What Did Our Ancestors Do Between The Census Years?

It’s a simple enough question, you have found your family in all the census returns and you have captured every birth, death and marriage for your ancestors, but have you discovered everything there is to find out about them? The census returns only give you a quick snapshot of what the family were doing; in fact, when you stop and think about it, what they give you is just several days of family life, in potentially an eighty year period, which isn’t an awful lot, when you look at it like that.

Matthew Chiddicks 1921 Census

So what are the options? What else can we do to help fill in the blanks? You can of course order and collect all the BMD’s for your entire family, this will certainly give you a lot of information and possibly fill in some of the gaps, but this can work out expensive. However, there are other ways in which you can build a picture of your ancestors lives, without having to go to the expense of buying every single BMD. As a caveat to that statement, over time, on all my direct lines I have subsequently gone back and ordered all the BMD’s, but for now we will concentrate on some alternative sources, to help us build a picture of our ancestors lives.

If I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times, newspapers are one of the most under utilised resources for family history. We wrongly assume that our ancestors were boring and never did enough to appear in the newspapers, but that is far from the truth. We think of newspapers in the way that we know them today, but one hundred years ago, it was a vastly different story. Newspapers then reported anything and everything, all kinds of trivia, think of it like the ‘Facebook’ of the day! Everything from the Village Fete and the biggest Marrow, to local court sessions and children being fined for throwing fireworks on the highway, yes, that was my lot!

From Newspaper Article dated December 12th 1856:

James Salmon and Samuel Chiddick, boys of South Ockendon, were summoned by Charles Sturgeon, Farmer, for throwing fireworks on the public highway on the 5th November and fined 1s costs 7s.

Samuel Chiddicks South Ockendon Scan 120750007-20

Literally anything and everything can be found in the newspapers. The two biggest sites for newspaper sources here in the UK are FindMyPast and The British Newspaper Archive. Overseas we have sites such as Trove in Australia and Newspapers.Com in the USA which can be particularly handy if your ancestors emigrated. You have to be a bit more creative in the way that you search the newspaper records, it’s a different way of searching than the traditional way that you search on Ancestry or FindMyPast. This is because the newspapers rely on OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to find a result. So every fullstop, apostrophe or even initials can bring up a different result. Like I said, be flexible in your approach to searching. When searching for one ancestor, I was looking for his WW1 death announcement, which I couldn’t find, even after using all the different name, rank, regiment and soldier combinations, I still couldn’t find the death announcement. I eventually found him under the families home address. So I would urge you to a take a look for your ancestors or their siblings amongst the newspapers, I am sure they will be there somewhere, you just have to know how to find them. I will leave you with one more example of a newspaper entry and the value it can add to your research. Below is the obituary for my 2x great-grandmother, Elizabeth Lake, which reads like a family tree, it lists three generations, including in-laws and even a Soldier son with his regiment!

Funeral of Mrs Chiddicks

We regret to report the death this week of Mrs Chiddicks, the Mother of Mrs Dray, of 23, Shortmead Street. Deceased has suffered from an internal complaint and passed away on Saturday at her daughter’s residence. The funeral took place Wednesday at the cemetery. The cortege consisted of a glass hearse and two mourning coaches. The Vicar impressively officiated at the services inside the chapel and at the graveside. The Coffin was of plain elm with black and gilt furniture and was inscribed : “Elizabeth Chiddicks died 23rd September 1916 aged 71 years”. The mourners were Mr.M.Chiddicks (husband). Mr Wm Chiddicks, Mr. John Chiddicks and cyclist Walter Chiddicks 2/25th London Cyclist Battn, (sons), Mrs E.Goode, Mrs W.Acton, Mrs MA Steward and Mrs EA Dray (daughters), and Mr W.Acton (son in law). Among sympathisers present were Mrs W.T.Skipp and Mrs H.Endersby. Floral tributes of great beauty were inscribed thus: In ever fond remembrance from her sorrowing husband; “Rest in peace” –  With deepest sympathy and fondest memory, from her son and daughter; “Peace perfect peace” – in ever loving memory to our dear Mother, from her sorrowing son and daughter, Henry and Lizzie; “Thy will be done” – In loving memory of our dear mother, from Louie and William – With deepest sympathy, from her loving son Walter – With affectionate sympathy, from Jack, Kate and Reggie – In fond remembrance  to our dear grandma, from her grandchildren, Harry, Cissy and Harold – In fond remembrance to our dear grandma from her grandchildren Doris and Gerald – With deepest sympathy, from Mr and Mrs Skipp, Messrs Styles and Son were the undertakers.

