5 genealogy experts share their tips for breaking brick walls

By Guest, 20 September 2017 - 11:50am

Jonathan Scott asked five genealogical movers and shakers for their brick-wall busting top tips. Here’s what they came up with…

Young boys try to catch tiddlers on a piece of material on the Serpentine, London, 1923. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Since the late 1990s, I’ve been writing about family history.

I’m no professional, but I’ve picked up knowledge along the way, and there are so many things I know now, which I wish I had grasped back then.

Get 12 more expert tips and lots more family history help in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine September 2017, on sale until 26 September 2017. 

I was writing about BMD (Birth Marriage Death) indexes at the old Family Records Centre, for example, but it wasn’t until I started actually using them myself, and making some of the classic newbie mistakes along the way, that I truly began to grasp how everything worked.

And understanding how and why any historical source was created is vital to its interpretation.

If I could grab hold of my younger self and give one piece of advice I would say this: be systematic.

Lots of people work in a way that seems disorganised to outsiders looking in.

But if you’re unsystematic, if you don’t work through the resources open to you in a systematic way, taking notes as to what you have and haven’t used, and recording fruitless as well as successful research methods, you will sooner or later become lost or start re-treading old ground.

But enough from me. What do the professionals say?

The Manorial Documents Register on The National Archives website

1. Don't dismiss manorial records

What happens when parish records no longer provide reliable evidence?

You may recall the manorial system from distant schooldays, introduced in England and eventually parts of Wales after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.

But did you know that it continued into modern times, with local manorial courts regulating landholding and dispensing local justice into the 19th century, with some areas continuing right up to 1925 as an active part of the local administration?

There are many records that survive, from court rolls, estate records, rentals, stewards accounts, surveys and maps – all of which contain information about our ancestors.

If you have an ancestor who was a ‘copyhold’ tenant, then you may find that the land they held can be traced from generation to generation via the indexed records produced by the manorial court.

While parishes and local manors rarely overlap, you can quickly establish which manors operated in an area via Victoria County History volumes or other publications – as well as an indication on where to find records.

Nick Barratt, honorary associate professor in public history, University of Nottingham

Uniforms of the Royal Marines in the late 19th century. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

2. Digging deeper into Royal Marine records

Looking for records of a Royal Marine may seem obvious – they are available to search and download from The National Archives website.

But that is not the whole story and you could be overlooking the very best bits by not searching further. The records you can download are just one series (ADM 159) which were created for all Marines serving in the autumn of 1884 and who joined later.

Go to the Discovery catalogue and search for your marine by name in series ADM 157.

These records are not digitised, but you can order a copy from the catalogue description page.

They cover the period 1790 to 1925 and contain a lot more information than the single sheet in ADM 159.

Janet Dempsey, principal maritime records specialist at The National Archives

The General Register Office website, where you can order birth, marriage and death certificates

3. Get the certificate!

I am often asked to review research and find that crucial links have been made from BMD index entries alone.

This is understandable given the costs involved in buying certificates, but these documents are so important for confirming you are on the right research track.

Working from an index entry alone involves making assumptions which can be wrong.

Getting the certificate will give you the full information available – occupations, fathers’ names, key addresses and crucially the name of the informant(s) which can be the key to establishing reliable family connections.

And that is without even considering the possibility of corrections and re-registration information that is often vital and missed.

Always make sure you have certificates for the key ancestors in your research.

Anthony Marr, genealogy tutor and owner of Chalfont Research

A miner and his family, Rhondda Valley, South Wales, 1931. Credit: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

4. Tracing Welsh surnames

It is often said that Welsh family history is difficult due to the lack of different surnames, and that tracing an Evans, Jones or Davies is virtually impossible.

However, that is not the case – you can use a process of elimination using a variety of sources and information. Look at the names of siblings and use less common names to go back a generation.

In Wales, people were often identified by where they lived or their occupation – Williams y Post (the postman); Jenkins y Gôf (blacksmith) – and this scrap of information may help in the elimination process.

Beryl Evans, research services and engagement manager, National Library of Wales

The National Records of Scotland website

5. Missing from the Scottish Old Parish Registers?

Scottish Old Parish Registers (OPRs) are predominantly the records of the Established Church of Scotland, but not all families attended the established church.

Although you may be lucky, many Free Church or United Presbyterian Church members will not be recorded in the OPRs.

The National Records of Scotland hold non-Established Church Registers, which you can search in person at the NRS, Princes Street, Edinburgh, or there’s Registers of the Secession Churches in Scotland, compiled by Diane Baptie, available from the Scottish Association of Family History Societies.

Sometimes kirk session records, also at the NRS, contain stray baptism, marriage or burial records, so they are worth consulting too.

Janet Bishop, chair of the Association of Scottish Genealogists & Researchers in Archives


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