HITTING BRICK WALLS IN FAMILY HISTORY RESEARCH
I spent over 14 years researching the many branches of my family tree and then reached so many brick walls, I decided to give up for a while and write the books I’d long planned in my head. Now I’ve published my two thrillers, and my mother’s biography, I’m considering taking up the research again.
There are some family history details of my mother’s tree in the end notes of her biography ‘The Road from Wigan Pier’. Her surname before marriage was ALKER.
PURPOSE OF THIS POST
From time to time, I’d like to discuss my journey discovering who my ancestors were, what they did for a living, where they lived and, if possible, what they believed. For now, though, I’ll just show you how far I got in my ALKER family tree before hitting the brick wall.
My ALKER research hit a barrier with my 8th great grandfather, Thomas ALKER, the earliest direct ancestor I had traced. There is a parish record showing this Thomas ALKER in All Saints, Wigan, Lancashire, England. This entry recorded his marriage on the 28th August 1665 to Ellen GREENHACH. Both ages were given as 25, so I can guess they were both born around 1640.
So far, I don’t know where he was born because his baptism isn’t recorded in All Saints, the Wigan parish church, but there were a lot of ALKER families in Ormskirk before this time, and also a few in Salmesbury. Both of these areas are also in Lancashire.
In the parish records of All Saint’s, Wigan, there is also a burial on 28th August 1710 for a Thomas ALKER of Aspull. I’m not sure if the two records are for the same individual, but it does look promising. This is where my research is at the moment. How do I prove both records are for the same person? Where will I find the baptism record of this Thomas ALKER and thus the names of his parents?
This highlights an inherent problem with family history research. As we research further back, the records become sketchier for the average family. It’s different if your ancestors had a more prominent place in history, like if they were royalty, great leaders, or innovators.
My ALKER ancestors were mostly farmers, so although I can easily place them and their farms through the census data, once we go beyond 1841, which was the earliest useful census in England and Wales, we have to then rely on parish registers.
There was no explicit law in those days that births, marriages, or deaths had to be officially registered. That law was passed in 1836. Before that, religious families would often ensure their rights of passage were recorded in their own particular churches and often in family bibles, but if they were not religious people, they were not so meticulous in celebrating or recording these events.
This is why I’m often sceptical when people say they’re related to a famous figure from long ago. It’s not impossible but, for that to happen, every generation of the family would have to be so prominent, they were officially recorded over several hundred years. In reality, there is often a rise and fall pattern in families, and once great names sometimes become obscure.
I know some families have an old family bible with a few notes recorded, but I doubt there are many with a detailed family tree covering several generations. In any case, they couldn’t go back further than 1539 when the first English bible for public use was introduced, enabled by the earlier invention of the printing press.
Despite the dearth of records, family history research is still a fascinating project to undertake. When you discover a previously unknown fact about your family, it’s almost like a light bulb going on. You feel like a detective solving a difficult case. It’s euphoric and really addictive until you hit the next brick wall.
Why don’t you try researching your family tree? It’s the most fascinating of hobbies.
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