By Craig Thornber

1.    Introduction
2.    Getting Started
3.    Searching the General Registration Indices
4.    Searching for a Marriage Record
5.    The Census Returns

1.    Introduction

One cannot describe all the ins and outs of family history research in a short article; there are stout books written on the subject.  However, if you have never done family history research before, these notes give a starting place for your own research.

What the Internet can and cannot do.

Journalists with no experience of family history research have written articles claiming that you can research your family history on the Internet.  However, for research in England from 1837 to the present, there are huge amounts of data in County Record Offices and Archives that have not been digitised, such as wills.  The main information for the period is from the General Registration of births, marriages and deaths, available from July 1837, and the census records of England produced every ten years and available from 1841 to 1911.  The index to the GRO records is increasingly available on the internet but copies of the certificates can be obtained only from the appropriate register office at a cost of £9.25. They can also be ordered on-line. There is a huge exercise to put the birth, marriage and death index on-line by Free BMD. Information from the 1881 census was the first to be made widely available on the internet but now all the census data is accessible on sites like Sadly, it is commonly full of transcription errors as the the people examining the original documents are not familiar with the surnames and placenames in a locality. My own name is commonly mistranscribed as Thomber or even Shomber so watch out. The Internet is useful for finding other people researching the family name, finding details of societies, libraries and record offices and if you are lucky, finding long lost relatives.   You may even find a relative who has already done the research for you.  In that case you will miss all the fun of doing it yourself!! Sources

For an initial listing of internet sites look at my favourite links.

If the research has not already been done by a relative then be prepared for an absorbing hobby that is never ending.  It will involve lots of correspondence and some travel to libraries and record offices if you wish to go beyond census returns and certificates   You will have to spend a little money for travel and copies of documents, membership of societies and purchase of books and pamphlets.

Keeping Records

Soon you will have lots of pieces of information and initially you may not know if it is all relevant to the branch you are researching.  It is essential to keep good records.  For each piece of information, make a note of its source.  This is essential so that you can explain to other researchers where the information came from and so that you can return to the source to check it again if necessary.  If the information has come from an unverifiable source then make a note of this too so that you don't put too much reliance on it.  Fragments like "Great Aunty Alice thought her grandfather might have come from Ireland." may prove to be true but may be utterly misleading.  Always be cautious about other people's research.  Their standards may not be as high as you would wish and they may have indulged in some guesswork or wishful thinking.  When getting information from other researchers ask for its source so that if necessary you can check it for yourself.   Look at some of the family trees on this site to see the kind of information used.

Work Backwards in Time

Family history MUST be done by working from the present to earlier dates.   It CANNOT by done by starting with some person in history and trying to prove that you are descended from them.    Records point backwards in time.  There is no way of devising records that point forward in time.  For example, a death certificate gives an age allowing you to estimate a birth year; a marriage certificate tells you the ages of the couple and the names of their fathers; a birth certificate gives the name of the father and mother allowing you to search for their marriage.  If you ever find a birth certificate that states this person went on to marry such a person and died in such a year, let me know, as it shows that the registrar had a time machine.

Points about Surnames

Surnames developed because there were so many people in Norman England with the same Christian name.  It is estimated that about half of all men in the 12th century were called William, John, Richard, Henry or Robert.   People came to have surnames based on their father's name, their occupation, abode, nickname or even on their feudal lord's name. Eventually surnames became hereditary.  Surnames based on fathers' names include Wilson, Wilkinson, Johnson, Richardson, Dickson, Harrison, Robertson, Simpson (i.e. Simon's son).  Other names came from occupations such as Butcher, Baker, Brewer, Farmer, Thatcher, Fletcher, Mason.  Such names sprang up in many places so if your surname is Drake it does not mean that your are necessarily related to Sir Francis Drake!  In addition, people changed their names for all sorts of reasons. Some people adopted stage names or pseudonyms for business reasons.   People would change names to avoid detection if a deserter from the army, trying to avoid the police or debt collectors, or trying to shake off the irate fathers of abandoned girlfriends.  The census returns for Manchester in the late 19th century reveals many people with typical English surnames who were born in Eastern Europe.  They were refugees trying to build a new life and wishing to be assimilated into their adopted country.

