Family History – Conducting an Ancestry Search

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Today sees the compiling of the 2021 UK Census. I will publish a few of my own stories relating to my search for my ancestors stories over the years. The invaluable information on the census was a key part of what I was able to find. I hope you enjoy the stories and also this posting that will help you with researching a family history.

The slum dwellings of Water Street Darwen – the home of my family back in Victorian times with a descendant looking on

I eagerly tore apart the envelope from the Records Office as I knew the contents should be the key to opening up my search for my wife Lorna’s family line. Inside was the birth certificate of Alice Hatton, the daughter born to George Hatton and his wife in 1916. This is Lorna’s Grandmother. The name on the certificate that would actually cause me more extensive research than I could possibly imagine was of the mother of Alice – Lily Stanford. Up to this point I had been unable to find the name of George’s wife, no wedding certificate of marriage appeared to exist but it had been clear that all of his children were probably with this same woman. Within minutes I was online and searching for Lily. It would be a very long search.

After many years it reached the point when I could start to write about the family and publish a book – A Bullet for Life – that told the story of the family from a military perspective.

The Search

The only record I had up to then was the 1911 census and that named Lily Hatton as George’s wife and she was said to have been born in Preston, Lancashire. Searching now with the maiden surname it was clear that there was not a Lily or Lillian Stanford ever born in Preston. In the entire country there was only one Lily Stanford, a girl born in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria in 1888. I had nothing to link George with her but she was the only possibility – could I prove it to be correct?

Test Family Lore

I had already encountered problems with the line of George Hatton and this is a cautionary tale of not taking family information at face value but checking it out properly before embarking on extensive research. Initially I did not have the first name of George Hatton but family members recalled an Evelyn Hatton who was a daughter of George and therefore a sister of Alice, Lorna’s Grandmother.

When you are starting out on your research you need to take a step back and not be so keen and eager that you act on the first piece of information you find or are given. Evelyn Hatton I easily found as a child in the 1901 census and therefore my assumption was that this was the line and armed with the names of the parents I was off and running in search of the family line. In my eagerness I had not realized as I really should have done that this Evelyn Hatton was at least 10 or more years too old to have been Lorna’s Auntie Evelyn. I spent several weeks compiling the family tree from this 1901 census starting point and did it very successfully going back for around 100 years. The only snag was that it was the wrong Evelyn and therefore entirely the incorrect family line. I made an excellent job of tracing it all accurately on someone else’s behalf but it was all complete nonsense as far as Lorna’s line was concerned. Family genealogy can be very frustrating. By all means use family information but check it thoroughly before accepting it as fact.

Clear Deception

The frustration continued as I did eventually find what had to be the correct line with George Hatton as although I could take his line back I could not take it anywhere on his wife Lily’s side. She was a person that in the records did not exist.  Within a few weeks I had obtained the 1914-18 war records of George. They also contained reference to his service in the Boer War in South Africa. In the 1901 census George is on home leave, listing himself as a single man and a member of the West Yorkshire regiment, living with his father.

These war records would muddy the waters even further regarding George and Lily. In the records as a soldier he lists as he is obliged to do his marriage and children. He states, and in the event after more research this is correct, that he marries in Preston in 1897 and all the exact dates and witnesses to the event are given. His wife he claims is Mary Hannah Stanford, not Lily. As Lily would have been nine years old at the time of this marriage, George was clearly attempting to deceive.

George’s Regimental Badge

Retrieving the Marriage Records

It was now time to trace this part of George’s life. By searching the marriage records I found that George Hatton had married Mary Hannah Grime (a distant cousin) at that Preston church in 1897. I sent for the marriage certificate and if you are doing similar, quite involved research then these certificates are invaluable. They are also much cheaper and readily available now as you can have them available to download in a matter of days rather than obtaining a paper copy.

