I thought I had found the death certificate for my grandfather Thomas Jones (born 1905) but the recent availability of the 1939 register and the Midlands Electoral Rolls have proven me wrong (see Back to the Drawing Board if you want to review the gory details of how I know I'm wrong).

I now have the challenge of finding a death record for an individual with a very common name. What strategy should I adopt and which records should I search? And if I find a likely record, what corroboration might I look for?

What I do know (or have I been told):

  • My eldest sister (born 1946) "remembers him running his beard across her stomach"; his death followed by his mother's death led to a significant change in the circumstances of her and her mother after she was 4 (in 1950). Or possibly his mother died first... She does think he lived with her and her mother and his parents at sometime at a particular address in Birmingham, which isn't an address I have the family recorded at... yet. (My assessment: my sister was aged 0-5 at the time of her great-grandmother's death in 1951 so the order of events is unreliable. She does however have an account of 4-5 years after the last death before she returned to her mother (and step-father in 1956).

  • He was recorded "deceased" at my mother's marriage in 1954. (My assessment: this is often a convenient fiction to explain why an inconvenient parent isn't present but it does fit in with my sister's account).

  • My mother and her grandparents (his parents) lived in Birmingham, England from (at the latest) 1942 until 1954 (although her grandparents died in Birmingham in 1948 and 1951). (My assessment: these records are probably sound, as they tie up by address with other events around the same time in the family)

  • He is not buried in the same grave in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales (where he was born) as his wife (died 1931) and his parents.

  • He was not registered in 1939 at his parent's address in Merthyr Tydfil so was possibly in the Army by then. My mother suggested that he'd been a peacetime soldier before WW2 and maybe afterwards. (I'm awaiting his service record).

  • There's a family 'legend' that he died in an asylum or mental hospital in London from the results of drink possibly Barts but maybe Bethlem or the Maudesley (My assessment: this will have originated with my mother, who could knit convincing stories out of fog but usually with a grain of truth)

I'm hoping for a comprehensive answer that will be of value to others with the same problem in England and Wales.

  • 2
    I've added new info to my answer -- links to the GRO's beta certificate ordering site, which has the GRO's searchable online index, and to the Lost Cousins newsletter which has news about a promo.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 7:25

3 Answers 3


I don't think this is a comprehensive answer, but I will outline my process for dealing with record hints on services which offer them like Ancestry and Find My Past.

  1. Assemble all the information you already know (as you've done in writing the question). Make a timeline and work from the 'last seen' date forward in small increments, or work outward from other known facts to fill in gaps in the timeline.
  2. Start a list of sources you already have, and a list of which sources you'd like to look for. Mine is a spreadsheet which is based on the one Crista Cowan demonstrates in her video Genealogy Source Checklist.
  3. To get ideas of what record groups might yield useful information, consult checklists. For England and Wales, OnePlaceStudy.org offers an England/Wales Checklist as a downloadable PDF. Other lists, like FamilySearch's England Record Selection Table and Wales Record Selection Table, or the article Sources of Genealogical Information on RootsWeb are written with the family historian in mind, looking for individual people. But any guide which gives an overview of what records are available in your study area can be useful. Check local archives and County websites for guides to their collections, too.
  4. Start a Research Log to keep track of what record groups you'd like to search, and enter the records you plan to look for and the purpose for searching those records before you start your search. This makes it easier to fill out the rest of the log as you search. The FamilySearch Wiki offers Strategic Research Logs for England, one of which is England, 1837 to Present (for the post-civil registration period).
  5. Consider what order of searching the record types makes sense to you. The FamilySearch Wiki article England Research Guidance: Death, 1837-Present offers a list of 20 different record types and suggests an order of search, but doesn't explain why they put the different types in that order. Always work from the known to the unknown, and consider which records will be most likely to yield information that will help you recognize that the record belongs to the person you are looking for. (For example: if I already know that my person is a Mason, and know his Mother Lodge, it might make more sense to look first for a death date in an index of members of that Lodge, or other Lodges he might have been affiliated with later in life, before turning to the GRO indexes.)
  6. Use the context of each record group to your advantage. What “hidden” clues are there in the GRO Indexes of births and deaths? offers one way to narrow down possible candidates before ordering a certificate.
  7. When I get a hint, I start with the assumption that the record that is being offered me in a hint is not about my person, and look for identifying information that will tell me who the person was, so I can rule him out. I often try to identify the deceased by looking at the probate search on the wills.gov.uk beta site, the probate collections at findmypast, Ancestry, and other sites. I start with whatever information I can find online for free, then with the databases I currently have a subscription to, and then follow up with whatever I can access via free access periods. I do as much as I can to narrow the field by using the resources that are already paid for before I spend money on ordering certificates or copies of records that might not be my person.
  8. Consider consulting the work of people doing One-Place Studies in the areas where your family lived, or of people doing One-Name Studies on your surnames. They may have seen records that would lead you to the right person.
  9. Are you searching all accessible forms of the record sets which are available to you? Not all sites which offer GRO indexes have the same coverage, or display the same information for the same entries. (The same problem outlined in How to interpret differences between different birth indices in England and Wales might happen with the death indices also). If you haven't done so already, register at the GRO's new website and search their online index -- it may have information not found on the older sites. Example: For a specific death registration which may belong to my husband's great-grandfather, FreeBMD, Ancestry, and findmypast all list the GRO reference number with his surname, forename, and three middle initials. The GRO's online index gives me ALL four forenames in full -- making it much easier to see if any new records found might match this death registration. The age at death, while it may not be accurate, may also help disambiguate individuals. See the 4 Nov 2016 special Lost Cousins newsletter and the 3 Nov 2016 news item on the One-Place Studies Blog for more details.
  10. Newspaper research in England and Wales may not be as productive as it is in the United States, but it might give you details that will help disambiguate people with similar names. Context from general research can make it easier to see what details in a historical record might be significant.
  11. Look at records and record sets in combination to get the most out of the information in the records. I have been going through searching for people in my tree on the new GRO index. Searching for births has been very productive since the online index gives the mother's maiden name, which the others won't have. Filling in a likely birth registration for one of the people in my tree allowed me to triangulate with the birth reg and a death date from the National Probate Calendar to find a likely death reg (going by the age of death and location). With more common surnames, this won't be enough, but looking at records in combination can't hurt.
  12. Use FAN Research (family plus friends, associates, and neighbors) wherever possible to distinguish same-name individuals. See QuickLesson 11: Identity Problems & the FAN Principle. Elizabeth Shown Mills' Quicksheets The Historical Biographer's Guide to the Research Process, The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Individual Problem Analysis, and The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) can point us to research possibilities and methods of analysis we've missed.

