When you rush your research


07 December 2021
As many of us are looking forward to the forthcoming 1921 Census release, Family Tree reader Neil Barlow reminds us not to rush our research. But instead to study each record - including the census - that we come across carefully. And we're sure to spot additional useful clues if we do.

On Christmas Day four years ago, I introduced my family to the work I had done tracing back my paternal family line, the Barlow family. I had managed to trace the Barlow line back from 2017 until 1793, to find that we were the descendants of West Lancashire farmers and that, in over two hundred years, we have travelled roughly twenty miles.

Neil's grandfather's memories

My paternal grandfather had also joined the family for Christmas dinner and he was able to confirm that what I had identified was right. His mother, my great great grandmother, was simply on the tree as Elizabeth.

He was able to tell me that he was one of thirteen children, providing names of those I had missed and that his mother was Irish, providing me with the family name, McClurg. This intrigued me, as tracing my mother’s family had led me to Spain.

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Building a skeletal family tree using the census

In the days that followed, I embarked on my research in the way I always had, using the oldest person I could find in the household and working back using the various censuses. This is a quick and easy way to work back quickly using the censuses as a base to provide a skeletal framework for the family tree.

I discovered that my great great grandmother was born in the same town as me, disproving the Irish connection, much to my grandfather’s protestations. Her father, William, was born in Scotland in 1863 and for quite some time, we questioned whether or not this was factually correct. Her grandparents, Margaret and John (born 1833) hailed from Ireland. Finally, I had uncovered the link to Ireland my grandfather had claimed.

John left Ireland around the time of the potato famine, heading north to Scotland following the ship building trade.

Neil's mystery great-great-grandfather

The mystery surrounded my great great grandfather William McClurg who, at the age of seven along with his five-year-old sister Elizabeth, were living in St Helens with their aunt and uncle, not their parents, according to the listing in the 1871 census. Both were listed on the census as being born in Scotland.

Further research into why the children were living with their aunt and uncle revealed that, when William was three, his mother had contracted Tuberculosis, so his father sent the children to live with his brother, whilst remaining in Scotland to tend to his wife. This was how my distant relatives first arrived in my home-town of St Helens.

It was the 1871 census entry that spawned a mystery, as the uncle was listed as Smyllic, and, ten years later as Smythe. However, I have been unable to find a birth record for him. He worked as a labourer and his place of birth was listed as Ireland.

Realising the mistake

For many years, I was unable to make any further progress with the family tree until I realised, three weeks ago, that there was a gap in the information I had collected. I had census records for William in 1871, aged seven, and in 1891, aged twenty-seven, when he was living with his wife, Elizabeth. William and Elizabeth were living in St Helens in 1891, where Elizabeth, (nee Findley), had been born.

Sorting everything out

I searched for William in the 1881 census, which revealed that William and his sister Elizabeth were now living in Barrow-in-Furness, reunited with their parents John and Margaret, who had, thankfully, survived Tuberculosis. Also living with the family at this point was William’s older brother, Samuel.

William’s parents John and Margaret, my three-times great grandparents, were married in 1852 at a Presbyterian Church in Killyleagh, County Down. Margaret and John had both been born in Killyleagh. I discovered that there were two families living in the village that shared the same surname and this is where tracing the direct line farther back has become extremely difficult.

Naming pattern clues

All searches for a birth record of a Smiley McClurg, born in Killyleagh, have provided nothing, as did searches for a Smythe, Smith or Smyllic. Throughout the history of both my paternal and maternal lines, the first born sons and daughters have often been given the names of their mothers and fathers. It occurred to me that Samuel, William’s older brother, may have been named after William’s uncle, John’s brother. This theory proved to be correct. John’s brother Samuel was born in 1831 and emigrated to Canada in the 1860s, married shortly thereafter and died in 1905.

In 1886, William married my great great grandmother Elizabeth. His first born daughter, Elizabeth, married my great grandfather George Barlow in 1909. My grandfather was born in 1927, the youngest and last of thirteen children. Elizabeth was the oldest of eight children. William McClurg died in 1913, in St Helens.

Lessons learned

This research experience has demonstrated to me that it can be relatively easy to follow the line as far back as possible using census records. It is also very easy to skip over vital information that hold clues, or even solutions, to long-standing family mysteries.

As a new census is about to be released, many family historians will relish the opportunity to develop their family stories. I hope this article will illustrate the need for researchers to work slowly and methodically through the years, and not to rush through their Trees as I did.

William’s story revealed how my family came to be living where we are now. There are many of his siblings and predecessors whose stories remain untold, providing me with the opportunity to uncover a larger family tree.

The journey continues...


Photo by Yusuf Evli on Unsplash