By Pieter Claesz, Public Domain,

It is a mysterious thing but sometimes, even recent ancestors seem to disappear from the face of the earth in a puff of smoke. After constructing a thorough timeline of their life, suddenly, the trail goes cold. In this article, I will be looking at some of the reasons for an ancestor’s disappearance and the steps you can take to discover what happened to them. In particular, I will be focussing on how to trace a record of their death.


One of the main advantages of the establishment of the General Registration Office (GRO) in July 1837 is that from this date, all deaths were registered both locally and at a national level. In theory, at least, all deaths should now be traceable if they occurred in England and Wales. If you are still missing a death record, it might be because of certain discrepancies between what you are expecting to find and what is actually recorded. Although it may seem that your ancestor has mysteriously disappeared, in fact, they may be there, recorded in the indexes, right under your nose!

All records can be subject to variations in the spelling of names. The death record you are seeking may be in the indexes but under a spelling that you have not considered before. It is therefore important to make full use of wildcards and include phonetically similar variants. Similarly, a person’s death may be recorded under their pet name, a middle name or something completely different if they changed their name. Only rarely, if a body was not identified, will a person be nameless in the indexes.

In particular, the deaths of women can be difficult to trace. If you cannot find a record of a woman’s death, it is worth searching for a marriage instead, as this may have caused a change of name. The marriage may be unexpected if they were of mature years and there were no children. It may also be the reason why you have been unable to find your female ancestor in later census records. Bear in mind too that they may have assumed the name of a partner but never married them. You may therefore find your female ancestor recorded in the census under their partner’s name.

Perhaps you have not identified the death of an ancestor because the age recorded on their death certificate is not what you would have expected. However, one has to remember that in some instances, the age given would have been an approximation, perhaps an educated guess by the informant who may not have been a family member. Likewise, not everyone was sure of their exact age. A person may even have chosen to tell people that they were a little younger (or even older) than was actually the case. It is therefore wise to be fairly open-minded when it comes to ages. Since deaths had to be registered quickly, usually within days unless there was a coroner’s inquest, there was also little time to establish the true facts. Note that ages were not recorded in the original GRO death indexes prior to 1866, which have been replicated on several genealogy websites. However, ages can be checked in the digitised death indexes on the GRO website:

Another thing to consider is a change in occupation. Although some people had the same job all their life, others switched around and the occupation recorded on their death certificate may be unfamiliar to you. Perhaps your ancestor changed jobs as they got older to something that was less physically demanding. For example, a wheelwright might have become a school master. This can be a surprise, especially if you have found no other evidence of your ancestor pursuing this occupation. A death certificate that you have already purchased may therefore be the right one, so don’t discount it without further investigation. It can be worth seeking the marriage record of a child, as this may confirm their father’s change in occupation.

Recording/Indexing Errors

Most deaths would have been registered quickly with the local registrar who maintained their own indexes. Records of each death were then sent to the Registrar General in London. However, no system is perfect and it is possible that a record was missed or the name was recorded incorrectly. If you cannot find a reference to a death at a national level, it can be worth contacting the local registrar to request a search of their indexes.

There is always the possibility that the record you are seeking has been mis-indexed. FreeBMD is the most commonly used website for searches in the GRO indexes but there are also indexes on the main genealogy websites. If you are missing an entry, it is worth searching the indexes on more than one website.

A Change in Location

Sometimes a death record can be difficult to trace because it is not found in the area where the person is known to have lived. The person may have died further afield if they were visiting friends or family at the time. Perhaps they found a new job in a different town, joined the Army, or went to live with relatives in their old age. They may even have been committed to an asylum, or a prison, far from their home, living there for many years until their death. If the name is commonly found, it can be a challenge to pinpoint the record, especially if the move occurred between census years.

