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9 Reasons You Can't Find Elusive Ancestors

Find my past author
25 July 2016

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't find a record you know must've existed. Else Churchill from the Society of Genealogists outlines the most common reasons why you might not be able to pin down your relative's 'missing' records

Else Churchill is no stranger to a parish record, having researched her own family back to the 1670s and worked extensively with 17th century records. However, even someone with over 30 years' experience in family history can get stumped while researching that far back.

"Though I'd like to tell you that you can all trace your ancestors back to the beginnings of parish registers in 1538, I'm sure most of you have found that there are problems along the way," Else said.

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Unfortunately, there are some cases where there may be no record available for a particular event. Else notes that this doesn't make you any less of a genealogist, your research can only be as good as the resources available. Make sure to bear these points in mind if your search is proving fruitless...

Damaged or Missing

Many records are damaged or missing. Indeed only about 800 or so parishes have registers that survive back to that early date (1538).

Civil War "Commonwealth Gap"

Civil wars aren't conducive to the keeping of registers, so expect to find gaps or deficient records around the time of the mid 1600s. This is known as the Commonwealth Gap.


The improvement of transport, as well as the changes in agriculture and industry in the 18th century, could prompt a family to move between country parishes and into towns.


Not everyone attended the Anglican church. There is some argument amongst historians as to the extent of cohabitation and non marriage before 1837.


Your ancestors may not have attended their local parish church for various reasons.

Cohabitation and Illegitimacy?

It's possible that your ancestors lived together without ever getting married, or a child was born illegitimately and never baptised.


At certain times, taxes and other expenses discouraged people from baptism and marriage.

Sloppy Bureaucracy, or, "Bad Clerks"

We always have
to consider that the original records may not have been kept as well as they should have, and deciphering inconsistent and illegible records has unique challenges.


This is one problem that can be sidestepped by
using wildcards when you search, however bear in mind that your ancestor's details may also have been fudged by a bad clerk many years ago.