I'm trying to search for more information on a relative, but I'm a bit stumped.

I'm trying to find information prior to her marriage which was in 1912.

The only information I have of any certainty is from her marriage certificate and a DOB from her death record

I don't know her previous residences or place of birth.

Her father's occupation was listed as naval pensioner, but I'm not sure how far I can get with this.

Searching the censuses hasn't produced any definite results. I've searched for just her, resulting in nothing anywhere near the location of her marriage.

As she was born in 1888, I search for a census record linking her and her father in 1891 and 1901 and 1911. The only tenuous link is in the 1901, but I'm not sure if there is a way to verify this. I've searched for links between her and the possible mother, but turned up nothing.

I am subscribed to the MyHeritage website and FamilySearch, but no results tally up her DOB and father and the possible birth records that I found do not include her mother either. I've also tried FreeBMD and FamilySearch, but no likely results.

How could I proceed in this situation?

I'm currently only able to search online records. I can only afford to purchase certificates occasionally and if I'm certain of the identity of the person.

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    David, where in the UK do you mean -- the answer will vary by country. – ColeValleyGirl Dec 3 at 8:35
  • @ColeValleyGirl I'm in England. Sadly the part of the family I'm looking at has "Royal Navy" all over it, with almost no family held documentation. So that seems to be a bit of a bust. Damn Navy moving people around so much :) – David Wilson Dec 3 at 11:39
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    I feel your pain -- my family may not have a service background (apart fron the serial army deserter) but they all seem to have been supplied with bikes at birth. Do you have any reason to believe the birth might have been overseas? Where did the marriage happen? – ColeValleyGirl Dec 3 at 12:03
  • Hehe. It amazing how much people moved around before cars! The marriage happened in Tendring, Essex. The specific town isn't mentioned on the certificate, but I think it is most likely to be Harwich. It is of course possible that she could have been born overseas, but the only person I can ask is my father-in-law and he has no idea at all. The rest of he family are all over the south of England. I know it sounds a bit tenuous, but the records do seem to stack up nicely – David Wilson Dec 3 at 13:09
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    I was going to suggest a search of the National School Admissions Registers at findmypast, but there are no schools from Essex in the database. Pity – Jan Murphy Dec 4 at 1:13
up vote 2 down vote accepted

If all you have are the death certificate and a marriage certificate for this person, that isn't very much to go on. You're setting yourself up for what one of our community members called premature connectivitis syndrome (PCS).

From his answer to Tracing US ancestor back to Germany?:

At one time or another, I suppose most of us have suffered from premature connectivitis syndrome (PCS)--we don't really know enough yet by which we can well identify a person, yet we want to connect them to a much earlier place in time.

Good advice from this answer which applies to work in any locality:

Work from a time line on which you specify locations (and/or events). Pick the point on the timeline where you feel you have solid information; begin there. When you move from that point in time, think INCHWORM (rather than leapfrog).

To this I would add: put all the records you have in their proper context. The site GenGuide offers articles about different record types and gives pointers to where records can be found.

Knowing who created the record and for what purpose will help you make sense of the information contained in the records, and you may notice clues that didn't seem significant when you went through the records for the first time. For example, you said:

Her father's occupation was listed as naval pensioner, but I'm not sure how far I can get with this.

GenGuide's article Royal Navy/Royal Marines - Pensions to the Wounded, Retired, Widows & Orphans - Ratings & Officers and TNA's guide Royal Navy ratings’ pensions 17th-20th centuries can help you find out if this is a line of inquiry you want to pursue. Consider 1) what information might be found in a typical record and 2) if this is information you want to know.

Rather than leaping from one unproductive search (for your relative) to another (for her father), try to look at the big picture as you contemplate a new line of research. How common is the surname in question? Before plunging into the records, do some preliminary searches and see how many possible candidates you have for your relative's father.

You don't say whether the marriage record under review is a GRO marriage certificate or a parish record. If you haven't already done so, download the GRO's guides for birth, marriage and death certificates from the FAQ - Most Customers Want to Know's section What information will I see on a birth, marriage or death certificate?. All three links are included here for convenience:

Where did the marriage take place? If the location is at a Registrar's Office, there may not be another record, but if it took place in a church, you may have opportunities to find more records.

