How It Works: Family Tree Case History

By Dr Nick Barratt
Follow the history of the Hall family, to see how the skeleton of a family tree can emerge, once someone gets the ball rolling.
Frederick and Margaret Hall in the 1940s  

Hall family

When creating a family tree, once the basic principles are understood (through the 'Getting Started' articles - see right), you will need to collect basic biographical details about all the people in the family under investigation. You may find a look at someone else's family tree useful, before you embark on your own.

'She began by asking older members of her family for their recollections...'

Michelle Smith decided to prepare for her father, Brian Laverick Hall, a history of their family. She began by asking older members of her family for their recollections, checked old photograph albums and sifted through other personal memorabilia. Before long she had gathered sufficient information to draw up a basic family tree.

It was fairly easy to obtain information about Brian's parents. Reginald Leonard Hall, a miner, had married Ida Phyllis Payne in 1935, and the couple had had two sons, people that Michelle knew well. She also already knew that Reginald came from a large family and was one of nine children born to Frederick Henry Johnson Hall and his wife, Margaret Laverick - herself one of nine sisters.

Michelle followed the recommended path, and decided to focus on one family member. Her research had thus far largely consisted in obtaining names of key family members, and she decided to concentrate on her great grandfather, Frederick Hall.

The first step was to check the basic life details by ordering his birth, marriage and death certificates in the hope of finding out further details about his family, for example the names of his parents. However, when the birth certificate arrived, Michelle was in for a bit of a surprise. Frederick's mother was listed as Mary Ann Hall, but the name of the father was missing.

Family fictions

Memorial cards
Memorial cards of the Hall family
Michelle felt she had come to a dead end until she decided to talk once again to older members of the family. Family legend confirmed that Mary Ann Hall was indeed Frederick's mother and provided a name for his father - John Hall. Yet it was also said that Mary Ann had married into the Dalton family and had borne several other children. Did this mean there was another branch of the family that required investigation?

'Michelle was forced to accept the fact that the name of Frederick's father might remain undiscovered.'

Finding a memorial card. It was at this point in her research that Michelle made an exciting discovery among family papers. Old memorial cards for John Hall, Beatrice Dalton and Leonard Downey Dalton were found in a drawer - these recorded the date of death for each person, where and when they were buried, their ages when they died, and further family relationships. The one for John Hall, at one time 'of Sunderland', revealed that he was buried in 1892 at Escomb, County Durham, aged 70.

Ordering a death certificate. From this information, a death certificate was quickly obtained for John Hall, and the name of the informant was given as John Dalton, described as son-in-law. The same John Dalton was also listed on another memorial card as the father of Beatrice.

Checking census records. A quick check of the 1891 census records for Escomb showed that John and Mary Ann Dalton were the parents of Beatrice and Leonard. Mary Ann Dalton would therefore appear to have been John Hall's daughter, rather than his former wife as family legend had stated. A fair amount of other information was also discovered through the census, opening further avenues of research (examined in greater detail in 'The Census and How to Use It', see right).

Requesting a birth certificate. Using Mary Ann Dalton's age in the 1891 census as a rough guide to her date of birth, a likely birth certificate was located and requested. Michelle's suspicions were confirmed - Mary Ann was born in 1847 to John Hall, a mason, and Isabella Shotton Hall, née Johnson.

The clue of middle names. The fact that Mary Ann's maiden name had been recorded on Frederick's birth certificate suggested he had been born outside wedlock. Middle names sometimes reflect an absent father's surname, but in this case the inclusion of the name Johnson on his birth certificate clearly referred to Frederick's grandmother's maiden name. Without any further clues from which to work, Michelle was forced to accept the fact that the name of Frederick's father might remain undiscovered.

Parish records

Hall family in the 1950s
The Hall family in the 1950s
Michelle had partly solved the mystery surrounding Frederick's parentage. Yet her quest for information had revealed another generation of the family.

Ordering a marriage certificate. John Hall and Isabella Johnson's marriage certificate was obtained, giving details of their ages at the time. Furthermore, John's father was named as George Hall, also a mason, suggesting a family profession. It appeared that the family had originated in Brancepeth, a parish in County Durham.

Using parish records. John's date of birth from his age at marriage was taken to be 1822. This left Michelle with a problem, as his birth lay outside the scope of official registered certificates, which had only been introduced in England in September 1837. Her voyage of discovery led her back to where her family had originated. Michelle travelled to Durham Record Office, where the relevant parish records were stored, in the hope of finding further details of John's baptism and his parents' marriage.

Value of indexing. Luckily, the parish registers for Brancepeth were indexed, and Michelle quickly located the relevant entry. John Hall was baptised on 21 March 1824 - two years later than assumed - to George and Mary Hall, residents of a small hamlet within the parish called Willington. Also listed was an older sister, Isabella, who was baptised on Christmas Day 1821. Their parents were listed as residents of Brandon, another hamlet, but their itinerant lifestyle ultimately frustrated Michelle in her search for either new siblings or the couple's marriage.

Trail goes cold

Durham Public Library
Durham Public Library
No other reference to George or Mary appeared in the parish registers for Brancepeth, nor in surrounding parishes. A scan of the International Genealogical Index (prepared by the Church of the Latter Day Saints) for the county threw up some possible places for further research, but none of them matched known data.

' proved impossible to track the couple down'

In the time left to Michelle, it proved impossible to track the couple down, and she was forced to admit a temporary defeat. Here the trail ran cold. However, Michelle was determined to return to Durham at a later date to continue her research. You can find out how she got on by reading 'The Census and How to Use It' (see right).

Published on BBC History: 2004-09-13
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