A missing Collins- a cautionary tale

Recently, I started looking at a part of my family tree that has been neglected for some time now. Why has it been neglected? It is all down to the old ‘brick wall’ syndrome. For those who may not know, the term ‘brick wall’ is used quite a lot in genealogy to describe a halt in the research that just cannot be resolved- at least for the time being.

My brick wall was unfortunately not the usual type, where an ancestor suddenly disappears in the 1600 or 1700s and you have had quite a good run back to then and have found out a fair amount about the family. Mine was a bit more embarrassing. I was stuck looking for someone in the 1800s, who seemed to have disappeared before the 1851 Census. The 1800s had a wealth of state initiated records when compared to earlier centuries and it is usually relatively straightforward to locate ancestors right back to the beginning of the century.

I was looking for a paternal ancestor named Rose Hannah Collins, who was supposedly born in about 1845 in King’s Caple, Herefordshire, England. The 1861 Census recorded her and a possible sister, Mary Collins, as servants, yet the 1851 Census came up completely blank. This had been the situation for years and no matter what I did, I could not find a matching person on the 1851 Census.

So, this part of my tree had been neglected for some time, but I thought it was time to give it another look. I should mention at this point that when I started looking for Rose Hannah, I had not long started my journey into the world of genealogy and I have certainly learnt a great deal more in the intervening years. With the problem of Rose Hannah Collins, the most important thing that I know now, is how to get the most from the websites I use. I am talking here mostly about Ancestry and FindMyPast and knowing how to use their search functions to get the most out of them.

It seems really easy to put in the name of an ancestor on both of these sites, along with a basic date and place of birth, and then expect them to pop up immediately. Job done. In reality it is a bit more complicated than that, especially when you remember that sometimes people can make spelling mistakes or mishear information. Also, in 1851 there were still some people that were illiterate and could not tell whether their name had been spelt correctly or not. This impacts the way information is indexed on sites like Ancestry and FindMyPast and in turn impacts which search terms will match and therefore, which will be useful to us when we search. Now both Ancestry and FindMyPast do have facilities to search large date ranges or a range of spellings that are similar to a name you are searching for, but sometimes you still have to get creative.

Getting creative was exactly what I had to do with Rose Hannah Collins. With a name like Rose Hannah, you would think that it is sufficiently recognisable to bring up the correct person. The same goes for Collins, but on the broadest settings, still nothing appeared that seemed right on the 1851 Census. I had to remove Rose Hannah’s first names and just make a broad search for Collins, a year of birth and a place. It was only then that I found a Rosehanna Collings who was indeed born in about 1845 and living in King’s Caple with a sister named Mary and parents named John and Mary Collings. What this post cannot tell you is the amount time then spent looking at other records, trying to verify that I had got the right person. As it happens, I believe I did and finding that one record opened up whole new avenues of research into people I did not know even existed. I can now trace some of Rose Hannah’s ancestors back to about 1652. These are John Gilbert and Margaret Stevens, whose children were baptised in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire.

I have finally torn down the brick wall that was Rose Hannah Collins. It may have taken a few years, but in that time I gained the experience to know that sometimes you have to think outside the box when searching Ancestry and FindMyPast. This also applies to other websites too, like FamilySearch and FreeBMD. The list is not exhaustive. Anywhere that you have to enter search terms is somewhere that may require creative thinking, if you want to tear down your own brick walls and find a missing ancestor.