Published date: 3 September 2013

It is easy to think of emigration as a one-way process, but not everyone who went to live in another country stayed there permanently. As more and more records are indexed online, you may find family members in unexpected places, and as a result discover that your ‘stay at home’ ancestors were more well-travelled than you thought.

Audrey Collins is a Family History Specialist at The National Archives. She is a regular speaker at family history conferences and events in the UK and overseas, and is the author of numerous books and articles. Her most recent publication is Birth, Marriage and Death Records: a guide for family historians (Pen & Sword 2012), which she co-wrote with Dave Annal.

Author: Audrey Collins Duration: 00:46:01

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (3 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...


Years ago when I used to teach basic family history classes I used to say rather facetiously that I thought every family history book should have on its title page: people in the past moved around more than you think they did. Write this out one hundred times before proceeding. And I was being facetious, but not entirely.

Although a lot of people didn’t move…beyond the ten mile radius of where they were born, I’ve always thought that a lot more people moved than we give them credit for. And particularly in the last few years, when so many records have been indexed and they’re online and you can do fairly easily – you can do speculative searches about people that you’re sort of related to but maybe not that closely.

And you can do these searches now quite easily, just on a whim and see if it takes you anywhere. And particularly with things like passenger lists but other records that show evidence of people moving around, I have discovered, and I’m sure a lot of other people have, you find people in quite unexpected places. And the people that you thought didn’t move very much sometimes rather surprisingly did. And there are a number of reasons that might alert you to somebody being possibly absent, having travelled, doing some moving around that you hadn’t previously suspected.

First thing is, they might be ‘missing’ from the census. Now they might not really be missing from the census, they might just be mistranscribed, or just recorded in such a way that you can’t easily find them, or if they have a very common name, you can find somebody of the right name but you’ve got no way of knowing if it’s your person.

Sometimes you’ll know an awful lot about people and you won’t be able to find a marriage. Now that doesn’t mean that they weren’t married; it might mean that the marriage just hasn’t made it through all the various indexing stages. But sometimes the reason you can’t find a marriage is because it took place somewhere else, in a different country possibly.

You might have family stories or just things that have been handed down that give some evidence of somebody having travelled at some point. I don’t know if anybody in my family still has it but I had an uncle who travelled and…he was an electrician and he worked in the Middle East and he worked in Africa and he worked all over the place and on one of his trips home from I think it was Saudi Arabia he brought everybody presents and one of the things he brought for his own house was a camel saddle which took up about as much space as an average armchair. And I do wonder if that carries on down through his family and if at some point in a few generations some – it might occur to somebody to wonder, why they’ve got this camel saddle? And it will be because their great-great grandfather…actually was working overseas which may have been long forgotten because he was born and married and died in this country and all his children were born here. So it’s not something that would be immediately obvious from standard family history sources if somebody was tracing him in the future.

Sometimes – and these are the best ones – sometimes you make quite surprising discoveries when you’re looking for something else. Sometimes a name – a familiar name – will just pop out at you and you’ll think, goodness, what on earth were they doing there?

Sometimes there are actual clues in the records. Sometimes they are not really so much clues as very, very obvious pieces of information. For example, if you’re very lucky you might find somebody’s will and it will mention their various children or other relatives and including my son, so-and-so, last heard of in North America, or, who went to Canada, or Australia and such and such…and that might be your clue that a member of the family went overseas.

And of course sometimes, like my uncle that I mentioned who brought back the camel saddle, sometimes people went abroad for a while and then came back so there may be no obvious record of it at all. And you might only find out accidentally when you’re looking in some other record, possibly for something else altogether.

And although it’s not really a proper research strategy, sometimes Hit-and-Hope, the old let’s go for it, let’s just search everything everywhere. This is not going to work terribly well – it wouldn’t work terribly well with my uncle because his name was Smith, but it will work quite well with some families if you have a very unusual name. It’s always tempting to just stick it in to every database that you can find and just see if something pops out that looks interesting or looks familiar. And then follow it up.

