Whenever I find a census household, I try to confirm the relationships listed in the census by looking for vital records or other information.

The formatting of this 1891 Census entry has been modified, but the information comes from FreeCEN:

Piece: RG12/1715 Place: Kingsbridge -Devon Enumeration District: 6 Civil Parish: Slapton Ecclesiastical Parish: Slapton Folio: 53 Page: 3 Schedule: 19 Address:

  • Surname First name(s) Rel Status Sex Age Occupation Where Born Remarks
  • NORRIS Mary J Head W F 53 Laundress Devon - South Pool
  • COLE Samuel Father W M 77 Slapton, Devon
  • WILLS Ellen M Grndau S F 14 Stokenham, Devon
  • COLE William H Grnson - M 20m Slapton, Devon

It seems likely that William H. Cole is the same William Henry Cole whose baptism is shown in the related question Who officiated at this baptism (thus my interest in this family).

In that baptism, William is the son of William Cole and Florence Elizabeth. Florence Elizabeth NORRIS, baptised 29 Oct 1865 in Slapton, is the daughter of William NORRIS and wife Mary Jane. The Slapton parish registers also show a Mary Jane COLE who was baptised in Slapton 19 Oct 1828, the daughter of Samuel COLE and his wife Elizabeth, and a Mary Jane Cole, daughter of Samuel, who married a William NORRIS on 08 Sep 1864.

At the time of the 1891 Census, William Cole and Florence have a four-month-old daughter, so it would make sense to leave the almost-two-year-old William at grandmother's house for a while. Everything fits together nicely.

But how is Ellen M Wills related to this family?

So far I haven't found any other records that associate the surname WILLS with this COLE / NORRIS family.

(There is a possible match for Ellen M Wills in Slapton in the 1881 Census, but there are problems with determining her parentage. I've updated that information and moved it to an answer to make things easier to edit as more records are found.)

One hypothesis is that Ellen M Wills might be Samuel Cole's great-granddaughter via one of his other children rather than Mary Jane Cole. I'm wondering if, instead of working from Ellen and trying to go backwards in time to her parents and then to Mary Jane Cole, I might be better off looking at all of the descendents of Samuel Cole and going forward from there. Since I'm trying to determine where William Henry's place is in the larger picture of Cole families in Slapton, this might prove more profitable in the long run.

I have made several false starts, and with every record I look at, the case looks more and more confusing, so rather than say what I've tried already, I'd like to get general answers about what search strategies and organizing methods worked for you when you are confronted with records of this kind.

  • 1
    I assume that you have the 1837 Marriage of Samuel Cole to Elizabeth Hext at Slapton St James The Greater. It does seem odd that there are an Ellen M Wills and Ellen Maude Wills of the same approximate age in the same village and born in the same (but different) village. I wonder if there is any way that Mary Ann Tabb/Wills and Mary Jane Coles could be the same person.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 7:31
  • I have both the banns (September) from Slapton, and the marriage register (3 October) from South Pool. In the 1841 Census in South Pool, Samuel and Elizabeth are either living next door to, or head the household including, Joanna (Adams) Hext and her daughter Sarah Ann Hext. Johanna is Elizabeth and Sarah Ann's mother. Sarah Ann is my husband's 2-great grandmother. My husband's great-grandmother is also a Cole, and I am trying to find out if her daughter Edith (my husband's great-aunt) described William Henry Cole as a "cousin" because of this relationship, or a connection via the Coles.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:09
  • @PolyGeo Note that Mary Jane (Cole) Norris was born around 1838; Mary Ann (Wills) Tabb was born around 1856.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:38

2 Answers 2


There comes a time when umpteen bits of keyhole surgery just aren't getting anywhere - then it's time to lift the bonnet, winch the engine out and take the whole thing apart. In other words, (a) sorry for mixing metaphors but (b) I'd certainly recommend a general look at the descendents of Samuel Cole. Indeed, I'd consider looking at all the Coles in Slapton - though I've no idea of the size of that task.

In similar cases, I've decided to do, effectively, a one-name / one-place study. I should add I'm not familiar with one-name study techniques but my impression is that they tend to concentrate on the data collection but not the analysis. That may or may not not be accurate.

In all cases that I've done it, I go through the basic sources (parish registers, wills, censuses, etc.) for the "area" and compile them all in one document. Then try to link them. I have tried this using spreadsheets - one line per PR entry, say. The difficulty there is linking one line to another. It's about do-able where each entry has only 3 people maximum (i.e. baptisms) but when censuses and wills come in, then the format isn't helpful.

