like to try and work out what’s going on, and why.  And what we can do about it.

To go back to Pandora’s Box, in the myth, when Pandora managed to close the box, what was left inside was Hope.  There are several interpretations of why Hope was left – some of them pessimistic (i.e. Hope was left behind, therefore the world is hopeless) – and what was Hope doing amongst all the evils anyway?  But there are some more optimistic readings, in the sense that Hope was left for the human.  Let us in this instance go for the more optimistic reading.

If those liberal open-minded humanists among us can let go of all the anger and hurt many of us are feeling right now, we might be able to begin to see the positive sides of all this.  Let’s calm down and review the situation.  It is what it is.  The worst has happened.  What can we make of it all?  What can we hope for?

Firstly, what we have seen this year is a huge protest both in the UK and the US – a kind of bloodless revolution, if you like.  It’s a protest against the establishment, a protest from people who feel left out and unheard.  Unfortunately, the only people who appear to have been listening are the kind of politicians who believe that a modern Fascism is the answer, and sadly, they have fed them more fear and discontentment, blaming the problem on immigrants, Muslims and other groups.  The same thing happened in Germany in the 1930s – but then the problem, according to Hitler, was Jews.

Many of us may believe that they are misguided and misled by these right-wing politicians and tabloid newspapers (don’t get me started on that one), and if we do, then perhaps it’s time the rest of us started listening, so that we can provide a better answer.  In a democratic country, we should all be listening.

And if we listen, we then have to start to understand the reasons behind what they think.  This is a wake-up call for the rest of us.  If, instead of reacting with anger and despair, we approached the problem with compassion and understanding, we might go some way to heal divisions.  It seems to be that large sections of our society are not quite ready to be global citizens, to embrace other cultures or come to terms with changes they see as elitist, damaging or irrelevant in their world.

It’s as if someone somewhere has put the brakes on.  We thought we were going one way, towards a more unified and tolerant world, but there are more people than we thought that don’t want to go that way, and they are currently calling the shots.  They have stopped the train.

The main cause of this revolution is fear – and a fear that has been fuelled by the likes of the Farages, Trumps  and Daily Mails of this world.  If we do not address this fear through compassionate listening, a more intelligent media and education, then this train is not going to get started again for a long time.  Being angry and ranting on social media does not change anything, and generally creates more division.  I’ve seen the slanging matches, and they’re not pretty.  Nobody comes out looking good.

Something far more profound and long-term must be put in place.  Saying that of course is a lot easier than actually doing it.  How, exactly, do we address the fear, anger and disillusionment that has created the rise of far-right politics in the UK, US and now possibly France?  How do we address violent racism and hatred towards minority groups, without being heavy handed and/or patronising, and while the politicians in power seem to either be joining them, or at best, ignoring the problem?

So, to get to the Hope part.  Some great things can come out of hard times.  Perhaps, if we can be optimists, we can see the Brexit vote and the election of Trump as a wake-up call to change.  It’s a bit like getting a severe pain, which makes you go to the doctor to see what’s wrong, and only by finding out the problem behind the pain can we then find out what the cure is.  Though we probably shouldn’t leave it too long…

There are intelligent campaign groups, such asthe UK’s Hope not hate, and Global Justice Now, which give you the opportunity to take action in the world and your local community.  Joining groups like this can make us feel less helpless in the face of growing divisions and prejudices.  They also aim to educate and spread love and compassion.  We can all feel better doing that.

Those writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers amongst us can use our art to express how we feel as well as educate.  I feel that perhaps new protest movements, such as there was in the 60s, are about to grow again.  I’d feel proud to be part of that, because I was a little too young for the first one.

If I can go back to the comparison with Hitler’s Germany again.  In the 1930s much of the world ignored what was going on hoping it would go away, or didn’t know, because not enough people were talking about it.  This lack of action against a dangerous state led to WWII.  In today’s world things are thankfully different.  I believe there are enough recognising what is happening, and hopefully it is enough to stop it escalating to similar consequences.

So, if 2016 was the year the alarm went off, perhaps 2017 will be the year we get up and start going to work to get that train moving again.

And as for Pandora’s Box.  Poor Pandora.  She wasn’t a bad girl – she was just curious, like all humans.  Perhaps it is human nature to shake the world up a bit just to see what will happen.  Well, the world is certainly shaken right now – let’s see what happens.  Perhaps – just perhaps – it may not be as bad as we thought.  Let’s Hope so.