The Spelling of Surnames

There was no such thing as "correct" spelling during most of our history.  The first English Dictionary is that of Dr. Johnson in the middle of the 18th century.  Names were spelled phonetically and you often get more than one spelling of a name in a single document in older records.  It is common to find in church records that several children from the same family have slightly different spellings for their surnames.   If a person was illiterate and gave his name to the vicar or parish clerk for a baptism record, they would spell the name as he thought fit.  The person would probably have a strong local accent, different to that of the Oxbridge educated minister.  Surname spelling finally settled down through the issue of birth certificates from 1837 and improving literacy.  So if your name is Harrison don't insist that it has always been spelled this way.  Some of your ancestors may be down as Harison Harrisson, Harisson, Haryson and even Harrinson. I have come across researchers who insisted that their name was "Browne" with an e" although most of their ancestors could not spell Brown with or without an e.

My name occurs mostly as Thornber but there are numerous minor variants such as Thornbur, Thornbear, Thornbar, with and without a letter e after the n.  In addition there is a major variant with a rather different geographical distribution which overlaps the main Thornber districts; this is Thornborough which in more ancient documents turns up as Thornburgh and Thornbrough.  In Newchurch-in-Rossendale, a parish whose registers I have transcribed, two names evolve with time.  Wrothwell in the 17th century becomes Rothwell in the 18th, while Rawsthorn in the 18th becomes Rostron by the 19th century.

Think of all the variants of your name, obvious and not so obvious before you start searching any index.  For example Dickson and Dixon will not occur next to each other in the index and this name is frequently confused with Dickenson and Dickinson. In the course of my transcription work on parish registers I look first at the register itself and then at the copy made each year to be sent to the bishop. It is common to find that as the copy was made, possibly by the parish clerk, he spelled names differently to when he or the vicar entered the event in the reigster. For example Rishton and Rushton, Hargraves and Hargreaves, Dugdale and Dugdall, Holden and Houlden, Colthurst and Coulthurst, Knowles and Nowles.

Family Reconstruction.  Christian Name Clues

If you try to work back just from son to father generation after generation you will soon come to a problem.  There may be too many people of the same name, born in the same area within a period of a few years to enable you to identify which is your ancestor.  To try to overcome this problem you need to aim for "family reconstruction".  This means that you try to find the full family for each generation.  The Christian names of your ancestor's brothers and sisters often give vital clues to the earlier generations and are sometimes essential to identify the correct family.   In some areas it was common practice to call the first son after his paternal grandfather and the second son after his maternal grandfather.  Similarly the first two daughters were called after their grandmothers.  So by finding all the children of a couple you get clues to the possible names of the grandparents.  Knowing the date of birth of the eldest child in a family helps to identify when the parents might have married.    In addition, by tracing all the birth records you obtain additional information on the abode of the family and the occupation of the father as each child was born.  There is more information on this below in the section on census returns.

Infant Mortality, Life Expectancy and Second Marriages

Family history cannot be done just by researching births and marriages.  Deaths and burials are important too.  Someone who is already dead cannot marry or produce further children!  In the 18th and 19th centuries 15% of children died under the age of one.  In some of the new industrial towns about 50% died before reaching the age of 20 and it was common for 25% to be dead before this age.  As a result, up to half of all the people you find in baptism and birth records did not live long enough to marry and produce children.   Life expectancy (i.e. average age at death) in the 18th and 19th centuries was only about 40.  Lots of adults died in their 20s and 30s and so there were many remarriages.  It is not uncommon to find a man married two or three times and to find widowers marrying widows.  Don't assume that all people getting married were in their early twenties. In the 19th century if is known from the issue of marriage certificates that in 15% of cases one of the party was a widow or widower.

