Knocking down the brick wall: a genealogical odyssey

As most people probably know by now, one of my big interests is genealogy. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve been actively researching my own family tree for over ten years now. Why? I love history in context, and understanding my family’s role in history – infinitessimally small though it may be in global terms – helps me to understand where I have come from and how families can develop and change over time parallel to – or against the tide of – the events we read about in history books.

The early years brought the opening up of huge vistas of data, but the more one collects and the larger the tree becomes, with its branches reaching further and further back in time, the more this rush of new discovery slows to a trickle, a drip, or in the case of some branches, a tip that has simply stopped growing. Genealogists calling this hitting a brick wall: you can’t research any further back (or sideways) as there simply isn’t any further data available at present, or the data available is too vague, or even because there is too much data and you can’t see the wood for the trees (e.g. because the person you are looking for has a very common name shared with numerous individuals).

In the case of my ancestor Mary Grice nee Harrison, elements of all three problems were at play. She appears on the 1841 census in Monmouthshire (you can see her listed with her husband Jacob, one son and (probably) a lodger on the right of the image), but the census tells us she was born somewhere outside the county in about 1766 (the 1841 census tends to round adult ages down to the closest 5 years, and in many cases older people in particular couldn’t remember exactly how old they were). I guesstimated that she might be from near Hartlebury in Worcestershire, as that is where she married and where her and Jacob’s children were born, including my great great great grandmother Ann Harrison Grice.

Given her common name, vague age and my lack of certainty about her birthplace, tracking down her parents was not going to be a very exact science. I abandoned Mary for a while and made more progress on the Grice family in the meantime.

When you hit a brick wall of this sort, you obviously can’t move forward but you can sometimes turn your attention sideways. And that, quite literally, is what I did in this case. If you look on the left hand side of the image, there are numerous members of a Harrison family, with a Richard Harrison born about 1791, outside Monmouthshire, at the top. With all these names to look up, the chances of finding data that correlated were much higher, and to cut a long story short, Richard and family were indeed from Hartlebury. Despite the common surname, the chances were rising significantly that he was related to Mary.

Richard’s parents were John Harrison (1772-1830) and Hannah Lambirth. I so wanted John to be Mary’s brother, but you learn fairly quickly in this game that simply wanting something to be true is definitely the worst possible substitute for hard data. In any case, I couldn’t find tallying birth or baptism records anywhere. What I did discover, however, is that another son of John and Hannah’s, Samuel, married Sarah Everson, the sister of another of my great great great grandmothers Mary Everson, and the Everson sisters’ brother William married Ann Harrison Grice. In actual fact this means that William is a further great great great grandparent of mine.

Still with me? Not to worry if you’ve lost the thread…

By now I had found out a lot of extra detail about Richard’s family, though, so I decided to include it in my tree in any case – as a detached branch, as it were (ah, the joys of genealogy software!). And I kept looking sideways again and again – were there other possible Worcestershire Harrisons in Monmouthshire, and what about the census for Hartlebury and the surrounding area? I began to amass quite a collection of these detached branches (they’d have made quite a bonfire, it occurs to me now…).

Anyway, last week I decided – after a break of some time – to have another look at the elusive (but by now quite numerous) Harrisons in my online tree. One of the features on, which hosts my tree and many thousands of others, is that members have the option of sharing information and the system notifies you of possible matches in someone else’s tree. And lo and behold, there was one for Mary. I have become quite sceptical of these notifications as they are often hopelessly off-target, but I took a look in any case and there was indeed a tree containing Mary, with the same suggested year of birth and detailed transcriptions of the details of her two marriages (obviously the tree owner had consulted the actual parish registers rather than online indexes (and they have confirmed this since)) AND….. two parents (Thomas and Hannah) and several brothers and sisters, including John. The marriage details in particular were valuable in that they showed the names of witnesses, who in this case were mainly family members.

Having contacted the tree owner to express my interest (and excitement) and also, importantly, to validate some of this data, I am now over the moon to have had access to their tree and the information it contains. I can now attach the loose branches to my tree and move ahead (and back) from here.

I’ve learned such a lot through this episode: the importance of hanging on to bits of information, no matter how tangential or fragmented they may seem at the time; the superiority of detail in original sources; the importance of lateral thinking; and the importance of chipping away at those brick walls again and again.

One very pleasing postscript to this story is that I have, albeit in a small way, been able to return the favour to this kind fellow researcher. Combining a detail that they had in their tree with one I had in mine, I have been able to prove that Mary’s brother Richard, at whose marriage she was a witness, in fact married Letitia Grice, the sister of Mary’s husband Jacob. Result!



Filed under Genealogy

7 responses to “Knocking down the brick wall: a genealogical odyssey

  1. I love genealogy too, though it’s simply one hobby too far for me to pursue, and not realistic to do so from here anyway… my mum did trace back as far as she could and I am unlikely to do better… it’s not very far.

    But one of Pete’s sisters has been working on their tree and I love hearing about it, not just the findings but the process itself.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Who Do You Think You Are, for popularising this intriguing branch of history, though sometimes find it frustrating when the branch or lead followed is not the one that interests me most – I shout at the screen asking “but what about her? why can’t you tell us about her?”


    • (Sorry, catching up with blog comments WAAAY too late!)

      Oh, I LOVE WDYTYA – I watch all kinds of old episodes on obscure channels when I’m back in the UK. It never ceases to amaze me how fascinating every episode is, and how different. I’ve also learned lots of tips from it regarding more unusual avenues to explore.

  2. Matthew from Freiburg and Flickr

    As you probably remember since you were nice enough to help me out one time, I do genealogy, too. I know exactly the exultant jubilation you must be feeling because I’ve had it a few times, too. Congratulations!

    I had a similar thing happen to me just a few weeks ago. It wasn’t quite as spectacular for me personally since it wasn’t one of my own ancestors. Still, it was a person I have in my family database since he’s a husband of a sister of an ancestor. I do know descendants of his and they are absolutely ecstatic.

    What happened was that an archivist in Swabia saw this name listed on my web site and got in touch with me. He is working on a book about the residents of his town that emigrated. The full name and birth date match, and the city he emigrated to matches the location of the person in my database. It might not be incontrovertible proof but the chances are very good that this is one and the same person.

    Now that the person has presumably been identified we probably know why it has been so hard to trace him. It turns out he was born out of wedlock. At the time that was not necessarily something to let everyone know.

    • That’s a fascinating story, and I can very much relate to the excitement felt at discovering these “more obscure” links as well as the more straightforwardly linear ones many of us dream of finding.

  3. Mark Arnold

    Hi Bex,
    Interested to read your blog as I too am descended from John Harrison (1772-1830) and Hannah Lambirth through my grandmother.I’m very intrigued by the Lambirth surname as it appears quite unusual. Yet I’ve got no information so far on their occupations.



    • Mark – hello and apologies for replying so dreadfully late to your comment, which I was thrilled to discover. Would you mind if I contacted you about this family?

  4. Pingback: Growing your family tree: new methods or old? | Searching for sunshine

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