Whether you keep a formal research log or a research journal, or both, be sure to write down some kind of summary of where you've searched and what you found -- including negative searches -- so you can review what you've already done.

The Rootsweb checklist suggests:

(information about) DEATH: Vital Records, Cemeteries, Probate Records, Church Records, Obituaries, Newspapers, Military Records, Court Records, Land and Property

DEATH RECORDS: Autopsy Reports, Cemetery Records, Church Records, Coroner/Police, Death Certificate, Funeral Home Records, Funeral Program, Obituary, Tombstone Photo/Rubbing

The FamilySearch England Record Selection table suggests this order of search:

Try these first:

  • Cemeteries
  • Civil Registration
  • Church Records

Then try these:

  • Probate Records
  • Court Records
  • Land and Property
  • Biography

These are the 20 record types in the FamilySearch Wiki's strategy article England Research Guidance: Death, 1837-Present -- each of which links to other articles in the wiki.

  1. Death Certificate (Civil registration)
  2. Church Records
  3. Census
  4. Cemetery Records: Cemeteries
  5. Monumental Inscriptions/Church Monuments: Cemeteries
  6. Probate Records, Pre-1858: Probate records
  7. Probate Records, 1858 to Present: Probate records
  8. Newspapers: Newspapers
  9. Military Records: Military records
  10. Occupational Records: Occupations
  11. Family History: Genealogy
  12. Biography: Biography
  13. Voters Lists: Voting registers
  14. City and Regional Directories: Directories
  15. Tax Records: Taxation
  16. Poor Law Records: Poorhouses, poor law, etc.
  17. Court Records: Court records
  18. School and Alumni Records: Schools
  19. Marriage Certificate: Civil registration
  20. Quarter Sessions: Court records
  • I have been going through searching for people in my tree on the new GRO index. Searching for births has been very productive since the online index gives the mother's maiden name, which the others won't have. Filling in a likely birth registration for one of the people in my tree allowed me to triangulate with the birth reg and a death date from the National Probate Calendar to find a likely death reg (going by the age of death and location). With more common surnames, this won't be enough, but looking at records in combination can't hurt.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 19:07

Common names are always difficult because there are so many false positives.

With such a common name as Thomas Jones, I would not search public death records or look for the death certificate until I had the precise place and date of death or burial.

To attempt to pin Mr. Jones down, I would search in two areas:

First I'd try searching the obituary notices in the Birmingham newspapers. The reason why I'd suggest looking for the obituary is that it would give the names of all the next of kin as well as a bit of a biography, so you should quite easily be able to identify if it is the Thomas Jones you are looking for.

I am not an expert on British research, so I can't offhand give you the best sources of newspaper/obituary information for Birmingham.

But I could suggest:

If you can find the obituary, you should have the information you need that will enable you to find his death certificate.

If you can't find the obituary, I would then try burial records and cemetery indexes, e.g.:

In addition to Birmingham and environs, you'll also need follow with a search of London as a result of your family 'legend'.

If you can find possible burial data or cemetery headstones about people that might be your Thomas Jones, the information could provide the clues you need to search further. You may then want to try the obituary search again and map each of them to the burial/cemetery people to narrow them down.

Supplemental information: Amy Johnson Crow just posted an excellent article: 3 Tips for Researching an Ancestor With a Common Name. In it, she says to identify your ancestor by many more attributes than just their name, and look for links to that information through that person's friends, associates and neighbors,


My wife had an ancestor who was extremely difficult to find, but I later discovered she was in a mental asylum. What confused me is that when she was committed, her husband apparently disowned her and gave the institution no information. He listed himself in the next census as single and but there was no death certificate between that and the previous census.

After an exhaustive search I found her death certificate in a later year. On the death certificate just about every fact about her was listed as unknown except her age in years and her name (misspelled). Furthermore, she was buried in an unmarked grave near the asylum.

My point here is that you might need to extend your search some as he might have died later than expected. Unfortunately, if he was committed, it might be difficult finding those records as they are typically not publicly available.

Here are some resources that might be worth looking at:



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