How To Become A Family History Detective Using My ABC Guide

In many ways being a family history researcher can feel a bit like being a ‘detective’, on the hunt for clues to help you solve the latest ‘mystery’. You might have a few uncorroborated facts that you have pieced together, but it’s that one piece of ‘Critical Evidence’ that is missing, which is stopping you from solving the crime. However, what happens when that ‘Critical Evidence’ is missing? What are the alternative records that might help you find that vital clue that might help you get that bit closer to solving the mystery? In this blog I will look at a few different records, including exploring in detail, some of the more familiar records, as well as looking at some newer, maybe unfamiliar records, in the hope that we can find that one key document that will help us solve the case.

We have to accept that sometimes for various reasons, whether intentionally or unintentionally, our ancestors did not want to be found in the records and there are a number of different reasons why this might be the case, but for now, let’s concentrate on what we CAN do and what records we CAN find, that might point us in the right direction to find our missing ancestor! It’s only be evaluating ALL the evidence that we can reach a reasoned conclusion. This evidence, in our case, genealogical proof, is the only way that we can establish a fully reasoned conclusion. Think of it in terms of trying to prosecute a criminal with very little or only circumstantial evidence, it’s just not possible to reach a reasoned conclusion that will stand up in a court of law. Therefore it’s our job to produce sufficient evidence to support our genealogical theory and substantiate the case we are trying to prove.


When we are trying to piece together our evidence, we need to be certain that the facts we discover are actually genuine facts. In some cases we might find conflicting evidence, or even in some cases no evidence, but we have to remember that the absence of a record for your ancestor does not necessarily mean that an event did not take place. For example, you might not find a birth or baptism record for your ancestor, but that doesn’t mean that he or she didn’t exist, therefore you are looking for alternative sources to prove that they DID exist! That could be from anything as simple as a census return or a Will. Finding no birth or baptism record does not necessarily make the census or Will incorrect. So in this instance we need alternative sources to prove or disprove their existence. A death certificate that gives a year of birth might tie in nicely with the census that you found or the Will to give you additional proof that your ancestor did exist, even if you are still unable to find any birth or baptism record. Again no death record does not mean that he or she is still alive today, it just means they could have died elsewhere, or out of county and become one of those unfortunate parish register entries for a death of an ‘Unknown Man/Woman’. So the absence of a record for an event is not enough proof that the actual event did not take place.

Of course we have to be mindful of how reliable those additional documents that we discover are. For example if you find your suspects on the Electoral Registers listed as ‘Mr and Mrs Keyes’, is that enough evidence to suggest they were married? Of course not, but it is another piece in the jigsaw, which at least now gives you their location. Newspapers are always a great resource for looking at supportive evidence, again like you would today, never treat what is written in the newspapers as fact, but if you believe that your ancestor was the same man that appeared before the magistrate in the newspaper article, on a certain date, then it at least proves that he was alive at the time, living in the country at the time and you now know what area he was living and where to start looking!


We might wrongly presume that the information given on a birth, death or marriage certificate is one hundred percent accurate, but all these documents are only as reliable as the informant giving the information to the officials. The fact that theses documents are perceived as “official documents” does not make the information on them necessarily anymore reliable than a family bible. For example, is a deceased father on a marriage certificate actually deceased? For many different reasons our ancestors either mistakingly or intentionally got things wrong on the records they left behind. So it’s important to bear that in mind when you come across some conflicting evidence when trying to solve your mystery. I delve into this subject a lot deeper in a previous blog, which can be found here.

How Do We Differentiate Between Fact and Fiction

Of course the fact that your ancestor either mistakingly or intentionally got a fact wrong is not extremely helpful to us, when we are trying to prove a theory ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’. So let’s explore some of the more familiar records as well as looking at some maybe new records and look a little closer and dissect these records in more detail and see what these records might or might not tell us.

We use the census returns in our research all the time and I have written about what to do if you can’t find your ancestor in the census in a previous blog for family tree magazine which can be found here:

What If A Relative is Missing from a Census Year

Taking that one step further, let us assume that you have followed all my previous tips and your ancestor WAS actually missing from the census, what could this information tell us? There are of course a number of possible reasons why your ancestor might be genuinely ‘missing’ from a census return; Had they enlisted with the armed forces? Were they in prison? Could they be in the workhouse, or even a hospital or asylum? Have they emigrated? These are all alternative sources to look at, but not all of these are available online, so a bit of leg work at the record offices might be required to rule out some of these explanations. Remember that some of these records are not completed with the ‘full name’ of your ancestor. Hospitals, workhouses and asylums commonly listed people by initials only, so again, you might have to delve a little deeper into these records for that ‘Critical piece of Evidence’

