When you can’t find the birth, death or marriage in the indexes

The New South Wales Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages has a marvellous online index for searching for these events at http://www.bdm.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/Index/IndexingOrder.cgi/search?event=births. It allows searching by surname, given name, year or range of years, and/or district. For births and deaths it also allows searching by parents’ names, and for marriages by spouses’ name. It accepts wildcards and allows many fields to be left blank. It contains records from before civil registration began in 1856 because the Registry has transcribed the majority of parish registers to include pre-1856 events as well as post-1856 events that were recorded in parish registers but were not reported to the Registrar.

Sometimes, though, no matter how long you search, you simply cannot find the entry you are looking for. Nick Vine Hall’s Tracing Your Family History in Australia – A National Guide to Sources gives an excellent list of possible reasons for not finding your ancestor in the parish registers that I think bears repeating here, as it applies more generally to all indexes searches.

1. The index entry is spelled differently than you expect. Phonetic variations were quite common, such as HAWKINS/ORKINS or ANDERSON/HENDERSON, and your ancestor may not have been able to read well enough to detect a spelling mistake.

2. The index entry was transcribed incorrectly, or the index is not in strict alphabetic sequence. Many handwritten indexes are by the first letter of surnames only.

3. Handwriting is misinterpreted through inexperience or illegible handwriting.

4. The index entry was overlooked by the indexer. Marriages may have been indexed under one party’s surname only.

5. The event took place in a different parish, colony, state or country than the one you are searching.

6. The event never took place. Not all children were baptised, not all burials were conducted by clergy, and not all parents were married.

7. The event took place in a different time period than the one you are searching. People lied about their ages at marriage, so you may be looking too late.

8. The clergyman forgot to write up the event in the register when he returned from his journey around the parish on horseback. Notes were lost or distorted.

9. The event was never registered. Early Catholic and Methodist burials were not recorded, and in remote districts the mourners could not wait until the parson happened to pass by.

10. The event was recorded in the church register but was not sent to the government.

11. The event was unrecorded. Sometimes the deceased could not be identified.

12. The event was recorded at the time, but the record was lost through fire, flood or insect attack. There are a few cases of deliberate destruction of parish registers, such as pages being torn out, possibly to obliterate evidence of convict ancestry.

13. The child was born out of wedlock, in which case the baptism will be recorded, and indexed, under the mother’s name.

14. The child may have subsequently been adopted, and so the birth name will be different.

15. The person may have changed their name after birth or baptism.

16. The family was not religious and didn’t attend church.

17. The family held a different religion to the one you thought they did.

18. The names are recorded differently than you expect. The father might answer to Harry but his real name, as given to the registrar, was Thomas Harold. If you search using “Harry” you will get no result.

If you have followed up, as best you can, all of these possibilities and still can’t find the event in any of the likely indexes then it is time to consider other sources, such as newspapers and family bibles.

Sources: Nick Vine Hall, Tracing Your Family History in Australia – A National Guide to Sources, 3rd Edition. Mount Eliza, Victoria: Nick Vine Hall, 2002.

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