What difficulties may be encountered when using online indexes and how might they be overcome?

It is not until an ancestor cannot be found in the online indexes of the census records that it starts to raise questions as to why this might be the case. According to Dave Annal in a podcast recorded for the National Archives in 2008, “if your ancestors were living in England and Wales at the time of the Census they were almost certainly recorded and you should be able to find them; the odds are firmly stacked in your favour.[1]” This statement from a Genealogist with 40 years’ experience gives hope that those elusive ancestors may just be hiding in the indexes behind an incorrect name or birthplace but knowing how to look takes practice and stepping outside what you think you know to try new ways of searching.  

An example of where it can easy to come unstuck is if a search is being done with too much information and not always because it has been entered by the searcher. If I had my 2nd Great Grandmother’s profile page open on Ancestry and I clicked ‘search’ it would populate the search area with every single item listed in her profile giving 186,727 potential records in the indexes if the search areas were left broad. If the items were moved to exact, the result would be no items at all listed in the index. Databases on websites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast, can get confused if too much information is being asked to search for. As humans we like to have as much information as possible to search for something however a database takes information too literal and attempts to find every single word, therefore a less is more approach is required in order to start to see results.

The indexes created for the various censuses have also gone through quite a journey before being put on microfilm and now in electronic version. The original householder schedules may have been written by the householder or an enumerator but incorrect information may have been entered. The enumerator then transcribed that information into the Census books and they may have made further errors, the census records have then been transcribed and during that process handwriting or damaged records may mean the indexes now have a completely different name or place listed. Different websites also have different transcribers so a name may not be found on one but perhaps on another.  This was not something I was initially aware of even though I have been involved in researching family history for twenty years. Due to the cost of ancestry websites not everybody has the luxury though of subscriptions to more than one yet it is worth viewing the free indexes of various websites as they each also hold different records. Having exhausted Ancestry.co.uk for many years looking for one of my 2nd great grandfathers I put a search string into Google and it led me to the indexes on FindMyPast and eventually to my relative.   

One way of overcoming the various transcribing errors can be to do a wild card search in the indexes using either a ? for a single letter or an * for any amount of letters or both combinations. Ancestry also allows for an * to be placed at the start or end which can be helpful if the first letter of a name may be incorrect or a last name potentially ends in and e for example as in Sharp(e). A wild card search in the 1851 census for my 2nd great grandmother Mary Jane Sharp using Mary * Sharp* and her birthplace of Hull produced the following results both of which are the same person and yet details on both indexes are incorrect. The first one I would have discounted as I knew that there was no sibling that had a name anything like Niel so the one listing the name Sarah Tharp with a sibling Grace was more promising. Some of the names listed on the household were correct however there were four other names that I didn’t know. On opening the record HO107/2363/97/40 it took me to a different district and record HO107/2363/69/41 with no sign of the Sharp/Tharp family.  

The second index also listed as record HO107/2363/97/40, at first glance was a little odd and on viewing the individual names it became even stranger.  Sarah Sharp is 28 and is listed as the mother of Niel O Donnel aged 25 and Mary O Donnel aged 23 is listed as the daughter-in-law of Sarah.  Upon opening the actual record neither of the O Donnel’s appear on the schedule.

The other inconsistency with this record in the 1851 census is the age of Naomi Sharp who is listed as 11 (birth year 1840) yet I have her birth record in 1846 so she should be have listed as 4 or 5, therefore had I searched for her and used a birth year of 1846 + or – 2 years she would not have  been picked up in the 1851 census in the index. The 1841 census would have been full of inconsistencies in ages with the enumerators having been asked to round down the ages of anybody over 15. Some wrote the correct age however others rounded up or down so it is always worth looking for records in the 1841 census with no birth year or choosing a date in between and using + or – 5 years.

For the above record I knew that the family were in the census as Hull therefore using it in the search facility was fine but the indexes do not always list what is expected. It may have been that the county only was used such as Yorkshire, so if Wakefield or Hull are placed in the search criteria it may not find a record. Some counties have the same place names and therefore errors or assumptions may have made on initial transcription or index transcription. Examples are Stamford Bridge, London and Stamford Bridge, East Riding of Yorkshire, St. Ives, Cornwall and St. Ives, Cambridge or Gillingham, Kent and Gillingham, Dorset. On census night an ancestor may also not have been at their usual place of residence so it is worth searching neighbouring areas or counties or in the case of one of my 2nd great grandfathers using the word ‘Vessels’ in the index search which brings up anybody involved in the fishing/trawling industry who may have been out at sea on census night.

When the indexes were created some of the older records may have been misinterpreted that led to incorrect spelling. In some handwriting styles, the letter L resembles an S therefore the name Little might have become Sittle or a T and an F were mixed up so Tait became Fait. Quite a few letters of the alphabet have similar shapes so it is not impossible if ancestors had names starting with letters such as I or J or P and R, that they may have been misspelt. Once again the wildcard use of the * at the start of the name may produce a result. Although there is the option of searching the indexes for names using, sounds like, soundex or similar, the other option to consider is using spelling variations. An ancestor named Daniel may have been indexed as David or Edward as Edmund. The surname an ancestor is indexed under may not be as expected so it is also worth trying a first name, birth year and place of birth to see if a surname appears that in some way as meaning. It is also worth using just a surname and place as that may show up potential relatives in the index.

Street indexes can be another useful tool for finding elusive ancestors who are not forthcoming in the name indexes. On older birth certificates children may have been born at home therefore the street address listed could be searched in the address index and the names searched through for any relatives. My 2nd Great Grandfather Samuel Haigh who is stubbornly refusing to reveal himself was supposedly born in Wakefield, Yorkshire c.1848 and on the birth certificate for his first son it listed born in Providence St, Wakefield. This has been the only clue to family whereabouts in Wakefield however after trying a street address search on FindMyPast and reading through every resident in the 1861 and 1871 censuses who lived on Providence St (he was already in Hull in 1871) and searched the Ancestry indexes using both the street index and a wildcard search for Haigh using *aig* I am still no closer.  

Regardless of how careful people think they are when creating indexes nobody is perfect therefore the indexes will never be perfect yet it is not necessarily the fault of the indexer. As shown, it may have been a fault in one of the many transcriptions before electronic indexing, therefore to overcome indexing issues keep search strings simple.


[1] Annal, Dave, Solving Census Problems, podcast, The National Archives, 10 July, 2008, https://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/solving-census-problems/, accessed 14 October 2020.

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