16 Signs Your Genealogy Brick Walls Are Actually Locked Doors


OK, so some genealogy brick walls are real BUT I often see people that are really stuck unnecessarily. Sometimes the walls are more like locked doors. One’s we don’t have the funds, time or knowledge to unlock. So, here’s my 16 signs to help you identify when your genealogy brick walls are actually locked doors. And of course a few keys to help you open them.


1. You Have to Pay For It

You keep looking online for ways to circumvent buying a birth, marriage or death certificate. Surely you can find your ancestor’s baptism, marriage or burial in the parish records instead? Even more frustratingly, you have your ancestor’s certificates but they aren’t enough. You need to order those of siblings / cousins / in-laws in order to help you crack the case. 

We all have a budget and when we find several items behind a pay wall it’s easy to feel defeated. But, perhaps compare the cost of that certificate (£7 to £11) with the cost of your time. On minimum wage an hour of your time is between £8 and £10. If you are spending hours trying to find a way around the pay wall, then what’s that actually costing you? This is a clear case of locked doors and not genealogy brick walls.


2. Gaps in Record Collections

You know that your ancestor should be baptised in the parish of Crondall, Hampshire. The Hampshire records are online. But you can’t find your ancestor. You’ve widened your search to the whole of the county. And the neighbouring one. They still can’t be found. What you haven’t done though, is checked the parish list on your website of choice. What you haven’t realised is that Crondall is missing from the Hampshire collection. It simply isn’t online yet. It’s not your ancestor that’s missing it’s the data. The same can apply to offline records. You’re searching for a parish register that’s been lost or destroyed. You need to find an alternative source instead. Note, places used above purely for example.


3. Border Changes

You know your ancestor lived in a particular area in Hampshire at one point. But then he seems to disappear. You’ve been searching within Hampshire but with no luck. What you’ve forgotten, or not realised, is that that area of Hampshire used to be part of Surrey. The Surrey collection is not on the website you’ve been using to look at Hampshire. Or perhaps not online at all. Always branch out to neighbouring counties. County borders frequently change over time. So too do registration districts, boroughs and even parishes. Looking in the wrong places is a locked door that’s easy to open. And means less genealogy brick walls to break down.


4. Go Offline

You think you’ve exhausted your search but you’ve only looked online. This means you may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of records aren’t online. Those records may give you vital clues. Most local archives have great guides to help you understand their record collection. Alternatively, visit The National Archives website and start reading their information leaflets. Soon you’ll be teeming with ideas for where to look next – and busy planning your archive visits.


5. They Moved Around

Your ancestor was born and lived in Berkshire. Therefore, surely his parents were from somewhere in Berkshire or at least a neighbouring area. At the very least, surely you could presume they were from ‘down south’ rather than ‘up north’. Only you’ve looked ‘down south’ and you can’t find them.

Sometimes our ancestors travelled surprisingly big distances. I have one family that lived in Wales and Lancashire, and moved between the two frequently. When they eventually stopped moving, it was to settle in Worcestershire. You might need to significantly broaden your search parameters to find an elusive ancestor. Use other distinguishing features to find them. First names, occupations, names of family members. Finding a William Smith is very very difficult. Finding a William Smith living with 5 siblings all with the right names and ages is less so.


6. You Didn’t Record Your Research

You didn’t record your earlier research. You’re sure you’ve searched everywhere. But how do you know? If you didn’t write it down, you might have planned to search somewhere and then forgotten. Start your search again, and methodically record where you’ve looked. You might find a solution to those genealogy brick walls that you’ve simply overlooked.


7. You Haven’t Got a Research Plan

You find yourself dipping in and out of the problem. You haven’t sat down and planned out what your next steps should be. Organising your thoughts, planning your checks will save you time and help you to be methodical. It’s easy to overlook a search or a resource. Writing down a plan of action will help you to make sure you don’t leave any avenue unexplored.


