By Claire Vaughan, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
Discovering my great great grandparents, Frederick and Mary Bland, in the 1891 Manchester census at the Family Records Centre in London was my first real genealogical hit. That was 13 years ago and I’ve been a family history devotee ever since. But I had no idea then of the frustrating chase they would lead me on – and its unexpectedly simple conclusion.
Eagerly I pursued Frederick (born 1840 in Leeds) and Mary, née Barrie, (born a year later in Manchester) back through their lives and beyond using certificates and census returns. But there was one stubborn gap in their otherwise complete histories – a big black hole in the 1851 census where they should have been. I spent entire days in front of microfiche readers pounding the streets of mid-19th-century Manchester and Leeds, ruling out first the most likely and eventually the ridiculously unlikely, all without a peep out of them. What puzzled me most was that they were both missing.
My searches of the digitised census indexes that began trickling onto the internet were also fruitless. I bitterly accepted that they had fallen through the official cracks somehow, and in a way I was right.
The possibility that the census material is incomplete had never occurred to me. So I was shocked to learn, a couple of years ago, that details of more than 200,000 individuals on the 1851 Manchester returns were illegible due to flood damage. Happily, advances in technology have enabled the deciphering of the water-logged returns and following a 14-year transcription project, many of those lost Manchester names are now available – and they can be viewed on Ancestry at www.ancestry.co.uk/Manchester.
Recently I accessed this recovered data for myself, acutely aware that I could be on the verge of solving the mystery that had dragged on for more than a decade. Typing Mary’s name into the search fields, I crossed my fingers, held my breath and clicked the search button. Several heads turned in our open-plan office at Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine at the triumphant “Yes!” I yelped as my great great grandmother’s name appeared on my screen. There she was after all this time, living with her mother and father William and Jane and two brothers at 107 Welcomb Street in Hulme. It was a magical moment and still makes me smile when I think about it. But that wasn’t all…
Wondering if Leeds-born Frederick had also washed up in Manchester, I tentatively entered his name. Astonishingly he too was there, living with his mother Sarah and brother Richard – at 116 Welcomb Street. It took a moment for the implication of this to sink in. Frederick and Mary had lived across the road from each other as children! So not only had I found my two missing ancestors, I had also very probably uncovered how they met – all in the space of about five minutes.
I try not to think of the wasted days I had spent searching the 1851 census for them in vain. Instead I like to imagine them as children playing hide and seek together on the streets of Manchester, little imagining that they would be doing the same with one of their descendants more than a century later…
Claire Vaughan is Deputy Editor on Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine