Focus On: Brick Walls

I see family historians stumbling over these same two brick walls time and time again. In this article I’ll explain these two common walls and use real life examples of how to smash them down.

Table of Contents

Lack Of Data

lack of data causing brick walls

These brick walls are caused by not being able to find the information you need in order to ‘go further back’. Or to fill in a gap in your research. The records you normally use simply don’t exist, the page that you’d expect to find your ancestors on is missing. Or damaged. Infamous examples of missing or damaged records include the WWI Burnt Collection and the many Irish records destroyed during the Civil War. Disasters such as floods, fires, war, political or religious turmoil can all affect the regular recording of data. Many parish records have gaps around the time of the English Civil War.

Alternatively the records you need might exist but are currently closed. Or you might know what information you need but be unaware of the type of record that could contain the necessary data.

Too Much Data

signposts to possibilities in brick wall post

Have you ever found that, despite having facts about your ancestor(s) – there are too many possible records relating to them? You can’t narrow down the data. For example, my 4x Great-Grandmother Elizabeth Williams was born in Dyserth, Flintshire (or Denbighshire), Wales. Her father was John Williams. Both are extremely common names in Wales and it took a DNA test to enable me to determine which Williams was mine!

Elizabeth Williams Births brick wall post

Screen shot with my markings in colour from GRO Index of Births for Elizabeth Williams born 1843 (+/- 2 yrs) in St Asaph registration district.

Sadly a solution to these problems can’t always be guaranteed. However, it’s important not to give up hope and to regularly re-visit old brick walls. Looking at a problem with fresh eyes, or in light of a new record release, can help to break down the problem.

I thought I’d share some examples of how I’ve solved (or tried to solve!) my own stumbling blocks…

Not Enough Dates: The Case of the Missing Birth

My Great-Grandfather was known as Sam Pithers. His son, my Grandad, had told me that Sam was born on 7 July 1901. You’d think finding his birth registration would be easy, Pithers is an unusual name and I knew Sam’s exact date of birth.

The Wrong Name – No one had thought to tell me that ‘Sam’ wasn’t my Great-Grandfather’s real name. I spent days looking on the GRO indexes for a Sam or Samuel Pithers with various name variations. I couldn’t find his birth, marriage or death. I went back to my Grandad and explained my problem only to be informed that Sam was a nickname and that my Great-Grandfather’s real name was George William Pithers. The ‘William’ part of his name was hotly debated, apparently Sam’s own mother stated he’d never had a middle name but Sam insisted he did!

Annie Louisa Pithers nee Higgs and George William Pithers AKA Sam

My Great-Grandparents, Annie Louisa Pithers nee Higgs and the elusive George William Pithers AKA Sam.

Trying Again – Armed with the correct name, I found Sam’s marriage and death record, under the name George William Pithers. The death registration dated 1971 confirmed his date of birth as 7 July 1901, and his marriage record gave me his father’s name (also, George William Pithers). But, I still could not find Sam’s birth registration despite trying multiple spelling variations of George or William Pithers. I was beginning to despair. This should have been the easy part! How could I find out the names of Sam’s parents if I couldn’t find his birth (or baptism)? The obvious step nowadays would be to look at the census records. But, Sam was born after the 1901 census was taken, and I was researching before the release of the 1911 census. Incidentally (although I didn’t know it at the time), the 1911 census wouldn’t have helped anyway – although I have now found Sam’s parents on it, their children (including my elusive great-grandfather), don’t seem to have been recorded!

George William Pithers with wife Annie Nancy and Mother-In-Law Mary Simpson

1911 census showing my great-great grandparents, but not their children

Alternative Sources – I was lucky that my grandfather was able to supply me with more details about the family. Grandad remembered an Uncle ‘Baby Bill’ and an Aunt Beat. This Uncle and Aunt were Sam’s younger siblings. Grandad didn’t know exactly when Bill was born, but he knew that he’d died recently, in 2003.

Annie Louisa Pithers nee Higgs and Beatrice Alexandra Pithers

Sam’s wife, Annie Louisa Pithers nee Higgs (left) with sister-in-law Beatrice Alexandra Bounds nee Pithers (right)

I went back to the GRO indexes, this time looking for Bill’s death, and I found a William Henry Pithers dying in 2003. His birth was stated as 2 March 1911. Using this information I looked for Bill’s birth registration, found it and ordered his birth certificate. When that glorious brown envelope arrived it confirmed that Bill’s fathers name was the same as the father’s name on Sam’s marriage certificate, George William Pithers.

