This has happened to every family history researcher at one time or another. While researching a branch of the family in a census, one consults the Place of Birth column to see the unhelpfully imprecise, yet definitive statement: “Ireland.”
My first thought was, “Terrific, I have some Irish heritage!” My second thought was, “Is that it?” Quickly followed by, “No place name? No county or province? No other details? Where do I go from here?”
The research target was one of my great-great-grandmothers. I could find no other record relating to her origins, almost as if before marrying my great-great-grandfather she had fallen from the skies.
When this first happened to me I was a novice genealogist and was defeated by the challenge. All the family members I had traced up to that point had been based in England and Wales. I had only used free websites to compile my tree, not feeling brave enough to invest the significant sums demanded by the giant subscription sites. I knew little of Ireland, beyond a few visits for work purposes, and knew nothing of its family history records. How should I approach the problem? I didn’t know where to start, so I chose the simplest, most logical path: I ignored it and moved on to other more promising areas of research.
As I grew in confidence and experience as a genealogist, I returned to the site of my earliest genealogical surrender. No more retreats, I thought, no more shameful surrenders. This problem could and would yield. I was determined. So began the case of Mary Jane Hyland, she of the inconsistent age and indeterminate place of birth. Mary Jane led me a merry dance, but I caught up with her in the end!
The Starting Evidence
I first encountered Mary Jane when she married my 2x great grandfather John Bowers in 1894:
I followed their family to the 1901 census:
This gave me only two pieces of evidence about Mary Jane before she was married: her father’s name, William Hyland, and a place of birth, Ireland.
Before the 1911 census was released, I was unable to follow her further forward in time. I struggled to find a convincing entry for Mary Jane in the 1891 census that matched with either the place of birth or her age. I tried tracing her father, William Hyland, again with little luck. I thought at this point that the answer would lie in discovering enough about Irish records in order to attack the problem. I made a study of Irish sources and made several online forays to try and find her birth in Ireland, all of which failed to result in a convincing match. I was stuck.
By scrutinising just these two pieces of evidence, I developed tunnel vision about Mary Jane. I looked only at Ireland in the early 1870s for girls called Mary or Mary Jane where the father was called William Hyland. When I failed to find any acceptable matches, I assumed that either my skills at researching Irish records were at fault or the records weren’t yet digitised. I failed to consider that people, and families, can be more complex than that.
Widening the Scope of Research
My first positive step was to stop obsessing about a birth or baptism record for Mary Jane and instead to chart the rest of her life in as much detail as possible. For this I compiled a timeline, a chronological log of all the evidence I could find relating to Mary Jane’s life, her husband and her children. By this time the 1911 census had become available, so I was able to add this into the mix.
|20 May 1894||Marriage to John Bowers at St Paul, Warrington, Lancashire||Marriage Certificate|
|Q2 1895||Birth of son Frank in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|9 May 1895||Baptism of son Frank at St Paul, Warrington.||Parish Register Transcript|
|Q1 1896||Death of son Frank in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|15 Jan 1897||Birth of daughter Florence [my great-grandmother] at 22 Glasshouse Row, Warrington, Lancashire||Birth Certificate|
|Q1 1899||Birth of daughter Ethel in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|17 Aug 1900||Baptism of daughters Florence and Ethel at St Barnabas, Warrington||Parish Register Transcript|
|31 Mar 1901||1901 Census showing family of four living at 81 Plumpton Street, Warrington||Census Image|
|Q4 1901||Birth of son George in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|26 Oct 1901||Baptism of son George at St Barnabas, Warrington||Parish Register Transcript|
|Q2 1905||Birth of daughter Eva in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|30 Mar 1905||Baptism of daughter Eva at St Barnabas, Warrington||Parish Register Transcript|
|Q3 1905||Death of daughter Eva in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|2 Apr 1911||1911 Census showing family of five living at 3 Prince Street, Warrington||Census Image|
|1 Dec 1917||Marriage of daughter Florence to William Stringer [my great-grandparents] at St Barnabas, Warrington||Marriage Certificate|
|Q2 1924||Marriage of son George to Catherine Smith at Warrington Register Office||Civil Registration Index|
|Q4 1926||Death of husband John in Warrington registration district||Civil Registration Index|
|23 Dec 1926||Burial of husband John at St Paul, Warrington||Parish Register Transcript|
|30 Jun 1928||Marriage of daughter Ethel to William Taylor at St Paul, Warrington||Marriage Certificate|
|13 May 1930||Death of Mary Jane at Warrington Infirmary||Death Certificate|
|17 May 1930||Burial of Mary Jane at St Paul, Warrington||Parish Register Transcript|
Here were 21 data points directly involving Mary Jane. By scrutinising the wider dataset I hoped I would find some additional clues to her origins.
Next Time: I dig into the full timeline of Mary Jane Hyland and start to uncover some intriguing clues. The case has many twists and turns ahead, so please join me in my pursuit of the missing evidence.