8 useful rules of thumb

8 useful rules of thumb

You don’t have to be an egghead to get to grips with research. We’ve put together some of the rules of thumb professional genealogists use. Little hints and tips most books and websites won’t tell you. Keep these 8 points in mind and they could help you to find that needle in the haystack.

Do the maths

  1. If you know a date of birth you can guess a rough year of marriage. The average age of men getting married throughout most of the 19th century was around 26 years old while women married a few years younger at around 20. Search with at least 2 years on either side and if the marriage record is there you should find it.
  2. Many 20th century records are not available online to protect the privacy of living individuals. While you can find records as recent as 2010 on Findmypast the variety of sources is less. A lot of records, like census forms for example, must wait 100 years before publication. The 1939 Register was an exception to this rule as it is not considered a full census.
  3. Before the 1830s record keeping was less formalised. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in 1837 in Britain for example. This means that the range of earlier records is less. There is still plenty to find but the earlier you go the more likely record sets are to be local rather than national or produced by individual parishes, courts or military organisations rather than a central body.
  4. Before 1850 the types of records that were kept cover a much smaller percentage of the population. Ordinary people, those who did not own substantial property, did not appear in official documentation so are harder to find in the records. This is one reason why court and military records can be so useful as they tend to cover a larger proportion of the population.
  5. Early census and land records tend to list the householder or person who held the lease of the land. Other people in the household, usually women or children, will not be listed.
  6. It’s always a good idea to get an idea of the geography of the area where your ancestors lived. People often move between neighbouring counties or states and may not be where you expect them to be. Looking in those neighbouring areas can be the answer.
  7. Don’t forget that early 19th century census forms were filled out by enumerators rather than the householders so it’s possible your ancestor’s details may have been misheard or taken down incorrectly. The same would be true of a lot of parish records or anything where the details were taken down by someone else.
  8. If you have a copy of a certificate it does not necessarily mean that the official record has survived. There are a lot of reasons why records might be missing. Often it’s because the record has simply not survived. There are many ways that paper records can be destroyed or become illegible after all.