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How to deal with a Wobbly Ancestor

Wobbly ancestorWe probably all have one.  And I don’t mean an ancestor who drank too much (though we probably all have a few of those too!).  What I mean is an ancestor who you are around 70-90% sure is your ancestor, but you do not have that crucial record to make it 100% certain.  Perhaps there is a person where you have been unable to find a baptism, but there is a couple of the right child-bearing age in that parish who you think are ‘probably’ the parents.  Do you carry on and trace those parents, or do you leave it there?

In my experience as a professional genealogist, this kind of thing happens more often than I could possibly keep count of.  It is always difficult to advise the client in these matters.  It would be unprofessional of me to say, ‘Yes, I’m sure this is your ancestor – let’s carry on’, but on the other hand, being an optimist, I like to think that there may be a way of proving the missing link, or at least find more evidence to increase the odds.  My response is usually to say that there are a few searches we could do, but on the understanding that it may never be possible to prove it.  If I can only ever be around 80% sure that we have the right family link, I always leave it up to the client whether they wish to continue, with the proviso that they understand there will always be a query over that part of their tree.

So, once you’ve hit this kind of problem, when you cannot find a definite link between an ancestor and what you think might be their origins, here are a few strategies that I use in these circumstances:

  • Get to know the family. Siblings and other family members can be extremely helpful in proving links, which is why you should be adding them to your tree as a matter of course.  Where you have family members that you know of (e.g. those mentioned on census records, or mentioned in a will), then track down their   If you are lucky, it might be that their baptism has survived where your direct ancestor’s hasn’t.

If you don’t know your direct ancestor’s siblings, then look at the children of the couple who you think might be your ancestor’s parents.  Trace their movements.  Do they end up in the same place as your ancestor?  Do they have similar occupations?  Do the parents die where your ancestor was living?

  • Check Marriage Witnesses. Whenever you find a marriage, you should always make a note of the witnesses.  Sometimes these are just clerks, but quite often they are family members – perhaps a married sister.  Search out these witnesses, by checking their marriages and origins and see if you can link them up with your probable family.  Don’t check just your direct ancestor’s marriage though – look at those marriages in the parish with the same surname.  Perhaps your ancestor signed as a witness, thus proving a relationship.
  • Search for wills. Even if your known direct ancestor did not leave a will, it may be that one of his relatives did, and possibly mentioned him/her in it, and so proving the link.  Look for wills in the same surname and area as your direct ancestor and within their lifetime.  This might be time-consuming if it is a common surname, but can be very useful when the surname is more uncommon.
  • Check apprenticeship Records. If your ancestor had a trade, then it can be very worthwhile checking available apprenticeship records.  Quite often the father’s name is mentioned when the young apprentice is signed to a master.
  • Check Newspaper Records. If an ancestor was noteworthy within his community, there might be an obituary detailing his origins; or if he/she was involved in some crime or newsworthy event, there might be some family details.  Also, if you find that your ancestor got into trouble with the law, this may lead you to trace the court details, which might also give names of family members, especially if the culprit was quite young.
  • Poor Law Settlement and Removal Records. Poor families who relied on parish relief had to be born in that parish to be eligible.  Settlements and removal records include statements by family members to prove their eligibility, or by the authorities where a family has been removed from a parish.  Where they have survived, these records sometimes giving very detailed accounts of family members and their circumstances.  If you know that your ancestor was poor, it is well worth looking for these in local record offices.
  • Continue the line. If, after searching all the above records, you are still no wiser about your direct ancestor, then carry on up the line that you think he may belong to for a couple of generations.  In doing this, you can find further records that might link to your ‘wobbly’ ancestor.   You may find family members who had the same occupation as your ancestor, who moved to the same town.  You will also get a good idea of naming patterns within a family, and see how they match up with your known ancestor’s children.  While these things may not completely prove the link, they may certainly give you a little more confidence that you are on the right path.

Sometimes a wobbly ancestor will remain wobbly, not matter how much research you do.  If the documents are not there, they are not there.

In that case, then you have to make the decision whether to leave your research where it is, or whether to continue with the ‘possible’ line.  If the latter, then it is very important for anyone that may read your research, that you make it clear that this part of the tree is not absolute.  Put forward your reasons for believing who the actual family is, but never state your beliefs as the truth unless you have the documentary evidence to prove it.

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Are you in the Family of Lancelot “Capability” Brown?

Lancelot ('Capability') Brown by Nathaniel Dance, (later Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Bt) croppedThis year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot Brown, who went on to create some of the greatest landscaped gardens of England.  He designed some of my favourite gardens: Stowe, Charlecote and St. James’ Park, to name but a few, and there are many, many more. A comprehensive list is available here.