Other research opportunities:

  • identifying the witnesses
  • looking for the residences of the bride and groom on electoral rolls or in other records -- do you know who owned those properties?
  • studying the history of the town where the wedding took place.

It's crucial to know whether the town is a destination for out-of-town marriages. One clue from my own research came from putting together the dates of a married couple's possible marriage registration and the birth registration for their first child. Doing the math suggested why I hadn't found a marriage for this couple nearer their birthplaces.

If a couple were Non-Conformists or married in a large city that has special research challenges, it might be worthwhile to view classes via FamilySearch's Help Center Lessons. Understanding how far away from home a couple may have traveled to marry can help you decide how large a radius search may be worthwhile.

Becoming familiar with research locations is important. You may find some useful information in the answers to Determining what records are available in a particular locale? The local FHS (Family History Society) or the Society of Genealogists may have records that are not accessible via FamilySearch or the big subscription websites. Before you add any other subscriptions, learn to look over their holdings and evaluate whether the subscription will be worth it to you.

It seems counter-intuitive, but if you don't have enough information to go backwards in time, the best plan is often to start from where you are stuck and to work forwards so you can get more information. Does your relative have siblings? Very often we can't find the information about a person's parents or birthplace records about that person, but we have to use information from the records of siblings or other relatives.

The other thing I would advise you to do is to sign up for email newsletters and/or follow the blogs at findmypast, The British Newspaper Archive, The Genealogist, and AncestryUK. This will bring you news of new record sets coming online, tips for using the sites, and any promotions, in case you've discovered one of the sites has a record set you want to explore. The Genealogist's newsletter is especially valuable because they do Feature Articles about the record sets they publish, and you can learn more about the records. If you can access the sites at a local LDS Family History Center, use to learn them before you subscribe.

You already use FamilySearch for searching records -- but don't neglect the FamilySearch Wiki and the Lessons in the Help Center. If you haven't already done so, learn how to browse records (so you can explore the record sets which haven't been indexed yet) and how to use the Catalog.

Other things to consider:

  • Learn how to do wildcard searches (each site may have different wildcard rules)
  • Make a list of name variants and possible OCR glitches for the names you search (for printed sources, see 8 Ways to Overcome OCR Errors when Searching Newspapers to get tips)
  • Do you know all the nicknames for your relative's name? She might be Margaret on one record or Peggy in another. In one case, I found a mysterious child "Robert" who was mentioned in no other record -- until I found his obituary and learned that my subject shared the same name as his father, and "Bob" was a nickname.

For each new record you find, ask: "Is this a record about the person I'm looking for, or someone with the same (or a similar) name?" I approach each new find as if it were about a same-name person until I've learned otherwise.

Finally, recognize that computerized databases have limits and weaknesses. Crista Cowan's video: Some Genealogy Records Have No Names demonstrates how records can be there, but a name search won't reveal them.


More things to consider:

  • Check a library near you (or TNA's bookshop, or your favorite genealogy supplier) for a copy of Mark D. Herber's Ancestral Trails, an essential guide to British Genealogy
  • You can trace Royal Navy personnel who are commissioned or warrant officers via the Navy List. See TNA's guides: Royal Navy commissioned officers, Royal Navy warrant officers, Royal Navy commissioned and warrant officers: further research.
  • If you have death dates, check the National Probate Calendar for the primary parties in the marriage, the fathers of the couple, and all witnesses, to see if anyone is mentioned. You can search for free: Find a will or probate document (England and Wales). Bear in mind that probates may not happen immediately after the death -- sometimes it can take decades for the probate to complete, and there may be one grant. I search at Gov.uk, Ancestry, and findmypast to take advantage of all three search engines, and to compare image quality of the calendar entries, but always check Gov.uk in case there are handwritten amendments to the entry that aren't shown on Ancestry or findmypast.
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    Wow. You've been doing this a while then? Yes I've already come across mis-spellings and mis-ordering of names - Lavinia Annie on a birth record has been lavina/levina/levinia .. GAH! :) Thanks you also for a very informative answer - as you can tell I'm pretty new at all this - on the hunt for only about 3 months :) Thank you. – David Wilson Dec 3 at 11:50
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    Also - unfortunately the marriage took place at a Registrar's Office so I only have that certificate to go on - and the witnesses weren't family. The husband was Navy and it seems the father was ex. Navy at the time. Many thanks again. – David Wilson Dec 3 at 11:54
  • @DavidWilson I've added some material at the end. – Jan Murphy Dec 4 at 0:29
  • Thanks ever so much. – David Wilson Dec 4 at 7:54