8. Re-checked Old Searches

Online record collections are added to all the time. Similarly mis-transcriptions are gradually corrected. It’s also easy to miss clues whilst searching. Especially when tired and frustrated. That’s true for both on and offline research. If your last online search of a record collection was over a year ago, then I’d say it’s worth re-checking. It might be harder to recheck offline sources, but at least re-read your notes. Is there a clue you missed? Like a maiden name that you weren’t aware of when you first searched? Oh and lastly, make sure you update your notes with the date of your re-check!


9. Go Original

You have lots of information but most of it is from transcribed records and not originals. It’s always worth checking originals as they may have extra details that haven’t been included in the typed up version. One of the most common genealogy brick walls I see is caused by a difficulty in distinguishing between multiple people. Normally, born in the same place, at the same time with the same name. How do you know which is ‘your’ ancestor? Checking the originals becomes vital here. One of those born may have been baptised with a note (like “base born son”) which could rule them in or out of your list of candidates.


10. Join The FAN Club

You’ve researched your direct line. Maybe some of your great-aunts and uncles too. Now you’ve hit some genealogy brick walls. Well, go back, and start looking at your ancestor’s family, associates and neighbours (FAN). Who were they living next to at the time the census was taken? Who witnessed their marriage? Who did that great-aunt marry, and where did his family come from? Tracing these individuals may give you extra clues, or even lead you straight to your elusive ancestor.


11. Ask The Living

Our distant cousins may have information that we have not been privy too. Either family stories or actual sources that we just haven’t discovered yet. Sometimes, if we are lucky, those cousins hold information that will help us break down our genealogy brick walls. There are lots of different ways to find your cousins. Search for your ancestors on public Ancestry trees and messaging the owners. Or sign up to Lost Cousins, a site dedicated to connecting living cousins.


12. Do a DNA Test

This point is linked to the one above. DNA can be a great tool for finding living cousins. Message your matches and share your research. The more brains working on your genealogy brick walls the better! Alternatively, the results of a DNA test may directly break down your brick wall.

For example, I have a Welsh ancestor called Elizabeth Williams. I’d found her as a married adult but was struggling to find her as a child. I’d narrowed it down to two possible girls living in Wales in 1861. My DNA test showed that I matched someone descended from the sibling of one of these girls. Thus using DNA combined with paper research, I’d cracked the case.


13. Do More DNA Tests

Perhaps you have read the above point and thought, “yeah but I’ve done my DNA test”. Well, the more people you can test the better. You might not share that much DNA with the ancestor in question. But your cousin might and they might get a match that solves your problem.


14. Be Alternative

Sometimes we get so used to using certain sources that we forget that there are alternatives available. For example, you might not be able to find your ancestor in the census. But have you checked the electoral rolls? You might not be able to find their baptism in the parish registers. Have you checked Non-Conformist records? Finding these alternatives comes with practice and experience. Keep googling, tweeting, writing forum messages and joining Facebook groups. Keep asking the question, where else can I look.

15. Learn The History

Your ancestors aren’t on one of the census. That’s because they were hop picking – along with half the rest of the population of the local village. Or because that area of the town flooded during those years. So they moved temporarily. Your ancestor was absent from the 1901 census. Were they fighting in the Boer War? Exploring local history, and even wider historical events can really aid your research. It can give you ideas for different places and sources to check.


16. Get Help

If you are really stuck, or if the records you need are located far away, then it might be time to call a professional genealogist. Many genealogists, like myself, offer help with research queries – including trips to archives for ‘quick checks’ or to access documents. Distance is a locked door and not a brick wall. Book a call with me to discuss your research needs.

I hope these points have helped you to break down some genealogy brick walls. Or rather, helped you to identify those walls that are actually locked doors. The beauty of locked doors is that they just take the right key to open them.

Further Reading

National Archives: Family History: Research Guides

Historic Maps at the University of Scotland


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