Cross Referencing

Going back to the war records it is obvious that George is trying to cover his tracks. As his next of kin he states this to be Lily Hatton but there is an attempt to blur that first name, perhaps his story to the officer is that Lily is a pet name of his for Mary Hannah – you can only speculate. The names of the children are correct but none are born prior to 1906 meaning that George had gone (on paper) nine years into the marriage before staring a family. As George and Lily had six children in a relatively short space of time this was unlikely. The marriage to Mary Hannah Grime was George’s only marriage, it was short and tragic as Mary Hannah did have a child while George was in South Africa but it was not his and the child died in infancy.  This information came from the online parish records at and these were invaluable in much of my family research. Similar records are available in most counties and many of these records are now available on Ancestry of Find My Past etc..  Also most counties have a family history society and these can be extremely helpful as I found particularly with the one in Cornwall based in Truro.

Following the Lily Trail

My assumption that Lily Stanford was one and the same person as the Lily from Barrow was difficult to prove. I was certain that this lady was the common law wife of George and they had not married legally, in fact it would have been bigamously if they had – something that did not stop Mary Hannah remarrying. George had stated that Lily was born in Preston. She was not, so I concentrated on the sister of the Cumbrian Lily, Evalena and tried to trace her. I found her quite easily in 1911 working in Cumbria as a servant and later discovered that an Eva Stanford had married in Preston but this was in 1934 to an Alfred Cant. 1934 would have seen her entering middle age so was this likely to be the correct Eva(lina) Stanford? It seemed unlikely but I had to pursue it.

By chance I had found a death of a man that could be this Lily and Eva’s father, a man that also had a very elusive and fractured family tree, one that even now I have not totally unravelled. This man that fitted the information I had so far was living in Shawforth, a small town close to Bacup, Lancashire. On an off chance I sent for this certificate and on opening there was the name of the informant – Eva Cant. To clinch that she was Lily’s sister I continued looking at George and Lily’s lives. I had no information from Lorna’s mother as these Grandparents had died before her birth and she herself had been put into care at around five years old so had no family history to pass on.

Case Solved?

Bearing in mind that George and Lily must have been together since 1905 I still thought it worthwhile in going farther on in time and looked at any possibility of a marriage and I found one in 1931 in Rochdale, a safe distance from Preston. They had left Preston for the event as this marriage was still bigamous as Mary Hannah, although bigamously married herself was still alive.  The reason why they finally married was that Lily was dying and her death followed two months later.  On the marriage certificate were the names of the witnesses and one was Eva Cant, Lily’s sister. The case was finally solved – well nearly.

I wanted to find out where George and Lily were buried. The Cant plot is in Bacup but Lily is not buried there. If you are trying to find a grave then do try the Cemetery offices as they are usually very helpful and now also there is the  website which is excellent. I had to assume that they were buried in Preston as this was their last known address and so I turned up at the Cemetery office with I have to say quite muddled information but they were extremely patient and brought out the old record books and located very quickly the Hatton plot and there buried together were George and Lily. The grave itself is unmarked but coincidentally very near to a plot on my side of the family that also yielded much valuable information.

Take Your Time

That was my methodology for this puzzle so I do hope there are a few pointers as to the direction to take but the best advice with a problem like this is take your time and try if possible to have a confirming source. It was very difficult solving this one and probably took about two years in total but I have to say it was great fun doing it.

The Things I Have Learnt

When I set out on my search for all these previously unknown family members, and I now have over 900 relatives that I never knew existed, I initially thought that my side of the family in particular was pretty boring. Lorna’s side from day one was clearly not in the least uninteresting and with the research I have done I can certainly say that her line would make a better programme than any WDYTYA that I have ever seen.

Keep Digging

If you find from your initial research that there appears to be little reason to carry on digging into the lives of these people then try to dispel that thought. The first research will of course be based on the Census’ available and these will give you the family line and brief details regarding occupations etc… My suggestion from the research I have enjoyed is to go to the military records as a next step.