So that’s not proper research in that you can’t say that you’ve studiously looked at this source and this source and found this and not found this but sometimes as a clue, as a starting point it works, and you then follow it up with proper documentation.

And all of these sorts of things have happened to me in the course of my research, and I suspect an awful lot of them have happened to you as well. And if they haven’t, maybe they will.

Now the reasons people go abroad are mainly…there are two really big reasons, one is for king or queen and country, or for work. When I look back on various members of my own family, I find that there’s been an awful lot more international travel than I at first thought. Now, in a lot of cases, this was not through choice. My grandfather did not choose to spend six years in Italy, but he was a prisoner; they wouldn’t let him go. My father didn’t go to Egypt on holiday; he was a national serviceman and he got sent out there. And so on, and so on.

There are other people who, well, they might not be conscripted into the armed forces like my father and grandfather were, but they might be in some sort of government or diplomatic service that means they travel abroad, maybe for very, very long periods. An awful lot of people who never considered themselves anything other than British spent years – generations – in India. They might come back to Britain to get married possibly, but there are whole families who spent very, very long periods in India and there are relatively few records of them here. But eventually somebody probably came back, or some branches of the family came back. So there are all sorts of reasons why people might have gone abroad.

Trade of course – if you were in any sort of business that involved trading with overseas, you might travel back and forth on short visits. You might be based overseas because of your job. Again, sometimes for years at a time you might be in a foreign country for your working life and then retire back to the UK. All sorts of things.

And then, there’s temporary work. Again, my uncle with the camel saddle, he was an electrician. And when there wasn’t a lot of work here, you could go and work on sites overseas and a lot of people still do that and have been doing that for years. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet [] – that’s exactly what they were. They were builders who couldn’t get any work in the northeast of England and they went to work on a building site in Germany. And of course the TV series was so successful they had to bounce them around the globe to a few other countries.

But that’s an absolutely standard phenomenon. People who’ve got a particular skill might find work overseas and they might go and settle permanently, or they might not. They might come back.

Some people go off to make a new start though this doesn’t always work out. Sometimes they come back too. But these are all sorts of reasons for people going overseas.

No if you live here and your family that you trace back and back and back have always lived here, you might think: well, what’s that got to do with me? But you may find there are branches of your family who went overseas. And even if they never came back and settled here, you may be able to, now in these days of fast communications and the internet and message boards and online family trees, you might be able to make contact with somebody who has got the other side of the picture, or some bits…of the jigsaw puzzle, if I were to mix metaphors.

But you might find, as I did, that there are people who went abroad and stayed abroad who are your direct ancestors. And I think it is awfully tempting to trace back – you find parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on, and you find your direct ancestor being born. And you’re interested in your direct line, but what it’s very easy to overlook is what happened to the older generations, what happened to your great-great-great-grandparents once they’d spawned the next generation. If they’d lived to a ripe old age, you don’t know for a fact that they necessarily stayed where you originally found them.

And I have in my own family a particularly good example of this. Now in this talk, I’m using quite a few examples from my own family. And I don’t very often do this. My family is not all that interesting! They’re interesting to me and to some of their other descendants, although not all. But they’re really fairly unremarkable and that’s rather the point.

I come from a very ordinary family. They’re ordinary workers, labourers, farm workers, factory workers. These are not movers and shakers, they’re not professional people, they’re not war heroes; they’re just the ordinary people. They’re army other ranks, they’re not officers. So if my really very ordinary family can come up with all sorts of other interesting examples, I’m sure there must be some in yours. The only thing about my family that might make them slightly more likely to move is that they’re all Scottish or Irish, and the Scots and the Irish have maybe got a little more propensity to move than the English have, but not that much. They could just as easily have been English people. So even if you have the misfortune to have no Scottish or Irish ancestors, this still may contain something for you.

It’s a bit of the 1841 census [shows image] but in the margin, next to a lady called Martha Jackson, she’s 45 and she has somebody with her who’s a daughter, also Martha who is 15. Well, it’s probably a daughter, you can’t assume that from 1841 but it probably is. And written in the margin with a little pointy finger as an arrow, it says that her husband and son have gone to America. Now that’s incredibly rare and if you do find it, it’ll be the family next door that you’re not interested in – it won’t be yours. But that’s just amazing.

