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The Woman Who Fell From The Skies

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:

Marriages (CR). England. Warrington, Lancashire. 20 May 1894. BOWERS, John and HYLAND, Mary Jane.
Registration district Warrington; volume 8c; page 280.

I followed their family to the 1901 census:

Census returns. England. Holy Trinity, Warrington. 31 Mar 1901. BOWERS family. RG13; piece 3578; folio 73; page 23.

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.

Tunnel Vision

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 1894Marriage to John Bowers at St Paul, Warrington, LancashireMarriage Certificate
Q2 1895Birth of son Frank in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
9 May 1895Baptism of son Frank at St Paul, Warrington.Parish Register Transcript
Q1 1896Death of son Frank in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
15 Jan 1897Birth of daughter Florence [my great-grandmother] at 22 Glasshouse Row, Warrington, LancashireBirth Certificate
Q1 1899Birth of daughter Ethel in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
17 Aug 1900Baptism of daughters Florence and Ethel at St Barnabas, WarringtonParish Register Transcript
31 Mar 19011901 Census showing family of four living at 81 Plumpton Street, WarringtonCensus Image
Q4 1901Birth of son George in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
26 Oct 1901Baptism of son George at St Barnabas, WarringtonParish Register Transcript
Q2 1905Birth of daughter Eva in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
30 Mar 1905Baptism of daughter Eva at St Barnabas, WarringtonParish Register Transcript
Q3 1905Death of daughter Eva in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
2 Apr 19111911 Census showing family of five living at 3 Prince Street, WarringtonCensus Image
1 Dec 1917Marriage of daughter Florence to William Stringer [my great-grandparents] at St Barnabas, WarringtonMarriage Certificate
Q2 1924Marriage of son George to Catherine Smith at Warrington Register OfficeCivil Registration Index
Q4 1926Death of husband John in Warrington registration districtCivil Registration Index
23 Dec 1926Burial of husband John at St Paul, WarringtonParish Register Transcript
30 Jun 1928Marriage of daughter Ethel to William Taylor at St Paul, WarringtonMarriage Certificate
13 May 1930Death of Mary Jane at Warrington InfirmaryDeath Certificate
17 May 1930Burial of Mary Jane at St Paul, WarringtonParish 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.


Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

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