Sarah von Allmen
52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 16.
Updated: May 5, 2022
For this week’s topic, I decided to look at how negative results can actually be positives in genealogy research. A famous detective explains:
“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes)
Let’s take a very basic example.
I locate a family of interest (to me or a client) on the 1851 and 1861 English censuses. I’m confident it’s the same family because they’re living in more or less the same place, the parents’ names, ages and birthplace match, the father has the same occupation, and the surname isn’t ridiculously common locally. However, in the intervening ten years, one or more of the children have disappeared. Where do I look for them?
· Death records
· Marriage records
· Emigration/overseas records
Child mortality was very high in Victorian England, so for a young child in particular my first stop would be the GRO death index: with the exception of very common names, a death for that name in the correct registration district with more or less the right age is reasonably convincing. With a little luck this can be backed up by parish records, which often give the father’s name and a more accurate address, or by graveyard records. Depending on the importance of the death to me or my client, buying the death certificate would give further details such as the cause of death.
Although today we might expect a child aged about 10-15 to be still at home with their parents, this wasn’t always the case. Working-class children were often employed from a frighteningly early age, and my missing child might already be working as a maid or apprentice, while a middle-class teenager could be away at school. In both cases, age and birthplace might not be 100% accurate, so I would tend to note results as “possible” and try to confirm them otherwise. Another possibility is that the child was visiting relatives when the census was taken (or even living with them on a longer-term basis), so I would check out any known grandparents, aunts, uncles, or married siblings. Sometimes locating the child reveals unknown relatives - a definite bonus!
Apart from working away from home, marriage in the intervening time is the most obvious possibility for older children – and easier to establish for men than for women. For a man I would search for likely candidates on subsequent censuses and try to confirm any apparent match via parish records and/or the GRO marriage index. For a woman it’s more complicated, but searching censuses using just their first name, age and birthplace can work, although Dorcas from Dunham Massey will be much easier to identify than Mary from Manchester!
(Purchasing potential marriage certificates where parish records are not available online would usually provide definite confirmation/eliminate wrong deductions, but to be realistic, without unlimited funds I would only do this for my own or my client’s direct line.)
Emigration is another possibility for a “missing” older child, and a certain number of passenger lists are available online, although not all by any means. Depending on the destination, there may be census or other records accessible online, but it’s not easy to be sure that William Johnson with birthplace “England” is the same person who disappeared from my original census!
After exhausting the more obvious possibilities, we’re left with various minor records (education, workhouse, and apprentices, for example) as well as one of my favourites: contemporary newspapers. Many local and national newspapers have now been digitised and made available via the British Newspaper Archive and various subscription sites. I found a “missing” Scottish family via a very sad article about the wreck of the ship on which they were travelling (emigrating?) off Cape Horn.
Finally, we need to remember that military personnel serving overseas were not recorded on the early censuses, and although captains of vessels which were travelling on census night were supposed to hand in a form for the crew at the first subsequent port of call, in practice they were probably more concerned with unloading their cargo and making the most of their time ashore. Hospital patients and prisoners in gaol were frequently recorded on census with minimum details, and sometimes with just their initials. For these reasons (along with omissions and transcription errors) it’s worth checking on later censuses to see whether a person reappears, and then attempt to trace them backwards.
In my own family, I “lost” a 2x great-uncle after his birth. He was the first child of my 2x great-grandmother Harriet Jones and her long-term partner Edwyn Dowding, and his birth was registered in Vauxhall in 1849 as Edwyn Jones Dowding. However, on the 1851 census Harriet was recorded as a single woman living with her parents in Bath, with no sign of Edwyn. In 1861, she had morphed into Harriet James, a “widow”, and was living in Bath with her three surviving daughters, but not Edwyn.
I initially thought that Edwyn must have died (although I couldn’t find a convincing record) or perhaps had been adopted. Then the 1871 census became available online, and lo and behold, Edwyn was recorded with his mother and sisters in Bath. So where was he in the interim?
I went back to the earlier censuses looking for an Edwyn/Edwin Dowding/Jones/James, and (to cut a long story short) came up with two tentative results. In 1851, a 1-year-old Edwin Jones, born in Lambeth, is recorded as a nurse child (the equivalent of a modern-day foster child) with a family in Croydon. Then in 1861, I found an “E. James” aged 11 at a boarding school in Bath, but his place of birth was given as Bath, not Surrey. However, there is no birth recorded on the GRO index for a male Edward/Edwin/Ernest/(etc) James in Bath between 1848 and at least 1853, and I know that Edwyn Dowding provided quite generously for his irregular family. I obviously can’t prove that either of the census entries refer to my relative, but overall, I’m reasonably convinced that the 1861 record is him, while the 1851 is a strong possibility.