Have you examined all the details on all of your certificates? You think you have, but have you examined ALL the details? Are all the witnesses recorded? Could any of these witnesses have become family members themselves, after marrying into your family tree, is that the ‘Critical piece of Evidence’ that you are looking for? Have you worked out the relationships of all the names on the certificates, do you know who the informant is, for example, on a death certificate? The person who registers the death is known as the informant and in most cases this will be a relative of the deceased, but not always and this depends on the circumstances of the death. For example it could be someone who was present at the death and this person might not necessarily be a direct relative, but maybe an in-law for example. So it’s important to look at these additional people that we find on our certificates and try to establish who they are and how they are connected, it could be a key clue.


Parish Registers are the bread and butter of our research, prior to the start of civil registration, but are you missing out? Of course the Parish Registers are available to search and view from the comfort of your own armchair, on the main genealogy subscription sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, but once you have found the entry you are looking for, most of us will move to the next piece of research. There are lots of additional snippets of information that can be found on the bottom and top of the registers themselves, plus a wealth of potential information hidden away at the start and end of a register. Could there be an additional reference to your ancestor tucked away and hidden here? Next time you find your ancestor on a parish register online, have a scroll through the remaining pages in the register, you might be surprised at what you find. Again it’s about drawing every last piece of information from a document, even if that information doesn’t make a lot of sense at the time. Sometimes you will uncover additional information at a later date that makes what you found fall into place. Let me give you an example of what I mean. My 2x great-grandmother is Elizabeth Bishop and I have her birth, marriage and death certificates, plus all the relevant census returns, all of which corroborated each other. Did I really need her baptism record? Of course I did, but what did it reveal? Baptised in Romford, Essex on April 13th 1849, Elizabeth Bishop of John and Caroline, who were living in Romford in Essex at the time. Nothing out of the ordinary here, but take a look at the two entries above, there were two further baptisms that took place on the same day, Clara and Henry King, born to Caroline King, who was obviously a single woman. The Caroline King named in the two other baptism records was ALSO Elizabeth Bishop’s mother and the same person named on Elizabeth’s baptism, who also married John Bishop. The two children were in fact half siblings of Elizabeth’s and all 3 children were baptised at the same time. Had I just taken the transcription from Ancestry, I would have completely missed the fact that Caroline King had two additional children born out of wedlock. See the image below. This vital clue could have easily been missed.

Elizabeth Bishop Baptism

Other records to consider and ones that you might not have come across before, include records like Tithe maps, which can really help you find the location of your ancestor prior to 1841. The 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual, which makes it the earliest useful census for family historians. However, less information was collected in 1841 than in later census years, but what we can do is use other records, such as the Tithe maps to help us with a precise location for our ancestor, prior to 1841. The 1836 Tithe Act was brought about by the Tithe Commission which was set up to assess the value of each and every piece of land across the country. The Act mostly covered rural land, urban areas were not included, but if you have agricultural workers in your tree, there is every chance that you might find them in the Tithe records. These records are normally found in county record offices, but if you have a subscription to the website The Genealogist, you will also find them online there. What you will find are the details of each piece of land and this was entered on pre-printed schedules, known as apportionments, and these are arranged by parish. On the apportionments are the names of the various landowners, the occupiers or tenants, the name or description of the land or property, the state of cultivation, the area (in acres, rods and perches) and the value assessed. Each piece of land or property also has a number attached to it which acts as a cross-reference to the associated map. These records can really help to locate your ancestor and provide you with the ‘Critical Evidence’ needed to take your research back another generation. Below is a typical Tithe Map and apportionment sheet, this one is for South Fambridge in Essex.

South Fambridge Tithe Maps 5

South Fambridge Tithe Maps 2

Old photo albums or family bibles could hold the key to solving your mystery. For example, have you checked for anything written on the reverse of the image? Does the studio where the picture was taken give you a clue where your ancestor might have lived? If you have some old photos have you examined them fully to extract all the information that might be hidden there?

The following three photographs of my great-grandfather Frank Day, all highlight exactly what I mean about examining the photographs fully and looking at ALL the details. The three pictures show you three different examples of how a picture can be that one piece of ‘Critical Evidence’ that you need. Had my Aunt not passed these photographs on to me, then so much of my great-grandfather’s story would be lost.

Picture 1 obviously shows the address of the studio where this picture was taken 480, George Street, Sydney, AUSTRALIA! At the time I had no idea that my great-grandfather had ever been to Australia and when I mentioned this to my Aunt she replied, “oh yes he was a Steward on a ship, haven’t I told you about that”? This proves that you don’t know what you don’t know!