Take Time to Learn and be Patient

Family History research is a vast subject and it takes a little time to learn the basic procedures.  However, with a little patience we can learn enough to have a good chance of tracing our families back 200 years.  We start in this article with general registration and census returns.  Wills were left by about 10% of people and are very valuable sources of information but if your ancestors did not leave wills you will have to rely largely on general registration and census returns.

Before 1837 we become reliant on church/chapel records and this would be the next area of study.  It is not included in this article.   There is also useful information to find in deeds, land tax, quarter sessions papers, service records, Commonwealth War Graves information, manorial records, school records, rent books and heraldic visitations.  To learn all the details of using these sources takes time so we all need help.  Join a local family history society so that you can learn from other members directly.  You can hear talks by experts and buy  "how to do it"  booklets and pamphlets on display at the society meetings.  Subscribe to a family history magazine such as "Family Tree Magazine" for helpful articles and  lists of people researching a particular name.  This magazine also has adverts for numerous "how to do it" booklets.  If you can find one, go to an adult education class on family history research.  There are also family history fairs where you can find huge numbers of helpful publications including maps.

Federation of Family History Societies
Society of Genealogists

Know your Locality

Maps are essential for family history research.  Start with the modern one inch to a mile Ordnance Survey Map of the general area or obtain the 2.5 inch to a mile Outdoor Leisure map.   You can now access the old Ordnance Survey maps on the Internet.  You need to become familiar with names of the town, district and village in the area of your research as such names will be shown in certificates and census returns.  It is crucial, for example, to know that West Bradford, a small village near Waddington, is nowhere near the city of Bradford in South Yorkshire.  Otherwise you may be looking at the Waddington baptism records, discover that John Eastham was born in West Bradford and come to the wrong conclusion.

Sources of Records

The records you are using, prior to 1974, are based on the old counties of England.  Among the main resources for family history research are county record offices often called county archives.  If you start on the Genealogy of UK and Ireland web site known as GENUKI you can go to the section for your county.  There you will find details of register offices, libraries and record offices.  If you are fortunate to live in the area where you are doing your research then go to the public library and talk to your local studies librarian to find out what services they have such as indices of census returns, old maps, lists of gravestone inscriptions for the local cemetery and transcriptions of parish registers.    You should also ask where is the nearest place to search the indexes of births marriages and deaths as the Free BMD is not complete.  It may be that this is one of the libraries of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, (Mormons) or a county record office.  You don't have to be a Mormon to use the former but you do need to telephone to make an appointment so as to be able to use the microfilm readers. In recent years the indexes of the General Registration have been appearing on websites.  Some such as and Find My Past require subscription, others include FreeBMD

Family History and Prejudices

None of us admits to being prejudiced!!  However, every family from lowliest labourer to aristocracy and royalty has black sheep and some illegitimate members.  We have all heard people say they come from "a good family", which implies a belief, unsupported by any evidence, in scandal free ancestry from the origins of time.  If the discovery of an illegitimate great grandfather would upset you, it is best to avoid family history research and stick to the "good family" story.

Don't expect all your family to be of the same religious persuasion.  Before the Reformation everyone was Catholic and by 1851 the number of Anglicans had been exceeded by the number of Nonconformists (Catholic, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Unitarians etc.)

Don't expect to find that all your ancestors could read and write.  Estimates for literacy vary but elementary education did not become compulsory until the 1870s.  Before that there was a mixture of dame schools, Sunday schools, charity schools and day schools run by either the Anglicans or Nonconformists.  In the late 18th century and early 19th century about half of all parish marriage records for "working class" people were signed with a cross rather than a name.

Gentry and the "Middling & Lower Orders"

If you are gentry or aristocracy your ancestry is already known and is published in such sources as Burke's Landed Gentry, Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, Debrett's Peerage, Walford's County Families and the various books on county history.   You are wasting your time reading this article!!

