What strategies should I adopt to find an elusive ancestor in the early twentieth century? He may have deserted his family, so I can't rely on records of a wife of children to corroborate identification.

For many years, I thought my great-grandfather [John] Stanley [Reynolds] Wright had a pretty well-documented trajectory through life. Although I hadn't been able to 'kill him off', that was a mere detail for when I had a spare 15 minutes (hah!)

The details I know (or thought I knew):

  • 27 May 1861: Born in Plumstead, Kent, England to parents John Charles Wright and Caroline Ellen Brown. Birth certificate from the GRO shows his name as Stanley Reynolds Wright. ('Reynolds' is unexplained and is never referenced again that I have found). Source: GRO birth certificate.
  • 1871 census: Living with his father (a widower) in Waltham Cross, Cheshunt, Middlesex (and his older sister and younger bother). His mother died in Feb 1871. He is shown as Stanley Wright.
  • 1881 census: Living with his father and step-mother (and his younger brother) in Kings Norton, Worcestershire. He is shown as Stanley Wright, and his occupation is House Painter &c.
  • 15 April 1883: married Mary Ann Harper at St. Judes Church, Birmingham, aged 21. He is shown as John Stanley Wright, and his occupation is Decorator. Source: GRO marriage certificate.
  • 5 August 1883: Birth of his first child Stanley Charles Wright in Burton Extra, Burton upon Trent. Source: GRO birth certificate. He is shown as Stanley Wright. The birth was registered by his wife Mary.
  • 1885-1891: Birth of children Ellen (Birmingham), Mary (Sutton Coldfield), John (Stapenhill, Derbyshire) Frederick (Stapenhill) Source: 1891 census
  • 1891 census: Living in Stapenhill, Burton on Trent, Derbyshire with his wife and children. He is shown as Stanley Wright and his occupation is House Painter.
  • 1894-1899: Birth of children Susan (Birmingham), Robert (1896 Kings Norton Worcestershire), Frank (Kings Norton), James (Kings Norton). Source: All 1901 census except Robert born 1896 which is a GRO birth certificate on which the father is shown as Stanley Wright and the birth was registered by Stanley's wife Mary).
  • 1901 census: Living at 40 Highbury Road Kings Norton with his wife Mary and Children (all of whom are living at this point). Occupation: House Painter.
  • 1911 census: Mrs M. Wright is shown as a Widow boarding at 1 Eton Road Balsall Heath (occupation Charwoman) with 5 children: Susan aged 18 (a brushmaker), Robert aged 15, Frank aged 12, Daniel aged 11, Dorothy aged 9 and Ethel aged 8. There's no data given on children born alive/still living/dead. No sign of sons Stanley and John and Frederick, and daughters Ellen and Mary Agnes (all old enough to be married?).

So: Clearly (!) Stanley Wright the father died between 1901 and 1911 -- more likely after 1902 given there was an 8 year old daughter in 1911. So I needed to find a death between 1902 and 1911, even if it wasn't coming readily to hand (so to speak). There's no death of a Stanley Wright of anything like the right approximate age between 1902 and 1940 on FreeBMD (the Stanley Charles Wright who dies in 1915 is the son Stanley born 1883).

The real spoke in my wheel came when a cousin in Canada contacted me and told me that Frank Leslie Wright and his younger brother James Daniel and younger sister Dorothy were sent out to Canada as British Home Children because their parents couldn't afford to keep them (with private supporting documentation). Interesting, I thought, because it told me something about the economic status of my great grand-parents... but then I went looking a little more.

Home Children Records at Library and Archives Canada including the next page tells me that Dorothy, Frank Leslie and James Daniel all went out to Halifax, Nova Scotia on the Carthiginian in 1912, sent by Middlemore Homes which was a charity set up to send needy children from Birmingham to Canada for (supposedly) a better life.

And then I found a source online that summarised the reasons why the children went sent abroad (Library and Archives Canada Search Result in which the parents were reported as separated and the mother was living with 5 children that she couldn't afford to keep. (The 5 children in the 1911 census?)