My great great grandmother, Mary Bullock, lived with her husband, Josiah David Bullock in the town of Weston-super-Mare, Somerset from the late 1890s. It proved to be straightforward to trace the death record of her husband, given his distinctive name. Josiah died in Weston in 1917 and Mary was the informant, but her death proved harder to trace. Despite searching the indexes, there was no likely entry in the registration district of Axbridge (which covers Weston-super-Mare) after 1917, and there were many potential candidates elsewhere. To locate her death certificate, I decided to trace her burial instead. A municipal cemetery at Milton Road had been established in Weston-super-Mare in the late 19th century and Weston-super-Mare Family History Society have indexed the records. As a member of the society, I requested a search and discovered that Josiah David and Mary Bullock were both buried there in 1917 and 1923 respectively. The date of Mary’s burial enabled me to trace her death, which I discovered had been registered in Aston registration district. The death certificate revealed that Mary had died in Erdington, Birmingham, at the home of her married daughter, Annie. She had obviously gone to live with her after the death of her husband though her body had been brought back to Weston-super-Mare for burial. Even if they died some distance away, it was common for people to be buried with other family members, so it is always worth searching for their last resting place.

Milton Road Cemetery, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

The death record of my great great grandmother, Catherine Bullock was also initially difficult to trace. Catherine was 48 years old and living in Rock, Worcestershire with her husband, James Bullock, a station master, when the 1891 census was taken. By the time of the 1901 census, James was a widower but there were no likely entries for Catherine’s death in the Kidderminster registration district, which covers Rock, in the intervening period. I had no reason to believe that the family have moved anywhere else between 1891 and 1901. However, I did find the death of a 58 year old Catherine Bullock in the registration district of Calne in December 1899. I decided to get a copy of the certificate, since both James and Catherine were Wiltshire born, and found that it was indeed the record I was seeking. Catherine Bullock, described as the wife of James Bullock, a retired railway official, died on December 14th 1899 at Mile Elm, Calne. Her death was registered two days later by her husband. Why did the couple return to Wiltshire, after living in Worcestershire for nearly thirty years? Mile End is a tiny hamlet, just outside of Calne, and a search of the 1901 census revealed that Henry Strange, a farmer, and his wife Miriam Fanny, were farming there. Miriam Fanny was the sister of James Bullock. According to railway employment records, James Bullock had resigned from his job as a station master in November 1899. Presumably, this was so that he could travel with Catherine to Wiltshire, in the hope that she could be restored to health. Catherine’s death certificate stated that she had been suffering from pneumonia for four months.

Mile Elm, Calne, view to the south
By Pieter Claesz, Public Domain,


Instead of just moving within England and Wales, a person may have died in Scotland or Ireland. Both countries have their own separate civil registration records, dating from 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland (for deaths, births and non-Protestant marriages). It is therefore worth considering whether the death you are seeking could have occurred in either of these two countries. This is, of course, more likely if the person was Scottish or Irish born, had family members living in Scotland or Ireland or lived in northern England, close to the Scottish border.

Overseas Migration

Overseas migration is another reason why a record of death may not be found in the GRO indexes. In the 19th century, many people sought to make new lives for themselves overseas. There were many schemes in place to attract new settlers to the colonies with free or assisted passage to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. America was also a magnet for those escaping poverty and seeking a better life. Some were lured with the promise of land or gold, others went to join friends or other family members who had already established themselves in the new country. No doubt news concerning the attractions of the new country travelled back and encouraged others to follow. Those converted to Mormonism went for religious reasons and travelled to Utah.

It is not always easy to find the evidence of overseas migration, especially if you don’t know the destination. Not all passenger lists have survived, especially at earlier dates, and those that have been digitised will be found on disparate websites. Note that some passengers are only recorded by their initials or surnames, making identification difficult. Many records of emigrants will also be kept outside of the U.K. in the destination country. FamilySearch is a very useful website for tracing migrants, as it has many records from all over the world. Also take a look at the records pertaining to travel and migration on the main genealogy websites. Newspapers can be also a valuable source of information on emigrants. Apart from the British Newspaper Archive, (also searchable on FindmyPast), and, try searching Trove, a free website of collections from Australian libraries, museums and archives or PapersPast, which contains historic New Zealand newspapers:



British Newspaper Archive:

If you cannot find the death record of a child, perhaps they were sent overseas by an organisation. A number of organisations, such as British Home Children, helped to arrange the emigration of orphaned children (who had lost at least one parent), to the colonies, particularly Canada. Between 1869 and 1932, over a million poor children were sent from Britain to Canada. Information on them can be found here:

If you ancestor was a Barnardo’s child, you can request a search in the historic records of the organisation. Further information can be found on their website:

Some parishes, particularly in rural areas, decided that it was better to pay for a poor family to emigrate together rather than to keep on supporting them through the poor rate. From the 1830s, enclosure and increasing mechanisation meant that agricultural labourers found it difficult to support themselves so emigration was a way of combating poverty. Records concerning a parish assisted emigration may be found in the parish material held in local archives.