Mrs Chiddicks Funeral

Another great resource to consider is your ancestors occupations, this can give you a real insight into their daily lives, social standing at the time and even their wealth. If they followed a particular trade, then the trade directories will hopefully be useful in your research, but you probably will have already looked at these. Looking at the wider area of occupations, then also consider apprenticeship records. Conventional trades employed apprentices and these would be captured in the records, but some occupations that you might not consider today as having apprentices, did, back in the Victorian era. Even if your ancestor never followed a trade that would have found them in the trade directories, or an apprenticeship, you can still find out more about their working life by looking further into their occupation. Even for a modest Agricultural Labourer, there is still a wealth of information out there to help you understand what their daily life would have been like. I wrote a blog myself, on the daily life of an ‘Ag.Lab’, the link is below;

The Life of an Agricultural Labourer

There is a lot of information online that will help put your ancestors life into context and give you a better understanding of what daily life was like. Think outside the box, for example have you thought about the seasons, we barely give them a second thought today, but if you have an Agricultural labourer in your family, then rest assured his life would have been dictated to by the seasons and the weather! I also have Cement Workers and Watermen and Lightermen on my tree (all trades connected to the River Thames), again you can google these industries and trades online, this will give you a real insight into what life would have been like for the workers and the families.


(Thurrock Cement Works)

You also need to consider that some jobs and occupations will have long since disappeared, so the names and terms might be unfamiliar to you, but with a little bit of help with some ‘googling’ of descriptions and names, you should be able to gain a clear idea of what it was that your ancestor did for a living. I have picked out three unusual occupations with somewhat amusing names to give you some examples of names and occupations that have long since disappeared;

Nob Thatcher – He or she was a wig maker. Wigs became fashionable for men during the 18th century. They were largely worn by tradesmen, clergy, military, merchants and ship captains, though only the upper classes of society could really afford wigs, so along with looking fashionable, wearers were also declaring their wealth.

Hokey Pokey Man – This is the early form of the traditional Ice Cream man and he would sell ice cream in parks and on street corners from a cart. The brightly coloured carts were generally fitted with a decorated painted canvas cover to protect the salesman from sun and rain. Hokey pokey men were generally, but not always of Italian origin, and often sold fruit flowered water ice rather than the traditional ice cream we are used to today.


Knocknobbler – Back in Victorian times, this wonderfully titled occupation was given to a churchwarden who was in charge of turning unruly dogs out of church! The first thing that springs to mind is were the dogs that were well behaved allowed into Church, I wonder? However, nowadays, this is just a dog catcher instead of being specific to the church.

The rather amusing and unusual Victorian Occupations can be found on Professional Genealogist Kirsty Gray’s website, see the link below;

Unusual Victorian Occupations

Your ancestor’s working role can also be a good indication of their social status at the time. Think of your own job today, whatever your occupation is, it has the power to shape so many aspects of your life: health, wealth, the amount of leisure time you enjoy, and even where you live. This was no different for our ancestors, so occupations are a great way to understand your forebears’ lives.

What about schooling? Although school records can be somewhat limited in their availability, my good friend and professional genealogist, Judith Batchelor, shows you exactly how you can put together what school life would have been like for an ancestor, even if they weren’t specifically mentioned by name. The link too Jude’s wonderful blog can be found below and will give you real insight into how you can put together a school record for your ancestor.


They say a picture is worth a thousand words, why not try to find pictures of where your ancestors lived. Here our good friend ‘google’, once again, comes in handy. Try ‘Googling’ the street name of your ancestors, sometimes you get lucky sometimes not. Alternatively ‘Google’ the town, village or area to get a general ‘feel’ of what it would have been like. Local history societies can be a goldmine for things like this. For example the Beckenham History Website has a wonderful collection of images of Beckenham and the surrounding area, you might be fortunate and stumble across a goldmine like this;

Beckenham History

Of course you need the relative copyright permissions to use these images, but most societies are more than happy to allow you access, providing of course you mention them as the source. Bringing that into context you an use the current google street view to see if the house or street still exists today and compare the two images. This won’t reveal necessarily too much specific detail, but when the 1911 census states the house had 4 rooms, at least with a picture, it brings that house, that record and that ancestor to life.

Kerbey Street

Wills can be an extremely rich resource for adding extra details about your ancestors lives and can easily overlooked when researching your family trees, with the mistaken belief that your ancestor did not have enough possessions to make a will! A will also gives you a glimpse into your ancestors status, values and their thought processes, because you get to find out what and whom were important, or not important to them at the time. A will has the potential to tell you a lot about your ancestor. It can give you details about family relationships, it can provide the address of your ancestor when he made his will, it can reveal his occupation or previous occupation, whether he owned property and of course the value of his estate. The potential for so much information, all contained in one document. Dates and places of death are particularly useful and may lead to other sources, such as burial records. Even if your ancestor died intestate (without leaving a will), you might still be able to find out some new information contained in the administration records. The important part to remember is that although we would normally associate a will with ‘end of life’, do not dismiss their value based solely on that because as well as your direct ancestors, you can also search for wills for your extended family members, although your own ancestor may not have left a will, perhaps he or she was the beneficiary of another ancestor’s will. Your ancestor might even have acted as an executor on another family members will, which can help prove family connections.