If you are interested in researching your family tree then you belong to a family whose tree has not been thought sufficiently important to warrant recording hitherto.  Welcome to the "middling and lower orders".   Our trees contain lots of craftsmen, artisans, soldiers, and shop keepers with perhaps a few businessmen and professionals.  In the 18th century there was a very small  "middle class";  it grew in the 19th century with the industrial revolution.

The census of 1851 was the first to show that less than half the population was engaged in agriculture.  So you can expect to find lots of occupations such as farmers, yeomen, husbandmen, blacksmiths, and agricultural labourers throughout the 19th century with increasing numbers of people involved in manufacturing, trade and railways as the century progressed.

2.    Getting Started
Quiz your Family

Initially you should question your family members and search your house for all possible clues such as old birth, marriage or death certificates, newspaper cuttings describing family members, their obituaries or their funerals, military or school records, family bibles, and old photograph albums with the subjects named. If you can find the family photograph album try to go through it with one of your older relatives to see what names and relationships can be supplied. The names of all the brothers and sisters are important as they often give clues to grandparents' names and mothers' maiden names.  Is there a family grave? If so get all the details from it and search the cemetery for other graves with the same surname in case any of these turn out to be relevant later.  Try contacting distant relatives with whom you normally exchange only a Christmas card.  They may have the family bible or may have already undertaken some family history research.

Most people can assemble the following:

A.    Date and place of their parents' marriage
B.    Dates and places of their parents' birth
C.    Names of their four grandparents and possibly when and where they died or were born.

If you have only A then first you must obtain a copy of your parents marriage certificate. This will give their ages and the names of their fathers.  Then you would search for your parents' birth registration to obtain the names of their mothers too.  Next you would search for the marriage of your grandparents and this would give their ages and names and occupations of their fathers.  Family history research is conducted in this way by working back in turn from a marriage to a birth and then the marriage of the parents.   For the sake of this article I start with seeking a birth.

Hard Data and Soft Data

Some of the information you gain from this early research may be solid facts i.e. supported by official documents.  As you go further back into the 19th century you have to remember that literacy was often poor and as people get older their memories may fail.   As a result, ages quoted on death certificates, burial records and gravestone may be wrong by a year or two.   People also confuse "in his 52nd year" as being of age 52 when he is fact only 51 and part way through his 52nd year.   Generally speaking, if you have only one piece of evidence to point to a year of birth, allow for two years on each side.

Other information you gather may be family stories and myths.  Myth is important in that it gives an element of truth but you don't know which bit is true until you do the research.  A librarian told me that people who had ancestors who worked in the town hall often thought they were councillors whereas those whose ancestors were actually councillors seem to have been "promoted" by their descendants to the office of mayor!  If there was a black sheep in the family, and we all have them, then in family legend he is likely to have been pushed back a generation or made into a "cousin" rather than a brother.

3.    Searching the General Registration Indices 
Planning Your First Search for a Birth Record

There are indexes for  births, marriages and deaths produced by the Registrar General.  They are arranged in alphabetical order of surname for each quarter of the year and go back to July 1837.   Paper copies in huge bound volumes used to be available at the Family Records Centre in London. However, now most people will access this information by looking on the Internet. However, some libraries and county record offices may still have these records on microfiche and you can use them free of charge

Free BMD, Index to General Registration in England

If you are going to work at a county record office or library, find out if you need to make a telephone booking to use their microfilm readers.  When you go, take with you a notebook and pencil as many record offices do not allow the use of pens.  If you have to go some distance to the record office it is worth planning to do several searches that day.  For example you may wish to look for the birth records of all four of your grandparents and their marriages.  If so, book the microfilm reader for a two hour slot.  I always take a large magnifying glass to help with smaller type faces.

For any particular line of research the best place to begin is with the earliest birth or marriage for which you have the full name, approximate date and ideally the location.   For example you may have the date of your grandfather's birth having already found his marriage record showing his age and the name of this father.  If so, you would go first for his birth certificate.