The son of a yeoman farmer and a chambermaid, Brown worked as a gardener at the local big house on the Kirkharle estate in Northumberland before he went to Stowe and took charge of the fabulous gardens and architecture there.

His ancestry is not easy to trace, and most of the family I have been able to research are his direct descendants.  Howevver, if you have BROWN or HALL ancestors in this area of Northumberland, or if you have HOLLAND or BOURDILLON ancestors, then read on to see if you might be in his tree!

Badminton House

If you have any further information about the BROWN ancestry, please leave me a comment below.


Lancelot was born in 1716 in Kirkharle, the son of William BROWN and Ursula HALL.

William BROWN worked as a land agent for Sir William Loraine, the local landowner, and it was at his country house in Kirkharle that he met Ursula HALL, where she was working as a chambermaid.

William’s parents were Lancelot BROWN and Dorothy (surname unknown).  William’s parents were Lancelot BROWN and Dorothy (surname unknown). Unfortunately, that is as far back as online research can take me as far as specific ancestors go.   However, According to Jane Brown’s Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown: The Omnipotent Magician, 1716-1783, William’s ancestors were from Redesdale.


Lancelot’s mother was Ursula HALL. She was the daughter of John and Ursula HALL of Girsonfield, the Halls being descended from Border clans. Again, this is another very common surname and extremely difficult to trace without very meticulous research. If you have any further information about the HALL family, please let me know.


I have only been able to find information about two of Lancelot’s children, though he had at least nine children with his wife, Bridget WAYET, whom he married in 1744 at Stowe.

Tracing descendants with this surname is almost impossible using only the internet, so if you do have further information about descendants, do let me know.

Children and known descendants:


Bridget BROWN m. Henry HOLLAND 11 Feb 1773, St. Georges, Hanover Square.  Issue:

Lancelot HOLLAND. B. 1782. M. Charlotte Mary PETERS.  Issue:

Emma HOLLAND 1813. No further info
Louisa HOLLAND 1823. No further info.
Sophia HOLLAND 1818. m. Francis BOURDILLON.  Issue:

Francis William BOURDILLON. m. Agnes Watson SMYTH.  Issue:

Francis Bernard BOURDILLON 1883, Wadhurst.  Needs further research
Sophia Louisa Nicolette BOURDILLON m. Robert B CHATWIN.  No issue known
Robert Benedict BOURDILLON m. Harriet Ada BARNES.  Issue:

Thomas D BOURDILLON 1924 (mountaineer –  died in climbing accident 1956) m. Jennifer E C Thomas Issue: 1 son, 1 daughter.
William H BOURDILLON 1926 (no further info)

Sophia BOURDILLON (no further info)

Bernard Keene BOURDILLON m. Laura Elizabeth Providence TOWNSEND 1880, Harrogate.  Issue:

Sir Bernard Henry BOURDILLON (1883, Tasmania) (Governer of Uganda)
Helen BOURDILLON (1885, Tasmania)
Lancelot Gerard BOURDILLON (1888, Cape Town)

Frederic Lancelot BOURDILLON (no further info)

Emily HOLLAND (no further info)

Henrietta HOLLAND (no further info)

Eleanor HOLLAND (no further info)

Wilmot HOLLAND m. Margaret WELLS Bromley, Kent 1857.  Issue:

Frances E HOLLAND 1859 London (no further info)
Herbert Wilmot HOLLAND 1864, Beckenham m. Jennifer MONCUR.  Issue:

Herbert Dingwall HOLLAND-RAMSAY m. Dorothy Courtenay (Issue)

Mary Frances HOLLAND. m. Sir Robert CRAUFURD 1800.  No issue (known)
Henry Holland, architect. (no further info)

Lancelot BROWN MP. b.c. 1748 Stowe, Buckingham. (MP for Huntingdon) m. Frances FULLER 1788, Lausanne, Switzerland

I could not find anything else about Lancelot the younger – and I don’t know whether he had any children – I could not find any. If you know different, please let me know.

William BROWN, b. 1750, Stowe, Buckingham.

Adam John BROWN b. 1751

Thomas BROWN b. 1761

Margaret BROWN

Lancelot actually had nine children, but I have been unable to find any information about the names of the other three, or what happened to the named ones above. The Browns moved to London in 1751, so all the children born after that date would have been born/baptized in the Hammersmith area of London.


