Many family history researchers will encounter a ‘brick wall’ in their research at some point, but how many are true brick walls and how many are just pit stops due to poor research skills or records that are not online?

I often look at genealogical forums to see if I can offer any assistance where others cannot.  All too often I find people saying they have hit a brick wall and assume the information they need does not exist.   In reality some have only checked online, and often only on the Ancestry website.  Sadly the growing view appears to be that if it is not on that website, they do not know where else to look.  In some ways this can be blamed on the Ancestry adverts that suggest that with just you name and date of birth, the site can give you the whole of your ancestry.   You cannot really blame people if they believe that.

The lack of a genealogical or research education is another aspect.  When I first started researching my family history in the 1980’s, I went to the Local Studies library and asked how to get started, and they helped me through the learning process one step at a time.  Today the search starts on the internet and the learning process has become very diluted and narrow.  Not only do some new researchers not know about other online resources, some have never visited a local history library or County Archive Centre.

My advice to all researchers, especially those with ‘brick walls’, is:

  • Look at the growing range of online resources – don’t just use one website.
  • Use the local archive office – they have huge amounts of documents and the expertise to help you.
  • Think outside the box – people in the past did not always behaviour how you think they should have.
  • More importantly get some expert help, either from your archive office, Family History Society or a professional genealogist who can teach or coach you.

Please note that family history classes may NOT be run by an experienced family history researcher, or even a qualified tutor.  One class I heard about was run by someone who had only started her own research less than 2 years earlier.  Also classes in library may also be given by library assistants with little personal experience.  Always check to see what experience the researcher has – after all do you want to be taught by someone with less experience than you may have?

So how do you knock down your ‘brick wall’?

Think out of the box.  This is not easy to do as we are generally not conditioned to do it. It is probably easier to give you an example than try to explain the process.

The 1911 census shows a husband, wife and several children, the youngest being 4 months old. The census gives the children’s ages and place of birth, and how long the husband and wife have been married. Problem:  There is no GRO birth index for any of the children and no marriage for their parents.  How do you solve this? (Answer at the end of the blog – but try to work it out for yourself first.)

Many people will have their own methods and thoughts, but these are mine.

  1. Write down all of the information you have in a timescale format and decide what extra information you want or need.  By organising data by time, you may get some ideas of where the information may be located.
  2. Researching siblings or even cousins could help.  Was your ancestor staying with or visiting another member of the family in a different part of the country?  Sometimes a woman may have given birth or baptised her first child at her parents’ home.  That still happens today.
  3. Think about other resources that may help you.
    1. Army service records can hold information regarding the man’s parents, siblings, wife and children.
    2. Wills are relatively cheap and easy to access now.  These will often give you lots of family information, including details of the ‘black sheep’.
    3. Newspapers are an undervalued resource that can give family details, addresses, occupations as well as character traits.
    4. Look at the original parish registers not just the indexes, as the clerk may have made some observations regarding your ancestor that the transcriber did not note down.  An 1814 burial I found stated that the deceased had ‘drowned in a ditch whilst highly inebriated.’  A baptism record also noted the children parents before crossing out the father as the child was illegitimate.
  4. Look for transcription errors or changes in how a name was spelt.  I was found Joseph transcribed on a census index as Joanne, and a serv (servant) transcribed as son – made even worse when the servant’s name was Mary. The census clearly showed she was female but the transcriber listed her as male.
  5. Contact other researchers of the same family if possible as they may have documents that relate to your family member.  See my blog on how a letter in Canada solved my 15 year brick wall.
  6. Find a professional researcher/archivist to help you.  Sometimes fresh experienced eyes may see something you missed.
  7. Understand the resources you are using.  If you know why the resource was created and its history (they were not created for the family history researcher) you will understand its strengths and pitfalls.  Understanding a resource may help you to see why your ancestor was not included in it, or why you cannot access it.   The most common examples are the lack of women in the electoral registers, because they were not allowed to vote, and ‘missing’ or duplicated people on the census.

Not all family mysteries are true brick walls, it may be a lack of research skills, unavailable resources, or simply transcription errors that is preventing us from finding the answers we seek.

Unlike the television programmes, family history research cannot really be done in a few short months.  It is a lifelong hobby and will never be complete as it will continue to grow as new resources become available.  So don’t give up – the answer may still be out there.


Answer to problem:

The couple were never married as one was already married to someone else (and divorce was not an option for most people at this time).

 Search the GRO indexes for the youngest child as you have a god idea of when he was born – BUT do not use a surname.  Write down all of the possible surnames.

 Next check if any of the children have less than common forenames – in this case one was named Cyril, and do a GRO index search for his birth, again without including a surname.  Now cross reference the possible surnames for both children. 

 If you have several possible names repeat the process for another child.

 When you only have one name, check all of the children.  In this case all of the children were found to have a middle forename that was the same as their father’s surname. 

 If you need to do this for your own research be aware that the older children may be children from a different relationship.

 This may take quite a while to sort out but no one ever said that family history research was easy.


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