Cornelia Wilkins (nee MEDWELL) (1877-1952) gave birth to her second child in Northamptonshire (UK) in the first quarter of 1908. She does not appear in the 1911 Census. Her husband is recorded in the Census living with his mother in Peterboro; and their two children with different members of her family.

Family legend has it that Cornelia travelled abroard (most versions say to South Africa). She did not remain there, because in 1925 she migrated from her original home in the UK to join her son in Australia.

I have no records of Cornelia between 1908 and 1925. In particular, I can not identify any person matching her in the Passenger Lists leaving UK 1890-1960 (to any destination, not just South Africa).

My working hypotheses are that:

  • She did not actually leave the country but was "hospitalised" somewhere in England.
  • She adopted a false identity when she left her marriage and travelled as that person.
  • She travelled under her own name, and I am missing something really obvious.

Occam's Razor would say that the last is the most likely. So where should I look next?

2 Answers 2


I would work both ends of the void in the timeline, possibly favoring first working the gap from the more current time to the earlier time. (Especially so as you may have more ready access to the records in Australia.)

For me, this is a process of working from the known to the unknown. I research and research more those I am able to better identify in the belief that information I locate about them will lead me to information about those I am not able to identify as well. When I try to work the other way--find an isolated record about someone I know little about and then prove it back--I often find I end up learning much about someone else's family.

Relative to the recent end of the timeline

  • How did she arrive in Australia and from where did she arrive? Passage suggests there may be an extant record about not only her arrival but also her departure.
  • In the US, we have the concept of naturalization and citizenship. If she became an Australian citizen, is there supporting documentation?
  • In the documentation about her at Australia (this would include any deeds and court documents) is she reported a widow or divorced? (I assume she did not remarry, but if she did, was there a report whether that was her second or third marriage?)
  • Was there an obituary published at the time of her death and did it make not of a surviving or former spouse? Other news items?
  • Did she leave an estate? If so, is there any mention of assets she might have inherited from the father of these children?
  • Did she have an occupation or some volunteer association upon or after arrival in Australia?
  • Did she have a passport? Its issue or an original passport issue date?

Related family member/kinship clues

  • Did members of her birth family relocate, marry or die during the missing years? Might her name appear as the witness to a wedding; a travel companion; or as a heir at law in related document.
  • What is the status of those family member census? (Which you well have investigated.)

Clues in the records of her children/husband

  • In the records about the two children (which would include court records, marriage records, news items) is there a mention of either parent (or is mention not made when you might have expected it)
  • Did the husband/father remarry? Have you looked for divorce papers that mention his name?
  • Did the husband/father acquire or dispose of property that mentions his married status in some way that would be relavant?

Hospitalization, or less likely incarceration, was my very first thought upon reading just the headline of this question.

I don't know about the UK, but in the US, the number of people living in mental institutions (some of whom were there voluntarily, some not) swelled to about 500,000 people at one point in the early/mid twentieth century.

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