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More help with getting around brick walls

When you start researching your ancestors you are bound to come to a brick wall or two, an ancestor where you cannot find out enough information to confirm your relationship, someone who doesn’t make sense or someone who is simply missing.

What is a brick wall?

In basic terms a brick wall means you cannot find the information you are looking for. This could include:

  • a completely missing person (you know they exist but cannot find any proof)
  • birth, marriage or death information – any or all of this is not available
  • census entry/entries
  • you have no idea of their name, either first name or surname
  • they are not where you expect them to be, e.g. with their parents/other siblings
  • your tree doesn’t make sense without them

Female ancestors can be a lot harder to research and personally the majority of my brick walls are my female ancestors. My first post about brick walls can be found here.

In this post I am sharing some more ways I have gone beyond or around brick walls.


Spelling was only standardised in the 1950s or so. When researching ancestors make a note of all the different variations you come across when you find a family record. Search for these variations as well as the one they were most commonly recorded as.

These are the variations I have discovered so far for Fonblanque – Fontblanque, de Fonblanque, Fonblanc, Fonblanche,  Fonblan[qg]uet, de’fonblanque, Fonbblanque, Fonblangue, Flonblangue, de Grenier Fonblanque, Fonbblanque, Fon Blanque, Fomllangue.

Wildcards can help when searching like this. For example, fonb* will bring up fonblanque and the majority of the variants above. You can also replace a single letter with a “?”. Check what each system allows you to use with wildcards, Ancestry may be different from Scotlands People, which may be different from The National Archive.

Also try to view the primary source, for example, the parish register. Transcriptions may have errors carried across from the Bishops Transcripts, to typewritten entries to online entries.

Use other relatives

Searching for siblings. My 3 x GGM Caroline O’Connell was born in or near Dublin and she appears on a large family tree that sat for years in my grandparents hallway. For years I knew her name and that she had married my 3 x GGF John Samuel Martin Fonblanque in Dublin in 1819 but nothing much more about her father’s line.

Caroline O’Connell of Cork (bottom right of above image)

Looking into Irish ancestry isn’t easy. A good starting place is Searching for Caroline O’Connell in the church records option brought up their marriage. Her husband is simply recorded as John Samuel Martin (the Fonblanque surname is missing). On this page there is also a link to view the church register page.

Marriage index entry

Down towards the bottom right is their marriage record which does include his surname. Another reason to view original records where ever possible.

Original church register entry

Doing some further searches on this site brought up a baptism entry for St John Coffy on 8 March 1819at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dublin. At the time this was a completely new surname to me. With parents Edward and Phillis and sponsors (godparents) of John Fonblanque (transcribed as Fonllangue) and Caroline O’Connell. This is before my great grandparents wedding so Caroline is still known by her maiden name. It also gives an address for the Coffy family of 31 Marlboro Street, Dublin.

One point to note here is some older Irish records are in Latin so you need to know how the names were spelt.

St John Coffy baptism

I wondered if Caroline and Phillis could be related so I did some more digging, found out more information about Phillis and her Coffey family and added it to my ancestry tree. I left it like that for quite a while and last year had a message asking about the Coffey family and offering lots of information. It turns out that Caroline and Phillis were sisters. This led to an exchange of handwritten family trees dating from the early 20th century. Looking through these together we worked out how they were connected, found a distant relation in “The Liberator” – Daniel O’Connell (he’s my 4th cousin 4 x removed) and also some Fitzgerald ancestors mentioned in the same trees. John Samuel Martin’s mother was Caroline Frances Fitzgerald so it seems like Caroline and John were also cousins, probably second or third cousins.

John was a Commissioner for Bankruptcy and a barrister. The Coffey family also had several well known legal people so it seems very likely that they moved in the same business circles too.

Some people refer to it as “cousin bait” where you make information publicly accessible and wait to see if it attracts anyone to you. It can be very useful with brick walls but you do need to check the information you receive is accurate.

In this case it has been extremely helpful and for more than one person in my tree.

The long game

Patience is a virtue (and a necessity when researching your family tree!) Sometimes it can take years for information to appear to help with a brick wall. A distant relative might have put their tree online, records could have been digitised or simply searching may have become easier. I revisit some of my brick wall ancestors every few months or so to see if any new information has popped up.

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