Family histories can frustrate and reward, says Jennifer McNiven
I work with Birthlink, a charity providing a range of services to individuals and families affected by adoption, as a volunteer searcher. The dictionary tells me that a searcher goes looking for someone or something that is missing – a very apt definition. My role is to search for family members who have been separated or who have lost touch with each other.
I start by collecting as much information as I can about the person I’m looking for. Often, there is very little – perhaps only a name and date of birth. This, however, can be the first stepping stone.
I turn then to the Scotland’s People Centre, at HM General Register House at the east end of Princes Street in Edinburgh.
This is where I can find the Statutory Indices of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Divorces and Civil Partnerships (from 2005). Census records which cover the years 1841-1911 and Valuation Rolls for 1905 and 1915 can also be useful.
A typical search request is to find out as much as possible about a birthmother – whether she has married and had any further children, whether she has divorced or re-married or whether she has died.
In Scotland, we are fortunate in having detailed, accessible records of life events. A birth certificate may give the names of both parents, including the mother’s maiden name if married, and the date and place of their marriage. The marriage certificate then reveals the ages of the parents when they married (thus leading to their own birth certificates), the occupations of the parents at the time of their marriage, their addresses at that time and also details of their own parents. All of a sudden, it seems, the beginnings of a family tree emerge. The search can then be expanded to include other extended family members.
The searcher may help gain access to the Court Process (the sealed record containing all legal documents related to their adoption). The Process is likely to contain snippets of additional information which can provide the searcher with invaluable clues.
A death certificate can also reveal helpful information, not otherwise available on the Scottish system. For example, a birthmother may have been born in Scotland and given birth in Scotland and then married outside Scotland. If she returned to Scotland and died there, her death certificate would give details of her husband and his occupation.
Some searches are not as successful as others. Sometime it is because people who are visible on the Scottish system at one point in their life then seem to disappear. This may be because they have moved away from Scotland in search of work or for other reasons.
Searches like these can become extremely frustrating, but searchers do not like to give up. Widening the search to include more distant family members may give some clues. Sometimes a searcher will get a hunch based on the time in history being searched.
For instance, between 1945 and the 1970s many people emigrated to Australia to start a new life (the so-called £10 Poms). A search of ships’ passenger lists might help confirm or refute that hunch. Even earlier than that, so-called “Barnardo’s Boys” became child migrants to Australia or Canada.
Successful searches, in particular, can be most rewarding. I am still amazed that you can start with only one piece of information and go on to piece together the history of a person or an entire family. Often luck can play a big part in the success story.
I recall one search in which no father’s name was given on a birth certificate, but because the birth occurred in the 1940s in a fairly rural area of Scotland I surmised there was a chance that I might find him by placing and advertisement in a local newspaper. The birthmother had emigrated to Australia, so initially the advert was simply to try and find anyone who had known her before she left Scotland. There was only one response and that was from the birthfather himself.
In another search, no further records could be found in Scotland of someone born in 1821. A chance find amongst some family documents showed that he had died in Rio de Janeiro. This in turn prompted the discovery that he had set sail for South America when in his 20s to work as a ship’s broker. An internet search of South American records revealed that he had subsequently married, been widowed and married again, and a search in a book relating to Scots who settled in South America actually gave the street address of his business. I now have a photograph of his place of burial in the English cemetery there.
• Jennifer McNiven is a retired civil servant and former director of Birthlink