Step 1: get as much confidence as possible about her date of birth. You have a marriage certificate (with age) and a death certificate with DOB. My next step would be to look for her in the 1939 Register (if she was married in 1912 and didn't die before 1939, and wasn't abroad then) she should appear here.

Both findmypast.co.uk and Ancestry have the register, but I note you may not have access. Luckily for you, My Heritage has it as well (albeit without images).

I suggest searching for the simplest variant of her married name and reviewing each candidate individually -- people lied (or were mistaken) when they filled in the registration form (DOB was a particular bete noir -- ew! no! I lied when I married! don't want him to know the truth now). As you have her marriage certificate, search for husband as well.

If you find her you will have a set of (3) dates of birth to focus your search for her birth -- and if you're lucky they'll be tightly clustered (but it's not a disaster if they're not, just a challenge).

Step 2: What was her maiden name? Don't discount the fact that the marriage you know about may not have been her first -- what (exactly) did her marriage certificate say about her name, and her marital status at the time. How old was she when she married?

However, assuming you're sure she was a spinster at marriage... (if she wasn't there are a few more steps in here)...

Step 3: Search the GRO indices (free) for one or more births matching what you know -- date (remember that a birth in one quarter might not have been registered until the next, and also that there might be a lack of truthfulness or plain ignorance involved in the relevant record keeping) and name -- keep the name search simple (first and last) unless she had a really extraordinary name (Ada Plumptington Bertwhistle, for example).

You should end up with a set of potential births with Mother's maiden names. (There are some wrinkles in here where you can look for possible siblings but let's keep it simple -- see Using new GRO Index Online to make birth families more complete? if you need to do this).

Step 4: Search FreeBMD (free) for marriages between her father (name from her marriage certificate and women with the maiden names you've located. Allow for the possibility that she might have been their first child (and even born before their marriage) or their last (30-40ish years after marriage in the extreme). You'll end up with a set of possible parents.

(There's also the possibility that she was illegitimate and her father's details were cut from whole cloth, or that her parents were married overseas or that she was born overseas, but that's another problem that we'll go into if we have to).

Step 5: Search the censuses to track each possible couple forward from their marriage(s), looking for the appearance as a child of the person you're interested in. She should show up as an infant under 10 at some point, and you can track her forward from there. Do not assume the family stayed in a single location -- somebody in the navy would be more mobile than most -- and remember to look for the mother with children alone (navy == maybe overseas at census time).

And at some point she will almost certainly vanish from the family home and turn up elsewhere -- if she was old enough to marry in 1912, she could easily have been in service or otherwise living away from home in 1911 -- but by this time, you should have a place of birth to help narrow down the candidates.

  • I was thinking along the same lines. If the DC has a DOB, that suggests it was issued after 1969 and so she ought to be in the 1939 register (although if she lived on a military base she might not be in the register). – AndyW Dec 3 at 13:33
  • @AndyW A person who was already in the service won't be on the 1939 Register, but I don't know whether that also applied to military families living on base. It's a good point, worth investigating. – Jan Murphy Dec 4 at 0:53
  • Thanks. I cant get over the depth of all of these answers :-) – David Wilson Dec 4 at 9:24
  • @JanMurphy I thought on-base civilians might be missed, but clearly I misremembered, as I've looked it up again. The NA says that civilians on bases were registered. But military personnel weren't, so presumably the register includes some family fragments, and one has to infer the presence of the service members. – AndyW Dec 4 at 10:59

(Edited the question to add that the location is the United Kingdom)

  • Ancestry. If you don't have a subscription, go someplace that has it for free. In the US, you can access the international version of Ancestry at most public libraries, a Family History Center, or the National Records Archives. I'm not sure about the UK, but there should be places.