In terms of locating your ancestors will, In England and Wales, prior to 1858, the search for probate records can be complicated, as there was no centralised indexed system. Many different courts took on the task, often at a local level, so discovering which court was used to prove an ancestor’s will and where those records are currently kept can take some time. Until 1858 there were more than 200 church courts, each of which kept separate registers of wills. However, in January 1858, the Principal Probate Registry was established in London and the granting of probate was now a much simpler process, with the records held by just one court, which makes it so much easier to discover the existence of probate records after this date. 

Understanding Wills and Probate

The legal process surrounding wills is a complex one and something that there is not sufficient time to go into enough detail in this particular blog. If you want to understand the legal process surrounding Probate and the act of ‘proving’ a will then I suggest you look no further than professional genealogist David Annal’s website and blog, which explains the whole process concisely.

I have personally amassed a large number of wills across all my family lines and have chosen to include an extract from the will of my 5 x Great-grandfather John Haynes, from Kings Stanley in Gloucestershire, as a nice example of the details you can sometimes find when transcribing an ancestor’s will. If I am honest, I have included this example because I love the fact that he left his grandson two lambs! But this one document enabled me to connect the Haynes and Day families, because his grandson Thomas Day is mentioned in the will of his Grandfather, John Haynes.

Extract from the Last Will and Testament of John Haynes;

“and as for my estate of worldly things I should dispose here as follows. First I will that all my just debts shall be paid by my executrix and after that my funeral expenses and just debts are paid I give and bequeath unto my grandson Thomas Day. Two lambs, a silver watch and a pair of silver buckles. All other my monies, household good and chattels and whatever to me belongs shall be divided into three equal shares, two thirds of the share I give and bequeath unto Sarah Haynes my loving wife for she to do, order and dispose of her own free will and pleasure. And the third share I give and bequeath to my daughter Elizabeth Day.”

John Haynes Will 2

Finally, going completely full circle and right back to where we began, with the census, let’s go back and take another look at what you can do with a census return. Have you ever walked the census enumerators route? It’s fascinating to follow a whole enumerator’s schedule, from start to finish, through a whole village or district. If you haven’t done this before give it a try, do this with a local map alongside and you can see the streets, road, pubs, shops etc (if there are any) and get a real feel for what life was like. Common occupations can be identified, any common patterns or themes can also be spotted and you can get a real sense of what the area where your ancestor lived, was really like.

Without Social or Historical context, a list of an ancestors BMD’s and census returns, although vitally important when creating a timeline for your ancestor, on their own, they don’t always give you those extra details with which you can tell a story. It’s only by going beyond the basic records that you start to get a ‘feel’ for who they were and what their lives might have been like.

Going the extra mile and visiting the town or village where they lived will certainly add so much more depth to their stories, ‘walking in their footsteps’ truly cannot be matched. Imagine walking the streets they walked, visiting the church they worshipped in or the school they attended, those moments really are priceless. You might even be lucky enough to visit one of the Pub’s that your ancestor frequented and you can enjoy a drink or two yourself in the comfort of knowing, ‘my ancestor once drunk in this pub’.

See my blog for Family Tree Magazine;

Walk in the footsteps of your ancestors


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully there are enough ideas to help you build up a bigger picture of what your ancestor’s life would have been like in those years in between the census. In the world of family history, context is everything and knowing where and how your ancestor fitted into the world in which he lived will give you a much better understanding of who they were.

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Old Palace School Bombing

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18 thoughts on “What Did Our Ancestors Do Between The Census Years?

  1. By coincidence I have been reading a diary for 1952, my mum kept diaries most of her life and recorded the daily life of not only her own actions but included family and sometimes friends actions as well. In her later years the diaries were mostly filled with her and her horse, a rather stark reminder that as we her children grew up and left home we did not keep intouch as much as we should have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A diary is a true glimpse into a different time place and era. I follow two people online who publish daily snippets from the family diaries, what I love the most about these diary extracts are the mundane entries of just ordinary daily life, priceless. I am always extremely envious of anyone who has the good fortune of finding a family diary.


    1. Thanks Jude, the census, although extremely useful and a key resource, it really only gives a small snapshot of our ancestors life. It’s only by going beyond the census returns that we can truly build up a picture of what our ancestors life would have been like

      Liked by 1 person

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