Military Records

Take some time and patience to check any possible people that could have been involved in conflict. For World War II you may have to try Google or check Member’s trees etc… on Ancestry. Newspapers also can be useful for 1939-45 but again will need patience. What you may uncover can be quite remarkable as in the case of my Grandfathers brother who died as a child and his tragic records were included in my G/Grandfathers war papers.

If you find that a relative has died in the war then almost certainly the newspapers will have a record and I found such fascinating details for Alan Atherton, Jonathan Walkden and Roger Orrell. Don’t stop at the easily obtainable records on Ancestry for instance. It can be worth contacting the regiment they served with and these can be most helpful in providing more details. Checking online by searching for their regiment or known actions can also be extremely rewarding and many people and regiments have blogs that provide accurate information about the circumstances your ancestor may have fought in and sadly died in.

Contact Other Researchers

I found also that contact with other researchers was invaluable. There are times when you reach a dead end and no amount of searching can unlock the path. Other people may have access to family records that give you the break you need and this happened quite a few times over my years of research. Some of the information provided by these distantly related contacts has been truly extensive and invaluable. It is always worth cultivating contacts although just very occasionally you may wish you hadn’t!

Local Newspapers

The area that needs patience and persistence is in trying to find extra information from local newspapers. In the cases of Thomas Ashburner, John Ashburner, Roger Orrell, James Atherton and Alan Atherton I was able to discover so much extra detail and find events that were buried deep in the past that turned their stories into something remarkable. This is where the past comes alive and an apparently boring and straightforward life turns out to be anything but and that was certainly the case with these men.

Newspapers also can provide photographs of ancestors and that is a thrilling piece of detail to find. The newspaper accounts that you uncover can also throw up more names and these can be interesting to follow up. In the case of Roger Orrell the first name of his ‘sweetheart’ was intriguing and elusive but still a case to follow up and try different angles. Again, these can often be solved by contacts through family trees that are on line. I hope it will prove to be so in this case. These newspaper articles can often give a portrait of a long gone family member.

Newspaper photo in a report that gave me more details about my relative Roger Orrell

Living Family Members

In Alan Atherton’s case I did have living family members who had known Alan but they provided precious little information and that can often be a problem when talking to family. They either genuinely cannot remember or they have reasons as to why they do not want to be forthcoming on a subject and I have had plenty of those. When that happens it actually spurs me on to find out the reason for their reticence and it can be very interesting to uncover family secrets. If I do I always am very cautious about sharing information that could be upsetting to others and I urge you to always take that approach. Not everyone wants to know about the past or more importantly events that they have chosen to forget or compartmentalise. Please take care and share your information with caution and tact.

You will also without doubt find that some information from family members is complete falsehood but again there is little point in telling them that what they believe is the truth is actually quite different. I have and still do let ‘sleeping dogs lie’ as regards some facts that impact on living family members. Using newspapers needs patience as you will find hundreds of references that initially seem to match but only a few will do. So if you want to go down this line I recommend using a subscription, if only for a month or so. Using a cost per click method will bankrupt you.

Criminal Records

Hopefully you have an upright law abiding family, but if you have not then the criminal records are a wonderful source of information and provide endless lines of research.  In my case there were plenty of instances to follow up but I am pleased to say that in living memory we have all behaved ourselves. James Atherton who features heavily in my story would probably not have drawn my attention had I not checked the criminal records for my family. If I had not done that research then this book would probably never have been written. James was not on the 1891 census for Darwen, Lancashire, the town where he should have been living. I carried on searching and eventually found him in HM Prison at Preston, Lancashire, detained at Queen Victoria’s pleasure. From there I checked out the criminal records and could put approximate dates to his offences. From there it was a trip to the library in Darwen where the newspaper records were held – unfortunately these are still not available on line. Patience was needed to search the microfilm rolls but I found the report of his case and it was shocking and fascinating.

