Researching your ancestors from Great Britain and Ireland

A guide to researching your ancestors in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, using resources at State Library Victoria.

Why can't I find them?

As you progress with your family history research you are bound to have some difficulties finding the right information or the relevant records. Here are a few suggestions on ways to work around such problems.

General problems

Spelling and transcription errors

  • Forms were usually filled out by the head of the house or by an official. so it's possible the information was mispelled or incorrectly heard. Indexes are not always reliable either as poor handwriting could mean there were errors with transcriptions. If possible try and obtain the original document to verify the information listed.


  • Look for your ancestor under all variations of their name, MacDonald, or McDonald and Thompson or Thomson. Even a simple name like Brown may have been written down as Browne, Braun, Bowen or Bourne. Perhaps they shortened or anglicised their surname - Goldstein to Gold or Schmidt to Smith. First names might also have been abbreviated - John to Jack, Margaret to Betty and so on.
  • Too many people with the same name? If you find thirty records for a John Williams from Birmingham how do you determine which John is yours? Try and find records for parents, siblings or children, anything that can verify a relationship. Or try and eliminate the records for the other people with the same name by identifying the names of their immediate family.


Census records


  • Only the age was recorded on the census, so the date of birth that is listed in the transcript is an estimate that has been calculated from the age that was given. People frequently lied about their age too. Women lowered their ages, particularly if they were married to younger men and children's ages were exaggerated so they got higher wages. People also raised or lowered their age to make themselves a more suitable age for immigration. Try searching with a broader age range.

Place of birth

  • People often put the town where they assumed they were born or they put the name of the town where they were registered. Check neighbouring areas.


  • If individuals were visiting friends or family on the night of the census they would be listed under that particular address. People who were in service would often be listed at the residence of their employers. Sailors who were on board ship would be listed under the ship’s name. Medical staff would be listed under the name of their hospital and so on.


Birth, death and marriage records


  • Events are listed by the date registered, not the date they actually occured. So a birth on December 19, 1920 may not have been registered until January and would appear in the January-March 1921 quarter.


  • If remarrying, widows were usually listed by their previous married name, not their maiden name
  • Some marriages were indexed by the name of only one spouse.
  • A woman’s surname in the marriage index may be her surname from a previous marriage.
  • If the bride or groom were illegitimate they may have invented a father's name at marriage
  • A child born before the parents’ marriage may be registered under the mother’s maiden name.
  • Some births are registered without a Christian name being provided. If a name had not been chosen before registration, the child may have just been registered as "male" or "female"
  • The child may have been a foundling. Foundling records appear in birth indexes after the letter Z and the child's name may simply be listed as`unknown'.
  • A person may have been registered under a different name than he or she used later in life.
  • Personal information on death certificates is often misleading or incorrect. The person who registered the death may not have known the names of the deceased persons parents, date of birth etc.
  • Some deaths were registered as "unknown", when the  deceased persons name was not known.


  • Addresses given in marriage records may not have been their home address, merely the name of their current accommodation i.e. a hotel or boarding house..
  • The place of death may not have been where the person normally lived, it may have been a hospital or a relatives house
  • If you have no luck finding records, try expanding your search to include neighbouring registration districts

Over the years many valuable collections of genealogical records have been destroyed, making it impossible to find certain records. If  the record collection you require has been destroyed your next step is to try and locate a different record source. For instance if you cannot find a death certificate try and locate a burial register for the relevant parish church or identify the cemeteries for the town where you ancestor lived and then try and obtain a cemetery record.

If you still can't find a listing for your ancestor make sure you've searched through every available source. If you still have no luck then it's worth taking a break and moving on to a different ancestor. Many records have still to be digitised and indexed so you might find if you come back in a few months that you find new records.

The following books are excellent resources that focuses on the main problems researchers encounter and list numerous ways to approach these problems.