Lancelot was the 5th of 6 children all born in Kirkharle. Again, tracing the name BROWN is fraught with difficulty, but this is what I have managed to find out about his siblings:

Dorothy BROWN b.c.1704
There are several possible marriages in Newcastle on Tyne – or a possible marriage in Hartburn, which is not too far from Kirkharle. However, this is in 1738, so she would have been about 34, which is quite old for marriage at that time. The spouse’s name is Mark HALL – another fairly common name, and possibly a cousin, but if you have HALL ancestry going back to this marriage, it might be worth checking this out.

Mary BROWN b.c. 1706
Again, this is too common a name – and I can find no marriage in Kirkharle.

John BROWN b.c.1709 (Estate Surveyor) m. Jane LORAINE (daughter of Sir William LORAINE, 2nd Baronet of Kirkharle. Loraine was the landowner that Lancelot was apprenticed to as a gardener in his youth.)

I can find no children of this marriage, and considering that Jane was about 41 when they married, it may be that there was no issue.

George BROWN – mason-architect. B.c. 1713 Kirkharle
As with the sisters, the name is too common to be sure. There is a marriage to a Dorothy FORSTER in Hartburn in 1748, and other possible marriages in Stamfordham and Haltwhistle. Further research needs to be done to eliminate the wrong ones

Elizabeth BROWN b.c.1719 Kirkharle
Same problem as above.

Obviously there is plenty more research to be done here, but the online research is very limited given the common surnames and availability of documents.  Please feel free to leave comments if you have any further information.

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The 1939 Register – Why is It Important?

The Evacuation Scheme in Britain, 1939 D1939AI am very excited about the forthcoming release of the 1939 Register on This is going to be very useful for people tracing ancestors and relatives after the 1911 census – and not only that, future genealogists will find it indispensable to bridge the gap made by the lack of census records between 1921 and 1951.

The 1920 Freedom of Information Act made all census records unavailable for public viewing for 100 years after they were taken. At present, therefore the latest census we can view is the 1911 census. The 1921 census should become available in 2021 or 2022. All well and good, but the following decades have a problem. The 1931 census was taken, but due to bombing in World War II it was completely destroyed (which almost reduces me to tears – all that information….). Because of the war, the 1941 census was not taken. That means that there is a gap of three decades after 1921 before anyone will be able to see the 1951 census. OMG – I will be 98!

This is a tragic loss for all genealogists, whether professional or amateur. But thanks to the 1939 Government deciding to find out about the population at the start of the war, the 1939 Register was created. This meant that realistic plans could be made for the safety of the public during war time, such as evacuation, identity cards and rationing. The register was taken on September 29 1939, and contains information about around 40 million people.

The register is not a census and does not contain as much information as the usual census. From what I can gather it will not give place of birth or relationship to the Head of Household, so it will probably be similar to the information on the 1841 census, but that is a lot better than no census at all. It does give addresses, dates of birth, marital status and occupation. An extra bit of information will be whether each person was a member of the armed services.

The register is due to be released before the end of this year and you can go to the FindMyPast website to sign up and get an email when the register will be ready.

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Can You Trace Ancestry for Free?

Of all the enjoyable hobbies or pass-times you can choose, tracing your ancestry is probably one of the least expensive to start as there is no essential expensive kit or equipment to buy.

But to answer the question of whether you can trace ancestry for free more thoroughly, Maud Reid's baptismmy honest answer would be: Yes, at the beginning, but in the long run, no. As you build your family tree you will find that if you wish to make a thorough and accurate job of tracing your ancestry, there will be necessary expenses (e.g. ordering birth or marriage certificates), and some expenses that may not be necessary, but will make the process a lot easier (e.g. family tree software).

I would also stress here the importance of viewing original documents. Many free genealogy websites will allow you to search, and when you come up with a result, you will see either an index entry or a transcript. It is not usually possible to see an original document unless you on a paid subscription site or you can get to the appropriate archive. While online transcripts are very useful, there can be errors, and not only that, the original document may contain useful information that is not on the transcript. If you are starting out just using free sites, then you should make a note of all the references and make sure you get to see the original document at a later date when you want to spend money. Professional genealogists ALWAYS use original documents where they are available, and so should you if you want to do a good job.

If you are thinking of tracing your ancestry, you may be wondering exactly what and how much you can do for free, and what the minimum amount you will have to spend if you continue with your tree for the long term.