Even The Inconsequential

This also helps you to build up a picture of the life and times of your ancestors. With James I needed to discover what had happened to him and that in his case meant looking at military records.  When you do that make sure that you study them in detail and even seemingly inconsequential notes and marks should not be discounted. For instance in James record there was a stamp on one of the papers that was a bit blurred and indistinct. I decided to try to make it out and after some time it gave to me the information that he had ended up in America and this was a British Consul stamp indicating that James was applying for his war pension. That opened up a whole new field of enquiry and also some other family contacts.

I hope these notes are useful and although I could have gone into greater detail about individual searches I trust these will suffice to assist anyone following similar lines of enquiry. Have fun searching and be careful what you wish for!

The full stories of my family history search regarding my ancestors involved in the military and their social backgrounds are contained in my book available on Amazon.

All my books are available on Kindle Unlimited

A true story of family survival against all the odds – it has a happy ending I promise

Please enjoy my Travel books – LINK TO YOUR COUNTRY :

Please enjoy my Travel books – LINK TO YOUR COUNTRY :

Published by Neal Atherton

My passion is writing about travel and particularly French travel. I have traveled extensively in France and wine and food has always featured on my travels and now in my books. My friends always await our return from France with the latest new finds from the vineyards and I was more than happy to keep sampling. I am from Lancashire in the north of England but have now relocated to Somerset (nearer to France) and able to enjoy devoting my time to writing and new discoveries. France came late to me as a destination, in fact so conservative was my travel upbringing that it was a long time before I even ventured to Cornwall. I have more than made up for the slow start and have enjoyed helping many others with their travel plans to France and especially to Paris and Provence. I have written a series of four books on France - Three are now on Amazon:THE FIRST TIME WE SAW PARIS about our first steps in French Travel, THYME FOR PROVENCE our discovery of that glorious region and the people and places we met and discovered, A DREAM OF PARIS a personal memoir of our times in Paris with friends. France has been fun, we have been burgled on our very first arrival, we discovered the best cafe that changed our travel lives on the very next day, we learnt about French wine, we escaped from the most horrendous gite, we found the best of gites, B & B's and people, we laughed and cried with dear friends in Paris, I was hosed down by a crazy owner to cool me down in Provence, our breakfast in a remote village was served by the French army, we stepped totally out of our comfort zone and discovered the best of French culture. The experiences are varied and many and please come with me as I retell the stories and my footsteps are there to follow. I am also writing about ancestry and genealogy and my first book about our incredible family story themed around war and the military is now on Amazon - A BULLET FOR LIFE. I love the English game of cricket, golf, soccer, photography, walking and cooking. Oh, and travel of course.

2 thoughts on “Family History – Conducting an Ancestry Search

  1. Super interesting. I’m just starting a search about my paternal grandfather who was born in Luxembourg in 1905, but whom my dad never met and our family never spoke about. A daunting task but your tips are useful.


    1. Caroline Thank you for your kind comments and hope you and your family are staying safe and well in this awful time. We are fortunate to live close to the beach and that has helped with lockdown. I hope you enjoy and are successful in your family research. I suspect for you it will be quite challenging as your background is in Europe but there is so much on line now. My best tip as you may have gathered is to really check out your first line back i.e. from your Grandparents. If you can be 100% (or as close as possible) at that stage it saves an awful lot of time and frustration later. Don’t rush that first stage ( I did!). What I found through many of the lines was fascinating and still is. I have just had DNA tests for myself and Lorna and that has been very interesting and in one line surprising – more work there. I wouldn’t suggest doing that until you have a reasonable sized tree in place. I discovered some Canadian relatives and that provided some great info on the extended family as well as some very enjoyable new contacts. DNA threw up another Canadian reasonably close cousin who contacted me and I am enjoying filling some details in for her as she knew nothing about her English side and also prompted me to research that line a bit more with surprising results. If you can find living relatives that is always useful but do check out anything they tell you before taking it as gospel. If I can help I am happy to try especially if you need a prompt on any English line. I have some more Ancestry articles on my writing website and you may have seen them but this is the link: These are not specifically designed to help with research but they will give a flavour of the angles of research you can try. Best regards Neal


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