Transportation to the penal settlements in Australia and Van Diemen’s Land also continued until 1868. If your ancestor was convicted of a crime and transported prior to this date, no record of their death will be found in the GRO indexes. Court records, prisoner registers, hulk records and newspaper reports may prove useful in discovering their fate. If your ancestor was tried at the Old Bailey, they may be recorded in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913:

“Views in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land” – Earle Augustus (1830)

Evidence of a new life overseas may be found through contact with other descendants. For many years, I could find no trace of the adoptive parents of my great great grandfather, George Thomas Powell. (William) Benjamin Powell, a carpenter, and his wife, Mary Ann, nee Beard, married in Chiswick, Middlesex, in 1827 and their children were baptised in Chiswick over the next ten years or so. They later moved to Deptford, and were recorded there in the 1841 census. However, the family, (with the exception of my ancestor), then seemed to disappear from view. I could find no trace of them in the 1851 census or indeed, in any other subsequent census. Nor could I trace a record of their deaths, though their common names and the lack of precise dates or location, made identification extremely challenging. My big breakthrough came when a descendant of the family reached out to me after seeing my family tree on Ancestry. Cynthia told me that Benjamin and Mary Ann Powell had emigrated to America in 1849, travelling on the ship Germania to New York. They had then settled in Fond du Lac in Wisconsin. All the family had emigrated apart from my ancestor, George Thomas Powell, who was left behind. Benjamin died in 1880 in Fond du Lac and his wife, Mary Ann, died in 1884 in Philadelphia. It was now apparent why the family had disappeared from English records. It is therefore worth reaching out to other descendants, as they may know what happened to them.

I had a similar problems when trying to trace the death of my husband’s, great great grandfather, William Ford, a mathematical instrument maker in Wapping, Middlesex. After finding him in the 1861 census, he disappeared, along with his second wife and young children. My father in law’s DNA test was the key to discovering what happened to William Ford. This revealed a number of Ford matches who were living in New Zealand, his descendants. Armed with the knowledge of his destination, I traced a record of his journey to New Zealand on the Captain Cook in 1863. My husband’s ancestor, Mary Ann, a daughter from his first marriage, stayed in England.

A poster of the Shaw Savill Line promoting immigration to New Zealand in the 1870s, featuring the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand.
By LJ Holden – I (LJ Holden) created this work entirely by myself., CC BY 3.0,

Consular and Overseas deaths

The deaths of British citizens who died elsewhere in the world may have been registered with the General Register Office (GRO). They won’t be found in the regular GRO death indexes though, as special indexes were compiled for the purpose. Records of the deaths, (and marriages and births) of some British citizens were registered with the GRO from as early as 1761 for Army records. All other records date from 1837 when Civil Registration was established. The GRO indexes of births, marriages and deaths at sea and abroad between 1761 and 2005 can be searched online at FindMyPast. The National Archives research guide provides more details of these indexes:

My husband’s great grandfather, Stanley Vernon Woodcock, died in the town of Pasto, Colombia in 1935. He was the British Vice-Consul there so it is no surprise that his death was registered with the GRO and appears in the consular death indexes. Some years ago, I obtained a copy of his death certificate:

Death Certificate of Stanley Vernon Woodcock died 27 September 1935, Pasto, Colombia

The GRO indexes may also include events that took place at sea, though marriages had no legal validity on board a ship. Of course, many merchant seamen will be recorded in the registers as well as those who were on board ships that sunk whilst at sea. From 1854, any births, marriages or deaths that took place at sea were supposed to be recorded in the ship’s log. Next time they docked at a British port, the information from the logs was recorded by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS). Copies of these registers were sent periodically to the GRO. It was in the Deaths at Sea 1891-1972 registers, in BT 334, that I found a reference to the the death of my great grandmother’s nephew, John Knighton Nock in 1910:

John Knighton Nock was born in Jamaica, as his father, William Nock, was the curator of the botanical gardens there. His father had a particular interest in growing cinchona, the plant from which quinine is derived for the treatment of malaria. The family then moved to Ceylon and William Nock became the curator of the botanic gardens at Hakgala. After his retirement in 1904, his son John Knighton Nock became his successor. However, it seems likely that John Knighton Nock was suffering from ill health and this resulted in him resigning from his position. On his way back to England, he died, aged 28, onboard the P & O passenger and cargo liner, Somali, whilst at sea on the 13th December 1909. The exact co-ordinates of his place of death are given in the register above, as well as his occupation, birthplace, and his cause of death: epilepsy and heart failure.