William Henry Pithers AKA Baby Bill

William Henry Pithers, nicknamed ‘Baby Bill’ by older brother Sam

Just to be sure – I wanted a little extra proof before I decided that the birth certificate I had ordered was definitely that of Sam’s brother Bill. I decided to search for Aunt Beat. This was the sister of Sam and Bill. There was only one Beatrice born in the right area at the right time, Beatrice Alexandra Pithers born in 1903. I ordered her birth certificate and when it arrived I knew I had cracked the case. She had the same parents as Bill. It had taken some detective work, but I’d finally found Sam’s parents, without locating his birth certificate.

Returning to the problem – I later discovered that Sam had been born out of wedlock, about a year before his parent’s marriage. This would mean that Sam’s birth could have been registered under his mother’s maiden name, Simpson. I returned to the GRO index. This time I knew that Sam was born in Kensington or Fulham, London. To be safe I included all of London in my search and the first name variations, George, George William, William and William George. There are 5 possible Simpson’s registered as born between September and December 1901 (remember I know Sam was born in July, so his birth should be registered in the September Quarter). Three of these have the registration district Kensington or Fulham. My funds were limited and I already knew Sam’s date of birth, parents names and likely address at time of birth so I decided to park the issue.

Births of George Simpson June to December 1901 London

Births for George Simpson, June to December 1901 London. Image cropped from

Another revisit – Recently the GRO released an updated birth registration index that includes the former name of each infant’s mother. This was an opportunity to revisit Sam and narrow down those 5 possible Simpsons’. Sam’s mother’s name should be blank as she wasn’t married in July 1901 and therefore had no former surname. I re-ran my search, and have now narrowed down the results to two possibles, one of which (the September Quarter) is more likely than the other (December Quarter). Sam was born in July and his birth should have been registered within weeks of his birth, otherwise his mother would have received a fine. I have ordered the certificate and will update this blog with the results.

Update 12/05/2018: It was the correct one! Finally I have my Great-Grandfather’s birth certificate.

Too Much Data – Looking Everywhere Else

I have a number of Welsh branches in my tree and I’ve often found them the trickiest to trace. Mostly because these lines include ancestors with very common surnames, particularly prolific in Wales – such as Williams and Davi(e)s.

I’ve often found brick walls caused by too much data harder to break down than those caused by a lack of data. However, one method to tackle the problem of ‘too much info’ is to look at what ‘can’ be done rather than focusing on wading through hundreds of names trying to eliminate one at a time.

We Can Do It!

This could mean tracing sideways rather than simply looking to go further back in time. Trace the children of the ancestor that your stuck on, finding their marriages and families. Wherever possible look at your ancestors siblings, their brother and sisters in law, your ancestors spouses (whether a blood relation or not), their friends (marriage witnesses) and neighbours. You never know where you might find a clue that will give you fresh evidence or ideas. I once confirmed one of my line’s by looking at an ancestors’ siblings 2nd husband before he’d married my distant aunt.

Don’t just stick to census, BMD indexes, and parish baptisms, marriages and burials. Try alternative records too, such as newspapers, criminal and poor law records, non-conformist records, electoral rolls etc. At best you’ll find some clues towards your ancestors heritage. At worst you’ll confirm that your ancestor is not in the records you check. Along the way you’ll likely find out a plethora of information that can be used to ‘flesh out’ the life of your ancestor. After real genealogy isn’t just about going as far back in time as possible, but about really getting to know your ancestors.

Keeping a detailed record of your searches and workings is essential. It’s easy to forget exactly which records you’ve looked at, not to mention various search variations you may have performed.

Defining a problem and the steps that you have taken towards solving it, will help you to focus on the issue you are seeking to resolve. Genealogy problem-solving involves careful, logical steps to disprove or prove information. Recording your problem and your workings will enable you to revisit brick walls as and when new data arises – or when you get a new idea, or simply learn about a source you never knew existed.

Below is a sample of a log I created whilst searching for one of my ancestors. The log is saved in Microsoft Word in a folder relating to the line in question. It spans 4 pages in total and I have others that are much longer. In addition I have more ‘scrappy’ notes saved in Evernote. Find a system that works for you.

If at first you don’t succeed…have you thought of DNA?

I can’t be a true advocate for DNA testing as it’s not something that I’ve tried myself. However, it is something that I plan to undertake in the future. If you’d like to find out more about DNA testing than there is a plethora of information online. The excellent blogger Paul Chiddicks is currently charting his first experience of testing, from choosing the test to using the results.

You might also like to join the #AncestryHour chat that takes place on Twitter every Tuesday at 7pm GMT. There are a host of experts that regularly join the chat and would be delighted to help point newbies in the right direction.

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