  • FamilySearch. This is the international online site for the Mormon Church genealogy services and they run FHCs all over the world. They have many records not found elsewhere. Some records are indexed and searchable online. Others are online but you must search manually by going page by page through the scan. Still others are not yet digitized but may be available to you at a FHC. Go in to your nearest one and ask for help.

  • FindMyPast. A British-based site that I haven't found very useful but you might have a different experience.

  • General Register Office. You can do some online searches for 1837-1917 Births & 1837-1957 Deaths.

  • FreeBMD. Many searchable vital records in England and Wales 1837-1992. Between this and GRO you can often find mother's maiden names. Search on that and sometimes you can find people's siblings. I found an unknown uncle of my father-in-law this way and confirmed it by ordering the birth certificate (he died as a child which is why my FIL didn't know about him).

  • FreeReg (UK Parish Registers). I have it bookmarked but can't recall if I found it useful.

  • Naturalizations. I don't think this is useful to you but I include it just in case and in case someone else needs it.

The bottom line is use every fact on every document. I recommend a good genealogy program like Family Tree Maker. You can confirm the validity of one document by cross matching it with the address found on another document you're sure of. Note every spelling variation for names. Don't assume every mistaken fact is a mistake. Even if it is, sometimes they carry over.

And look for documents you might not have thought of. Voting registrations, newspaper articles, obituaries, military registration and service, pensions, travel documents (even for holidays), etc. My mom saved all sorts of things and I ended up with a few vaccination records for my grandmother. Do I care about when she got vaccinated? Not really. But I am trying to figure out the year the family moved from one city to another and these records tell me the years they were in the first city.

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    Cyn, I corrected an egregious error -- the site you refer to as UK parish registers is NOT part of MyHeritage and is not called UK Parish Registers; it is FreeReg which is part of the FreeReg/FreeBMD/FreeCen stable. There is a site called UKBMD which I included in my edit as a courtesy in case that was the site you were referring to. Leaving an error in an answer does nobody any favours, least of all you. As an experienced user of StackExchange, you should know that answers are a starting point for anyone to improve. – ColeValleyGirl Dec 3 at 7:39
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    Cyn, read the link about editing I provided. All answers on this site are collaborative ones. The edits I made fall within those guidelines. – ColeValleyGirl Dec 3 at 7:54
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    @Cyn you described findmypast as "A British-based site that I haven't found very useful but you might have a different experience." Can you reword that to be more informative and less disparaging to findmypast? Something like "I'm not very familiar with findmypast because their record coverage doesn't overlap with my areas of research" shows why the site hasn't been useful to you, and gives someone new to genealogy a nudge to consider record coverage when choosing where to search. – Jan Murphy Dec 4 at 1:01
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    Cyn, for example, FMP has Welsh Parish registers, other parish register sets with images that don't overlap with Ancestry, MyHeritage, TheGenealogist (a really useful site you have't mentioned)... School registers. British Newspapers (meaning you don't need a subscription to BritishNewpapers Online, the 1939 register (with images) , and a lot of other unique material you may never have needed (or known existed). It's one of the first sites I always turn to for England and Wales research. – ColeValleyGirl Dec 4 at 6:53
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    @Cyn The Genealogist is especially good for beginners because it has tools which help the user match up children's birth registrations with a couple's marriage registration. After you've exhausted their offerings, FMP is essential for doing British research, especially if you are working in a locality which has records on the site, for instance, in Devon, and if you are working in a time frame where they are strong in records (much of my research is in the post-civil registration period). Statements such as "not useful for me" with nothing else only reveal the narrowness of your own research. – Jan Murphy Dec 4 at 21:06

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