More fruitful was to find some sort of Visio equivalent to do charting. Each baptism, say, can be represented by 3 boxes, then it becomes fairly straightforward to adjust families as you realise that one set of parents is the same throughout. I don't try to produce standard lineage charts - rather one box for a person in their parents' family is linked by dotted lines to another box representing them in their own family as a spouse and parent in their own right. Apart from anything, I can then alter the linking lines when I realise it wasn't that John Doe after all but his cousin of the same name.

One thing I would emphasise is that the software needs to be charting software, not drawing software, as you want to be able to move boxes around, dragging one end of their links with them, but leaving the other end of that link fixed where it comes from. Something that drawing software tends not to do, having no concept of fixing lines to specific positions on other objects. Finding such software was not easy the last time I tried it - Visio costs serious cash! I currently use something that came on the front of a magazine years ago.

  • Would mind-mapping software like Scapple do the job? I contemplated doing a One-Place Study of Slapton back in 2006 when I first started out. Wish I had -- it would make things much easier now. The School Registers make a One-Name study of Slapton especially tempting, because they have so many clues about when families entered and left the area. There are MANY Cole families, and as you can see, it gets bewildering quickly, with lots of same-name confusion.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 17:06
  • Still, Slapton is around 800 people at its peak, so a One-Place study seems manageable.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 17:11
  • 1
    Re Scapple - I was about to say that I didn't think mind-mapping software would quite hit the spot until I clicked your link. That seems more like free-form note linking - I'd give that a go, definitely. (Good luck with the School Registers - I've found oddities in the Cheshire Registers. There's one guy who I'm convinced has been entered into the Register with the wrong parents - perhaps his real parents are on the river-boats? And grandpa Jack has been recorded as John - but I'm used to that).
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 20:31
  • As a substitute for purchasing mind mapping software I think a wiki such as Atlassian Confluence does a pretty good job of free-form note linking.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 22:09

There is an Ellen Maud Wills, also from Stokenham, around the same age in the 1881 Census, also in Slapton Village, that seemed like a good candidate at first, but trying to figure out her parentage turned into a hopeless muddle, so I have moved her information into this new answer. This abstract comes from Ancestry.com:


  • William Tabb 26 head Ag Lab (born Slapton)
  • Mary Ann Tabb 25 wife (born Stokenham)
  • Ellen Maude Wills 4 step-daughter (born Stokenham)
  • William John Tabb 1 son (born Slapton)

My initial search of the Slapton Primary School Admissions books, which otherwise have been an extremely rich source of data, came up empty. However, searching again for ALL children born around 1877, and looking at all the search results, I discovered entries for Ellen TABB (why these didn't turn up earlier when I searched for any child name Ellen, I can't explain).

The first entry:

(entry number) 257 admission date 21 May 83 Ellen Tabb (Wells) born 28 July 76, daughter of Mary Tabb, Slapton, achieved the standard for first form (I) 23 May 84, exit date 13 Nov 85

The second entry:

re: 257 admission date 10 May 86 Ellen Tabb born 28 July 76 daughter of Mary Tabb, Slapton -- last school attended Portlemouth, highest standard there presented I, dates 23.5.84 (with superscript 1887), II. 1888; date of leaving is lined out

There is a William John Tabb (born 23 Mar 80), son of William Tabb, entering the primary school on 24 March 84 -- his exit date is 16 Jan 85. A second entry with the same student number is re: 279 admission 23 3 85 William Tabb born 26 3 80 parent William Tabb, Slapton (Here) exit date 6 11 85

There is a matching 1891 Census household in 1891 in East Portlemouth (RG12/1716/79/10) for which all the children born in 1885 or older are listed as having been born in Slapton; the younger three are born in Portlemouth. Ellen M Wills is not enumerated with this family.

(As I write this, neither Stokenham nor East Portlemouth are in the list of available towns in the search filter for the School Admissions Registers.)

So, to recap -- Ellen Tabb / Wills / Wells, stepdaughter of William Tabb, has a timeline that looks like this:

  • 28 July 1876 (per school register) born in Stokenham (1881 census); this agrees with date in her birth registration from 1878 Q3 Kingsbridge Vol 05b page 127 (I have a PDF copy of the entry from GRO pilot PDF program), which gives her birthplace as Frittiscombe, Stokenham)
  • 3 April 1881 enumerated in Slapton (age 4)
  • 21 May 1883 admitted to Slapton Primary School
  • 23 May 1884 achieves standard I
  • 13 Nov 1885 exit date from Slapton Primary School
  • (?) attends school in Portlemouth
  • 10 May 1886 re-admission to Slapton Primary School
  • 1888 achieves standard II
  • ??? exit date from school not shown (space in ledger is lined through with no entry underneath)

Other records which might be this Ellen Maud Wills:

  • Birth registration for WILLS, ELLEN MAUD from Kingsbridge, Q3 1876 Volume 5b Page 8908a (Update: Ancestry's index is in error -- this is 5b 208a as listed above and on FreeBMD)
  • Baptisms from Stokenham, archive reference 3031A/PR/1/5:

Stokenham register for Ellen Maud Wells

Baptised on 17 Nov 1878, Ellen Maud, daughter of Mary Wills of Stokenham.

