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Beginning Your Family History

Part Eleven: Overcoming Brick Walls

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 02/07/2020 23:33:39

Eventually, when researching your family tree, you will hit some kind of brick wall. This is a frustrating point in your investigation where an ancestor cannot be found in the usual records, or where their trail goes cold.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes, but I can share some tips and strategies for breaking through the brick walls. I will do this by talking you through a tricky person that I had to contend with earlier this year.

Hopefully I will convince you that brick walls are one of the best bits of exploring your family tree. It’s so satisfying to finally piece together the puzzle of the whereabouts of your elusive ancestor.

I have found a brilliant and informative video and transcript from The National Archives; this is worth watching or reading as it comprehensively offers great advice for overcoming brick walls.


A great quote from the recording is; “problems are usually solvable and almost everyone left a paper trail, however obscure that paper trail might be.” You must remember that a small gap in your research, for example someone not appearing on one census, is just that - a gap - not a brick wall. 

If you can remember my fourth blog in this series, I outlined some common problems and solutions when searching the census. These can be applied to any number of online records.

Handwriting/ Translation/ Transcription (Human error)

·       Illiterate householders

·       Misunderstood information

·       Transcription errors from schedule to book and transcription errors from original document to website or index

·       Often people transcribing for commercial websites have no local knowledge of place names or surnames.



·       Try a place search instead of a name search

·       Try a different website or index


·       Spelling can vary so check as many variants as possible.



·       People can lie - they can give false names, places and dates of birth

·       People may not have been aware of their exact date of birth or birthplace

·       Single mothers may have given children different surnames on different census - for example if they remarry or say they are married when they are single

·       People you expect to find with family could be in someone else’s household on the actual night of the census (e.g. relatives or neighbours) 


·       If people are missing for 10/20 years try military/war or emigration records

·       Speculate and cancel out families

·       Try searching for first names in an area, e.g. a mother and a child as a surname could have been changed/ misspelled

·       Search a street or village for clues!

·       Terms used for family relationships can be misleading, e.g. son-in-law can mean stepson.


The recording from the National Archives also explains issues with searching the census and then highlights some case studies and solutions, including not entering too much information in the search boxes and reconstructing whole family groups in certain areas:

“This is something called family reconstruction, and the idea is that you just extract all the references to the family, and you build up little family groups. And you then can track mobility. You can see where the people are moving. You look for naming patterns – certain names that keep cropping up in the family.”

And finally, try a scattergun approach, for example a general google search or search of all records on a database. It is useful to keep doing this as information continues to be added online.

Please do watch or read this informative resource as it really brings to life how you can overcome your brick walls.

When researching Poole and the First World War earlier this year I needed more information about a Poole man who appeared on the Commonwealth War Graves website; https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/364718/ayres,-/

There is quite a bit of information about him such as age, date of death, parents’ names, wife name, but only initials for his first and second name. I wanted to find out his name and when the family lived in Poole. This should have been straightforward with the amount of information I had. I worked out his birthdate to around 1888 and went to the 1891 census to locate him with his parents. However, no results for 1891 or 1901 appeared.

This needed some lateral thought or working through the problem in a different way.  I started with the one thing I knew for sure, his date of death, and searched for him on Ancestry on the UK and Ireland Find a Grave Index as he had died at home. This gave me his name - Andrew Clement Ayres. I then decided to do a general search of all records on Ancestry, just entering name and birthdate. By scrolling through the first page of results I found his baptism – hallelujah! – he was baptised Clement Andrew Ayres, in 1887, in Hampshire to parents Walter Jeff and Eliza Ayres.

This was great, but still no Poole connection. I located his marriage to Minnie Smith in Bedfordshire in 1911 and found him with his wife on the 1911 census, but between 1887 and 1911 I still needed to link him to Poole. I had to find the family on the census.

I decided to go back to 1891 and search without a surname. I entered the unusual first name, Clement born 1887 in Hampshire. I also added his parents’ names, Walter and Eliza. The first result came up as St. Hemmets Jeff, born 1887 with the correct parents’ names.  This was close in name shape to Clement and Jeff had been his father’s middle name on the baptism transcription. I clicked on the original image and found the family! They were on the census with the surname Jeff rather than Ayres, but St. Hemmet was definitely Clement!

However, they weren’t in Poole, so I had to find them in 1901. Using Walter Jeff and location Poole for my search terms I pinned them down in Branksome and they were still there in 1911, without Andrew who had moved and was using his middle name as his first name and Ayres rather than Jeff. Here is his completed record on our website; https://www.pooleww1.org.uk/people/3992/gunner-ayres/

This search is a good example of maybe not a true brick wall, but how you can use lateral thinking to overcome a problem. It highlights how over 100 years ago names and dates weren’t as fixed or important to people as they are today, and we need to be flexible and creative when searching for our ancestors. 

If you hit a brick wall with your research try and give it some time. Leave it for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes, or ask someone else to have a look - how would they approach it? Use different websites or even email local resources for clues and think laterally, approaching it from different angles and don’t give up! New resources are available all the time and eventually you will get the satisfaction of finding your missing ancestor.



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