I can understand why she would tell her landlord in 1911 that she was widowed (more respectable) but tell the Middlemore Home more honestly that she was separated ... but that leaves me with a challenge to find Stanley Wright born 1861 either living or dead in the years post 1902-ish.

  • 1
    I made a couple of small edits to clean up punctuation and put the timeline into a list so the items would be bulleted. Please fix if I have changed your meaning by mistake.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 13, 2016 at 0:16
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    Have you checked records for institutions, asylums and prisons? Jul 22, 2016 at 7:13
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    That's a tricky surname to track, I'm afraid. Have you followed the children forward in case he turns up? Marriage certs should name the father, and his occupation, and may note if he is deceased. Although one might not trust such a note in this case. Also, the Home Children database appears to include correspondence records for some of the children. Do you know if it's possible to get hold of those, to see if they mention something useful?
    – AndyW
    Aug 17, 2016 at 13:08
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    Not an answer, but have you found the 1911 census entry in Cholsey, Berkshire (RG14; Piece 6516; Enum Dist 09) for Mary Agnes Wright, 23, born Sutton Coldfield, a nurse at Berks County Lunatic Asylum?
    – AndyW
    Aug 17, 2016 at 15:57
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    Then I look forward to reading your answer :). Otherwise this is the only other long-shot I have come up with: a 1921 probate record for a John Wright of King's Heath, just a couple of miles south of Balsall Heath, leaving ~£350 to "Mary Ann Wright widow". Might be worth checking out if you haven't already. But there are a lot of John Wrights around. (I've only dabbled in my own Wright branch for much the same reason!).
    – AndyW
    Aug 18, 2016 at 8:16

1 Answer 1


My ancestors' death is still eluding me, but I have narrowed down the possible time window.

In the 1911 census, he is at 67 Rotten Row, Lichfield with his widowed step-mother. (I should have thought to check this earlier :( )

A newspaper article in the Staffordshire Advertiser, Sat 27 Oct 1917 mentions him still living at 67 Rotten Row (in the context of one of his sons being awarded the DCM).

He is repeatedly mentioned in the travel records of three of his eldest daughters (going to and from Canada); the last mention found is in August 1926 when two of his daughters are travelling back to Canada, having stayed with him briefly at 67 Rotten Row. There is no record I've found of the women travelling after 1926. (I do wonder if the 1926 trip was because their father was in poor health and it might be the last time they saw him).

in 1932 when his wife dies, she is recorded as his widow (or rather, the widow of John William Wright). The informant on this death certificate is his youngest son still living in the UK, who may or may not have maintained contact with his father, but there were other members of the family alive in the UK who were definitely in touch with their father (one of them named a son Stanley after him in 1925) so I suspect it was known that their father had died.

There is no record of him in the 1939 register, searched by: last known address, name and name variants, and date of birth (without year). He isn't living with any of the children remaining in the UK either.

So a death between 1926 and 1939 seems very probable, and more likely between 1926 and 1932. Potential place of death: either Lichfield, where he was living until 1926 or Birmingham, where his adult children lived. (It is possible he might have been travelling when he died, so I may have to revisit place of death).

There are no candidate entries that can't be eliminated in the National Probate Calendar between 1926 and 1939 (but this isn't surprising, as it wasn't a family with much money).

If he's in the Electoral Registers for Birmingham between 1926 and 1939, it isn't possible to identify him (he isn't living with any of his children). The Lichfield Electoral Registers are not (as far as I can find) online, nor can I find any trade directories online (as he was a painter and decorater he might have appeared in these).

There are two possible deaths registered in Lichfield: John William Wright aged 65 in 1932 ( born circa 1865) and John Wright aged 82 in 1938 (born circa 1856). Neither of these are a good match for his birthdate but I haven't eliminated them.

There are 8 possible deaths in Birmingham (as well as a number where the age is clearly not in the right name, or a name is used that has never appeared in conjunction with him before, or for which I hold the certificate and know the record is wrong.) Nothing I can find on NBI, FundAGrave, BillianGraves or DeceasedOnline.

I'm not going to order any certificates right now, as the expense would be considerable, but will wait until further inspiration strikes.

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