What about a marriage record for her mother Mary? I went hunting for likely candidates and found:

From 3Q 1879, registered in Kingsbridge:

  • TABB William Kingsbridge 5b 357
  • WILLS Mary Elizabeth Kingsbridge 5b 357

From the Slapton parish registers:

William Tabb marriage

This is problematic because it is Mary Elizabeth, not Mary Ann, and we have no clues about either Ellen Maud Wills' father or Mary Elizabeth Wills' father.

Possible census records for Stokenham for Mary Wills include a 1861 household (RG9/1423/86/3) at Chillington Cottage, Chillington, Stokenham headed by Abraham Wills aged 50. In addition to his wife Mary Ann, the household includes a son, three unmarried daughters, a granddaughter Mary Ann Wills aged 5 (calc 1856), and two boarders, one of the them with the surname Kellond (the same surname as one of the witnesses at William Tabb's marriage to Mary Elizabeth Wills in 1879).

In 1871 (RG10/2100/56/2), there is a Mary Wills age 14 (calc 1857) working as a servant in the household of William L Pitts aged 31 (calc 1840) -- one of the other people in this household is an Ann Cole aged 74 (calc 1797) whose relation to head is "wife's grandmother".

Many of these surnames are common in the South Hams, so I don't put too much significance on these coincidences, but I plan to follow up on them.

One possible answer comes from Wayne Shepheard's blog post, Don’t Forget About Those Half-Brothers and Sisters posted Tuesday, 13 January 2015, on his blog Discover Genealogy. Wayne is an Online Parish Clerk for four parishes in Devon. He says:

In many generations of my own family, there were family members who shared only one parent with their siblings or, in some cases, were not even related by blood to their “parents”. One of my great-grandmothers had a daughter from her first marriage, before she married my great-grandfather. My father considered her his aunt in the same way he thought of her half-siblings, the natural daughters of both of his grandparents. I have found similar circumstance in the many Devon families I have investigated as an Online Parish Clerk.

This suggests to me that I need to broaden my search, and that there may be other connections farther back in the family than the generations I have looked at so far.

I searched for Ellen Maud Wills in the new GRO Online Searchable index and got the following result:

Name: WILLS, ELLEN MAUD mother's maiden name: -
GRO Reference: 1876 S Quarter in KINGSBRIDGE Volume 05B Page 208 Occasional Copy: A

... which ties in nicely with this related question: What does "Occasional Copy" refer to in the new GRO Index?

I then searched for the GRO reference that I had found on Ancestry:

  • Name: Ellen Maud Wills
    • Registration Year: 1876
    • Registration Quarter: Jul-Aug-Sep
    • Registration district: Kingsbridge
    • Inferred County: Devon
    • Volume: 5b
    • Page: 8908a

Searching for this GRO Volume and page produces no results. I searched for the surname, female, with no forenames or mother's maiden names, plus or minus 2 years from 1876. This produced no results. I also tried Wells and Tabb as surnames.

I then went back to Ancestry to check their image. The image clearly says page 208a so I have no idea how Ancestry's OCR got "8908a" out of that.

Note that there is no mother's maiden name given from the GRO reference. This seems to be in line with another person in my area of interest who is known to be illegitimate.

His birth registration reads:

ALLERY, WILLIAM JOHN (mother's maiden name - ) GRO Reference: 1857 M Quarter in KINGSBRIDGE Volume 05B Page 179

And in the 1861 Census (Piece 1422 / Folio 71 / Page number 17) where 4 year old William is listed as the son-in-law of the head of household, the enumerator has written 'illegitimate child' in the occupation field. William's mother Maria Allery, the housekeeper, is on the line immediately above.

The PDF of the birth registration from the GRO's pilot program has arrived: [enter image description here]

The information is consistent with the baptism record posted above (name of father / profession of father is blank).

  • 1
    It may be irrelevant, but I just noticed Stokenham parish registers make an appearance in todays LostCousins Newsletter.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Nov 28, 2014 at 8:00

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