There is also an entry for the death of John Knighton Nock in the GRO Marine Indices (1903-1965). A copy of his death certificate could be obtained though it is unlikely to provide any further information. Presumably he was buried at sea and the ship docked in London ten days later on December 23rd 1909.

Of course, not all deaths of British nationals who died overseas were registered with the GRO so you may not always be able to find the record you are seeking. In addition, most British colonies kept their own registers and the original records are mainly held in those countries today, though the National Archives does have a few copies.

ALternative Sources

When you cannot find a record of death in the GRO indexes, it is worth consulting other sources. Newspapers can be a fantastic source of information, as they contain both death notices and obituaries, even for those that died overseas. George William Nock, the elder brother of the aforementioned John Knighton Nock, was drowned in Ceylon whilst swimming in the sea in 1905. Unlike his brother, there is no record of his death in the overseas GRO indexes but I did discover a notice concerning his death in a local newspaper back in England:

Bromsgrove & Droitwich Messenger 25 March 1905

Apart from newspapers, burial records and cemetery registers are useful alternative sources when you cannot find a death certificate. They can also be used to pinpoint the relevant record in the GRO indexes. Census records may also narrow down the date. Monumental inscriptions are especially valuable for even if a person was buried elsewhere, there is always the possibility that they were commemorated on a family monument, either inside or outside the church. Another alternative source is probate records. The Principal Probate Registry was established in 1858, so from this date, you can search the national indexes and potentially, trace the date of death and residence of any ancestor who left a will or administration in England and Wales. These records also include testators who died elsewhere but left part of their estate in England or Wales. The marriage record of a child may also note that a father was deceased and a missing ancestor could appear as a witness at the marriage. This information will help to narrow down their date of death.


As I have outlined in this article, there can be many reasons why an ancestor disappears from view. However, at the same time, it is encouraging to note that there are still lots of ways to uncover their fate. It is most likely that a record of their death does exist, perhaps in a different area or country. One should also bear in mind that the details recorded when they are died may be different from what one might have expected. Checking alternative sources, not just the GRO death indexes, may be the key to discovering what happened to them.

@ Judith Batchelor 2023

6 thoughts on “Missing Ancestors

  1. Interesting read and thank you for the details.

    I would like to know how do you find a woman who you know died (where and when, touched the grave) you know they married (where and when and who), you also know about their immigration from Sotland to Australia (who with, when, ship, pregnant) even to whom she was meeting, husband (assume not father of baby) two years after he left Scotland. Now there are stories, heresays, conjectures and myth surrounding this woman (and husband). Not a thing can be found concrete enough without further speculation on who she actually was. Was she a laird’s daughter, was she disinherited and all written memory erased, was she just no-one in particular whose parents didn’t think it necessary to register her birth, was she Robert Grant’s (esquire of London) daughter or was that a falsehood for the marriage record? I don’t where or how we can go from what we do know.

    This has been a family riddle that needs answering and I just don’t know how to go about solving. Any ideas would be grateful. I am in Western Australia and have limited funds and can only research on internet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be difficult to sort fact from fiction but at least you have found this lady in a number of records. Tracing where her family came from in Scotland is key. Where did she first meet her husband? It may be necessary to trawl through all possible candidates on the Scotlands People website to see who can be ruled out and who might remain as a possibility for the woman who emigrated to Australia.


  2. Thank you Jude, you have highlighted some sources I have yet to explore in finding the correct death record for my Paternal great grandfather Alfred Wright B: 1840 and died prior to the 1901 census for West Ham. I love the way you illustrate your learned instructions and advice with real case studies from your own research.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Carole, thank you for your kind comments. Do you know where Alfred’s wife is buried? Locating her resting place might be the key to finding out about the death of Alfred.


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