From the office: 10 tips for finding missing ancestors

By Editor, 20 March 2014 - 3:24pm

Missing ancestors are even trickier than magazine covers says editor Sarah Williams

Thursday 20 March 2014

Sarah Williams, editor
Read more blogs from the magazine team


I get very excited when a new copy of the magazine comes back from the printers. We’re always well into the next issue by then and the previous issue seems like a distant memory when bang, on my desk, a new shiny magazine and I remember all the fun we had putting it together.
And so it is with our April issue that went on sale on Tuesday. It’s sitting in front of me now – the cover image a compilation of ideas that I received at Who Do You Think You Are? Live (thank you to everyone who was collared by me at the show and offered their invaluable advice).
Putting a good cover together is a tricky business, but nothing is quite as tricky as tracking down a missing ancestor. Genealogist Chris Paton put together a six page guide on finding elusive forebears for us this month and I thought I’d share 10 tips that he suggests:
1) Did they register? Bear in mind it wasn’t compulsory to register a birth or death in England and Wales until 1874, so remember to check parish registers, even if the event was after 1837.
2) Were they part of the established church? When looking for parish registers, remember that your ancestor may have followed a separate Christian denomination, or even another religion. For nonconformist records in England and Wales try,, or FamilySearch
3) Is there a spelling error? Spellings could vary, even in official records, so try using ‘wildcards’ where a * symbol can replace certain letters in a search. For example, a hunt for ‘Pat*n’ may return results for ‘Paton’, ‘Patten’, ‘Patton’, ‘Patterson’ etc
4) When did they die? If you’re not sure when someone died, try searching for burial records on DeceasedOnline. The information you get there might help you to narrow down your options for ordering the right death certificate.
5) Did they emigrate? If an ancestor disappears from the records, they may have emigrated. You can check outward passenger lists after 1890 on and
6) Were they born overseas? It is important to realise that some events may have happened overseas. The General Register Office (GRO) holds many record sets, such as British Army chaplains’ baptism, marriage and burial registers as far back as 1760. These are freely indexed on (as well as being included within the regular birth, marriage and death databases on
7) Did circumstances make them move? Understanding why people moved can help you understand where they might have moved to. Check out gazetteers on a Vision of Britain Through Time and Victoria County History series.
8) Can you find them in the news? Now that so many newspapers have been digitised, you can just type in an ancestor’s name speculatively and see what turns up. If your ancestor changed his name, he may have made a public notice of it in The Gazette
9) Try pot luck. Try speculative searching within the online catalogues of relevant archives and on The National Archives website. Try a name or the place where they lived to see if there might be relevant records you have overlooked.
10) If you’re still stuck, why not ask for help? Our forum can be found at or via our app WDYTYA Forum available on the App Store and Google Play.
If you want to find out more about tracing missing ancestors, you can pick up a copy of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine at most supermarkets and good newsagents or download a digital copy from ZinoGoogle Play or Apple NewsstandHappy hunting!


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