How to Search the Index.  Fictional Case: Henry Eastham born about 1874

It is assumed in this case that you have already got Henry's marriage certificate showing his father to be William Eastham, blacksmith with Henry's age at marriage indicating birth in 1874.

If you have only the year of birth you would search all four quarters of the year and the first quarter of the next year as he could have been born in late December but not registered until January.  If the year is a little uncertain you should search a couple of years on each side of the estimated year.

What you Find in the Index

 You will very likely find several entries for the name you are searching and will be faced with trying to decide which one is the correct entry for your ancestor.  The only information in the index itself is the town of registration and a reference number. The index does not give the name of the child's father.  If you are certain that your ancestor was born in Bolton for example and there is only one birth recorded Henry Eastham in Bolton in the year of birth then that is a very good sign.  Note down the year, the quarter (March, June, September or December) the name of the person, town and reference number.

Obtaining a Copy of the Certificate

You can now order certificates on-line and full details of ordering are provided on the the Direct Gov site. Until this service came in, it was normal to obtain copies of the certificate from the office which issued it. It used to be possible, if there were several index references to Henry in the right time period, to write to the office in question and say that you sought the certificate for Henry but only if the father's name was William. Many offices were happy to do this and return your payment if you had found the wrong Henry. Sadly this is no longer possible.

What the Certificate Will Tell You

A birth certificate will give you the name of the child, date of birth, place of birth, name and occupation of the father, name and maiden name of the mother, name of informant and date of registration.    The name of the father, William, should match that found on Henry's marriage certificate but it is always possible that the occupation of the father is not the same; this problem is covered later in this article.  Now that you have the full name of the mother, say Sarah Duerden, you are in a position to search for her marriage to William Eastham as described below in Section 4 and to look for the family of William and Sarah with son Henry in the 1881 census as described in Section 5.

A Possible Snag and how you might Overcome it

Even with uncommon surnames you frequently find two people of the same name born in the same town in the same year.  Don't pick the first you find.  Most of the ordinary folk in the 19th century did not have middle names so you are faced with a problem.  For example, a man called Henry/Harry has several sons who survive to adulthood and marry.  When they had families they each called their eldest son Henry, as was a common custom at the time, in honour of their own father.  As a result there are two or three Henrys or Harrys, who are all cousins, born within a few years of each other in the same area.  However, only one of the Henrys in this set of cousins will have a father called William.  It you are really unlucky there will be more than one Henry with a father called William who are either second cousins or perhaps from more distantly related branches of the family.

It is often necessary to obtain copies of the birth certificates of all the possible candidates. You should then be able to make a decision on which is the right ancestor based on the name and occupation of the father which you already have from Henry's own marriage certificate.  You may also have an idea of where they lived and this will help.  For example the Registration District of Clitheroe includes the town itself and several villages nearby.  Only the name of the Registration District is shown in the index but the certificate shows a more detailed address which by the late 19th century is a postal address with house number and street.

There may be gravestone showing William Eastham buried with his wife Sarah and son Henry.  Usually such records do not give Sarah's maiden name but even the Christian name helps to confirm that your are on the right track.  You sometimes get a clue to a mother's maiden name because it is used as a second name by one of her children.  So for example if you knew that Henry Eastham had a brother called William Duerden Eastham, or indeed just Duerden Eastham, then you would suspect that Duerden was the maiden name of the mother or of one of the grandmothers.

Don't be too put off if the occupation of the father is not what you first thought.  People moved occupation frequently as industry developed and they moved from countryside to the town in search of employment.  Farmers were often part time weavers so that they had a source of income all year round.  The time to be concerned is when the occupations indicate a different strata of society or level of skill.  One man may appear on the birth certificates of his children to be variously a labourer, agricultual labourer and farm servant, but he is unlikely to be a labourer one year and a watch maker the next, as the latter would require a long apprenticeship.  In the latter case it indicates we have two separate families.  Similarly a professional man such as a surgeon or attorney is unlikely to turn up as a labourer or tradesman.

