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23 Dec 2013

Working with very little information in family history

This is useful as I’m largely researching families which would have been impossible 15 years ago.  I started with my Somerset farmers who were all in the area, all left wills, all had distinctive farm names, left lovely useful obituaries and were well remembered by almost everybody still living in the area.  Very handy with only the 1881 census (available by postal search), a letterbox, the phone (if parents out) and the probate office (for 15 minutes after school 2 days a week).  If I wanted more – I could drive to Barnstaple (not close) to pin down the odd rogue marriage.  I could order the marriage odd certificate as well – but they rarely gave me hot leads.  I could go to the record office and library at Taunton fairly easily and indeed did so.  I must add in that 1990s oddity, the International Genealogical Index – on microfiche at the local library (now morphed into the hugely larger familysearch).

Now I may well be looking for a Jenkins in the middle of Merthyr Tydfil.  No wills – no addresses, nobody remembering them, no obituaries, no indexed chapel entries, nothing useful locally and only a very generic story, though useful, available in the local library.  Your prime lead is the census – which you use with extreme caution.

I don’t really blame a lot of modern hobby genealogists for getting things all in a twist.  Anyone who’s ever tried to write a crime story and have all the characters lined up doing the right things at the right time knows the impossibility.  Your murderer is on the phone to somebody she doesn’t meet for another two hours.  With lots of online trees, people’s murderers are indeed on the phone to somebody they won’t meet for two hours.

If somebody is unmarried in the 1871 census, they absolutely can’t have married in 1870 – sorry.  Well, actually they can.  I can think of three people who are at home when they had kind of secretly got married – Ann Pearce (1841 Cornwall), Elizabeth Edwards (1891 Northumberland), Alma Barrett (1881 Somerset).  But usually, it’s a case of people picking the wrong family to be their ‘ancestors’.

Ann married Pearse and so blends in rather easily into those at her parents’ house.  Elizabeth is listed as ‘M’ (married) but no married name given – I missed that valuable ‘M’.  Alma is not only at home apparently unmarried but her child (born legitimate) is edited out of the census completely.  Where is she!
There’s also plenty of cases of people being given their step-father’s name in the census – just to keep you on your toes.

It took me absolutely ages to figure out who Leah and Annie Nicolas were, listed in the 1911 census for their grandmother’s hotel in Bodmin.  Both their ages were overstated by a year, the last name was Nicholls (though they later used McGuigan) and Leah was the elder girl’s middle name.

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