If you are lucky enough to live in the same county that your ancestors came from, then you can visit your local record office for free, carry out searches and view original documents without paying anything except for any photocopying you may require. However, this is very rare and most of us live long distances from our ancestors’ homelands, making it necessary either to travel or pay a professional researcher to visit the archives for you.

It is very difficult to say how much you will need to spend. It all depends on what documents, such as wills, your family have left and whether they are available online, or whether you need to order copies. If you hit a brick wall, or need to access documents in archives miles away from you, you might want to hire professional help. Each family tree is completely unique and it is almost impossible to predict what you might need until you start doing it. You may be able to go a long way on a tight budget, but on the other hand, those people who are willing to spend a lot of money paying for access to original documents, and using professional services when necessary, will usually get the most satisfaction and the more accurate and complete family tree.

I hope that the following information will give you some idea of what you will be able to do for free, and give you some idea of how much you might need to spend if you decide to get into this hobby in a more serious way. This is a short list just intended to get you started, and there are many more websites dedicated to genealogy.

The free genealogy websites I have suggested will also allow you to ‘dip your toe’ in and see if tracing ancestry is something you want to do. However, many sites that advertise themselves as ‘free’ are actually just free to search, and you will need to pay for credits to actually view a transcript or document. I have put these under SUBSCRIPTION WEBSITES.


FREE UKGEN Projects:

This is a free SEARCH service for Civil Registration (Birth, Marriage and Death) indexes that have been held in England from July 1837. However, once you have found the entry you are looking for, you will only have an index reference number. You will need this to order the relevant certificate from the General Registry Office. Each certificate can be ordered online at a cost of £9.25 for UK residents (see below).

A free census search engine. Currently, only 1841 to 1891 censuses are available, and it is not complete. The results will give you a transcript, which is very useful, but you will need to see an original document using subscription websites at a later date.

A free parish register search engine. Again, it is not complete, and you will only see a transcript in the results. This is very useful for initial searches, and the transcript usually gives a lot of information, but you must look for the original document at a later date.

Probably the best known and most useful of the free-to-search websites holding the largest collection of free genealogical data on the web. This is the service initially set up by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints whose mission is to connect families and ancestors all over the world. The service is totally free and you can make searches all over the world (though of course not all countries have complete records). Results are in transcript form, so you will need to search for original records later.

A community portal where it is free to post details of ancestors you are searching for. It also has links to free search websites – but most of these are free trials for subscription sites, which I have listed below.

National Archives
This site has lots of useful, free information about tracing ancestry. You can carry out a free search using their Discovery catalogue. Some documents can then be viewed online for a small fee – but you will find that many larger documents are usually only available at the National Archives at Kew – or at various record offices around the country. However, sometimes the information given on the index results can be quite useful without actually ordering the document.

Most paid websites have a choice of a membership fee where you pay a certain amount either annually or monthly – or a ‘pay-as-you-go’ system whereby you just pay for credits as and when you need them. If you are planning on spending time on your family history very regularly, at least a few hours a month, then a subscription is your best choice. However, if you are only going to be able to spend a little time now and then, it may be better to consider using pay-as-you-go credits.


Probably the best known genealogy website due to its strong TV advertising and large collection of indexed material and original sources. They have a 14 day free trial, after which you can pay for a year’s subscription, or in monthly payments. Alternatively, you can use the ‘pay-as-you-go’ system.

Ancestry also has a service which allows people to upload their family trees which can then be searched and viewed by other members. Be very careful with this. Finding your family on someone else’s tree is NOT research. You have no idea whether their tree is properly researched or accurate. If you find an ancestor on someone else’s tree be sure to back up your finding by doing the necessary research.

A good site with many indexes and original sources, and also has a 14 day free trial. Much of their data is also available on Ancestry, and Ancestry probably has the larger collection. However, FindMyPast has a better newspaper archive and very good military records. The subscription rates are slightly cheaper than Ancestry – but if you’re serious about family history it’s well worth using both – or subscribing to one and using pay-as-you-go on another.
SUBSCRIPTION WEBSITES with Free Search – No Free Trial


This site has many records to search, but you will need to buy credits in order to view original sources.


1851 Census - John W Bott pg1A full census and BMD research website – but you will need to pay a subscription depending on your requirements, and whether you want to pay monthly, quarterly, 6 monthly or yearly.
In summary, you can trace ancestry for free for a short while, which will help you understand the process and find out what’s out there, but if you intend to do this seriously and make sure you are tracing the right family, it will be essential to spend money. So, make sure you give yourself a monthly budget, take it slowly, and you will have a hobby that will give you pleasure for many years to come.

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