It is not unknown in family research for people to be stumped at this first level of search. It may be that there are two Henry's both with a father called William neither of whom is a blacksmith at the time of Henry's birth.  It may be that you cannot find any Henry with a father called William for a variety of reasons such as birth overseas, failure to register, registration initially under a different Christian name.  Henry may have been born before his parents were married and is down as Henry Duerden from his mother's surname.  Later, when William Eastham married Sarah Duerden young Henry assumed his father's name.

Whatever the case, you then have to do some lateral thinking to find an additional source of information to help you.   In this article I cannot discuss all the possibilities but the main one to use first is the census records  as described in section 5.

4.    Searching for a Marriage Record
The Marriage of William Eastham and Sarah Duerden

If you have found the right birth certificate you now have enough information to begin the search for the marriage of Henry's parents marriage, William Eastham and Sarah Duerden.   It is often best to look for the family in the first census after Henry's birth (1881) as this can help you to estimate the likely marriage date from William and Sarah' ages and birth of their first child.  In the absence of this information it will be necessary to search over several years.  Start at the birth of Henry and work backwards.  Henry may have been the eldest child or he may have been the youngest of several children, born when his parents had been married for 15 years or more.  The more you know about the family the better you can estimate the limits for the date.

Search the index for William Eastham and every time you find a hit for a William Eastham note the town and reference number.  Then search for Sarah Duerden in the same quarter and if you have found the right William there will be an entry for Sarah in the same registration district with the same reference number.   Order a copy of the marriage certificate in the same way as you did for Henry's birth certificate.

Possible Snags

As there are two names involved in a marriage search it is unlikely that there will be duplicate entries to consider.  To find two William Easthams each marrying a Sarah Duerden would be very bad luck indeed.   What might puzzle you is the location of the marriage.  Usually people who married at church did so in the parish of the bride and she may not have come from the area where we found them living at the time of their son Henry's birth.  The biggest single employment of women in the early 19th century was in domestic service which was a job where people frequently moved to gain experience and advancement. This occupation brought country girls into the towns.  Similarly William's occupation may have involved some travel or he may have been in the services and met Sarah many miles from his home town or his later abode.   You  may have no alternative but to obtain a copy of the marriage certificate and see what it has to say.

What the Marriage Certificate tells you.

When you obtain their marriage certificate it will show the name of the groom, his age, occupation, abode and whether he was a bachelor or widower.  Similarly there is the full name of the bride, her age, abode and whether she is a spinster or widow.  The names and occupations of their fathers are also given.

The ages given on marriage certificates are notoriously unreliable for two reasons apart from actual ignorance.  People of 19 or 20 would claim to be 21 so as not to require parental consent.  If a woman was older than the man she may, out of vanity, judiciously "reduce" her age to match his.

With this information we could start to look for the births of William Eastham and Sarah Duerden proceeding as already described above when we searched for Henry's birth record.  In this way by looking at births and marriages we can go back in principle to 1837.  This is easiest if you have an uncommon surname and your family did not move around the country.  The process is rendered easier and more certain when we can use the census returns as described below.

5.    The Census Returns. 

There are census returns every ten years from 1841. Census details are not available until they are 100 years old so this tool is not useful until you can get back to 1901 at the moment.  Until recently census returns were usually examined on film in local libraries, in county record offices or family history societies requiring you to travel. Libraries of the Church of the Latter Day Saints can obtain the films requested by researchers.  For 1881 the census for the whole of the UK was fully transcribed and indexed and made available on CD ROM. In recent years the census has become available in fully indexed format on the Internet on sites such as for which you have to pay an annual subscription. However, the records have usually been transcribed from the original by people with no local knowledge of place names or surnames and many errors result. I have often failed to find in census records which I have already seen on film. This is because an inexperienced transcriber has written THOMBER instead of THORNBER. Some of the errors are trivial such as simple transposition of letters as in VRIGIL for VIRGIL but it prevents you finding the individual in question. Ormerod Thornber was transcribed as Aswad Thornber! However, for most people, searching on line will be the easiest and cheapest option. When you find the record of interest you can opt to view an image of the original record and this can allow you to check for yourself whether Aswad was indeed the name.