Frank Day as a Young Man

Picture 2 shows three generations of the Day family photographed together. The elderly gentleman, who is seated, is Frank’s Father, Thomas Elisha Day, the small child is Frank’s first born son, Francis Norman Day (Frank Day Junior) and the gentleman standing is Frank Day himself and this image is taken around 1912/1913. But hidden behind this photograph were the following newspaper cuttings regarding Frank Day’s death.

Thomas Elish Day and Frank Day and Frank Day Junior


Mr. Frank Day, of 58 Salisbury Road, Grays, collapsed and died at Gloucester on Sunday. Mr. Day who was 67 years of age had lived practically all his life at Grays and until he retired, worked at Messrs.’ Van den Berghs and Jurgens. Latterly he had been employed at an aircraft factory at Gloucester. He leaves a widow, three sons and four daughters.

Mrs. Day & Family, of 58, Salisbury Road, Grays, wish to express their sincere thanks to all kind relatives, friends and neighbours for sympathy shown and for the beautiful floral tributes sent in their great loss of a dear husband and father: also to Messrs.’ Thompson for the funeral arrangements.

Day – On November 4th, 1945, Frank Day of 58, Salisbury Road, Grays based away suddenly at Gloucester aged 67 years.

All of these newspaper clipping contain vital clues in building up a picture and life story for Frank Day. We have work and career details, different locations and addresses, all hidden away behind a photo frame.

Frank Day death notices

The last image of Frank Day is even more revealing, this was taken during WW2 and is a studio photograph. I previously submitted all these photographs to Family Tree Magazine’s professional fashion historian and picture consultant, Jayne Shrimpton, to confirm if these were all indeed, the same person. Jayne kindly confirmed they were the same person, but what she also identified, which I had completely missed, was the fact that Frank Day is actually posed with a Royal Field Artillery Badge on his lapel. Without that attention to detail from Jayne, I would never have made the connection to The Royal Field Artillery.

Frank Day in 1943

In the words of Photogenealogist Ann Larkham, ‘never under estimate the power of a photograph’.

I will leave you with one last thought and I wonder if anybody ever thought they would hear me say that taxation is a good thing? Over the years there have been many different forms of taxation, including to name but a few examples: Window tax , Brick tax , Glass tax , Wallpaper tax and Hearth tax all of which are now now thankfully abolished. There are far too many to mention them individually here, but I would like to point you in the direction of two specific blogs on taxes. The first is a blog by professional genealogist Richard Holt on Marriage Duty Assessments and the second is from professional genealogist David Annal on the subject of Hearth Tax These blogs will give you a valuable insight into the records available in archives and county record offices and why in many respects taxation is a good thing, especially if you are a family history researcher, purely for the potential clues they leave behind.

Archives 2

Only by piecing together ALL the evidence and exhausting all of the available records, can you be certain that you have built yourself a solid enough case to solve your own particular crime. Sometimes the actual piece of ‘Critical evidence’ you seek is already in your family history records, but you might just have overlooked it or missed it. It’s only by looking at everything together that you can see the full picture.

Consider looking at all your pieces of evidence again, think about creating a timeline and instead of looking at ‘what you do have’, look at what’s missing from your research. Dr. Sophie Kay has a wonderful series of blogs about Negative Space which I can highly recommend. Using these tools in conjunction with examining all the available records will hopefully help you to find that key piece of ‘Critical Evidence’.


In conclusion, researching your family history can be compared to investigating a crime, no one single piece of evidence is enough to confirm your suspicions, but it is about piecing together all the bits of circumstantial evidence, before you can reach a reasoned conclusion or verdict. Sometimes our family history research mirrors those of the criminal justice system when it comes to reaching a final conclusion, but if you follow my strict ABC rules you will always reach the correct conclusion.

A = Accept Nothing 

B = Believe Nobody 

C = Check Everything 

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9 thoughts on “How To Become A Family History Detective Using My ABC Guide

  1. Wonderful post…I’m still searching for the baptism or other evidence of the birth year of my 6th great-grandfather in Kent, James Spong, in Kent, likely 1700-1725…I’ve tried every record set I can think of and continue to explore more. Hampered by the fact I’m in Canada. Will read those posts you linked to at the end – one never knows!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There is a Settlement document from 1746 at the Canterbury Cathedral Archives… At some point this year I’ll ask for a quote re digitizing it, in the hopes it may reveal a clue. Or hope I win the lottery so I can visit in person.

        Liked by 1 person

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