Bear in mind that the cost of a subscription to one of the searching sites such as Ancestry is far less than the cost of a few visits to a distant record office.

The dates on which the first few census returns were made were as follows: 6 June 1841; 30 Mar 1851; 7 Apr 1861; 2 Apr 1871; 3 Apr 1881; 5 Apr 1891. These are useful in estimating the age of a person. For example a person who was aged 20 on 30 March 1851 was born sometime between 31 March 1830 and 30 March 1831.

What information do you find?

From 1851 onwards you find the names of all those in a household with their relationship to the head of household, their age (not necessarily accurate), marital status, occupation and town of birth.    Note that the wife of the head of household may may not be the mother of the children shown - she may be the second or even third wife of the head of household.

We may have found initially that our Henry Eastham was born in 1874, the son of William Eastham and his wife Sarah formerly Duerden in Bolton.  To find them in the 1881 census return, we have several pieces of information to help us.  If there is a head of household index we would look for William Eastham.  Initially we will look for a William with a wife Sarah and a child Henry.  We may find  that in 1881 Henry has several brothers and sisters.  Sometimes children are missing on the night of the census.  They may be lodging with other relatives nearby who have more space such as an aunt or grandparent.  We also find example of childen working away from home from their early teens as we go back into the 19th century.  Check the adjacent properties in the census and while you are doing this check for other Eastham families; some of these may turn out to be William's brothers. This can easily be done by viewing the image from the original records and scanning backwards and forwards on or two pages.

If we find the whole family together we should learn the ages of William and Sarah and their place of birth.   There may be other members of the extended family living with them such as a parent of William or Sarah.  All this helps us to identify the birth records for William and Sarah.  In addition, by looking at the age of the eldest child in the family we can get a better idea of when William and Sarah married.

In the 1841 census, much less information was given.  The ages of adults were rounded down to the nearest multiple of five, no details of marital status or relationship were given and the place of birth was only within or outside the county.

It is worth recalling that before the 20th century women in good health would be pregnant continually from the first year of their marriage until they suffered a failure of health, reached the menopause or died.  If the eldest child identified in a census was born three or four years after the parents' marriage this is likely to be because they had earlier children who died before the census or the mother had miscarriages.   As the census was taken every ten years there are many children who are never recorded as they died before the next census after their birth.

Census Snags

Many people died young in the 19th century so you may find that when you look in the census for a family one or both of the parents has died.  Sarah Eastham, may have died as a result of the birth of Henry or a later child.  As a result William Eastham now appears in the census as a widower or he may have remarried.   However, it may be that Henry went to lodge with a grandparent, or other relative, possibly in a different location.  Without the link to Henry and Sarah it is more difficult to identify the correct William.  We have only the details of his occupation at the time of his son's birth.

If William had died then Sarah may have had the means to maintain the home and be described as head of household and a widow.  However, she may have gone to live with a relative and be named as a lodger and a widow.  If she remarried she will be lost from view as we don't know her new surname. It may be necessary to check all the Henrys of the right age and note the details for later use.

In this kind of situation it is often worth looking at the census ten years earlier in 1871.  It may be that William and Sarah were already married by this date and can be found with early children.  If they were not married by this date then we should search first for their marriage certificate and then use the 1871 census to try to find William and Sarah before they married, possibly living at home with their parents.

6.  Case Studies

Most of the family trees shown on this site are in summary form but have the sources quoted for all the information. For the Thornber families of the Fylde, I have shown a more detailed discussion so that the data on which the trees are based can be seen as it was first obtained. You may like to look at this case history to see how a mixture of information from parish registers, general registration, census returns and wills can provide the information needed to start building a tree.


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