However, the sort of thing that you might find…this is the 1891 census [shows image] and this is for St Austell in Cornwall and the family right at the top of the page – well, the parents were born in St Austell and the two youngest children were born in St Austell. But the three older children, they were born in Pittsburgh, North America. So that family plainly started off in Cornwall, went to America and came back.

Now, the occupation of the head of the household, not very surprisingly, is a tin miner. And Cornish tin miners were in great demand all over the place. They do say if there’s a hole in the ground anywhere in the world you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it. And at the time when the Cornish tin mines were running down, there was enormous demand for skilled miners to go elsewhere in the UK – so you find people from Cornwall in Northumberland and Durham and South Wales and…the southern Scottish coalfields. But you find them all overseas as well in particular in America, In Pennsylvania and West Virginia where there are lots and lots of coalmines and there was a great demand.

Now because this family went overseas and some children were born there we pick this up in the census, but if they hadn’t had any children born there, you wouldn’t necessarily know about that. You would you would just think these people were born in Cornwall, married in Cornwall, had children in Cornwall and there would be no suspicion at all that they had ever been anywhere else.

This is (the) 1901 census [shows image] but it’s the same sort of thing. This time it’s county Durham but there is a family there right, in the middle, and the parents and most of the children were born in Durham and there’s one in the middle who was born in America. Now that child is ten years old and there’s an 11 year old and an eight year old so plainly there weren’t there for all that long because it’s only the ten year old was born in America. But there you go – more coalminers going overseas and then coming back.

We really got no way of knowing…whether they intended to settle permanently in America and then didn’t like the food or something so they came back. Or, whether they just intended to go out there, make some money – they may not even have decided themselves. So, that’s the sort of thing to look out for and you do find it. Miners are a particularly good example because they did go, they had a skill that was in demand all over the world. But you do find people in other occupations, people in engineering when countries were building railways. They were looking for experienced engineers and of course Britain was absolutely full of them because we built railways long before anybody else did. So that’s a nice sort of clue that you might just find.

Another mining area [shows image], this time it’s a Staffordshire coalfield, but it’s the same sort of thing. People going overseas – won’t always tell you exactly where. Sometimes it’s very frustrating, it just simply says ‘America’ cos that’s all that was required. But if it’s a coalminer then I’d say the chances are it’s going to be Pennsylvania or West Virginia or thereabouts because that’s where the big coalfields were. And if you’re really lucky and it’s West Virginia, provided it’s comparatively late, West Virginia birth, marriage and death records, an awful lot of them are online and they’re free and they’re very detailed. So if you do find a stray child born in West Virginia you got absolutely terrific online records, so there’s a plus.

An army service record [shows image] from the soldiers’ service records that you can now see on Find My Past – they’re in the series WO97 and they have usually a summary of – not a very detailed summary – but just where somebody spent his service.

This is actually from a fairly distant cousin of mine. This man joined the army in 1886 and he was at home – that says somewhere in the UK which is not necessarily England of course, could be Ireland or Scotland. He served at home for two years and then he was in Malta for about a year and then in Gibraltar for about four years and then Egypt and then in Mauritius, Cape Town, South Africa for a short time, and then back home in 1894 for four years until he came out of the army in 1898. Well that’s an awful lot of moving around and sometimes soldiers will have their families with them. They might, they might not. But that could be the explanation if you can’t find where somebody was born. If their father was in the army, they might have been born in one of those odd places.

Sometimes you get a sort of reverse clue. If you’ve got a family, that you’ve got no knowledge that they had any kind of military connections, if you’ve got a child that was born in one of these places like Gibraltar or Malta – that’s quite a good clue: oh that man might have been in the army.

When men joined up and served in the army, if they managed to survive all the being shot at and the dysentery and all the horrible conditions, when they came out of the army on a pension with a long number of years service, they were still comparatively young and they would have an ordinary civilian job. And there might be no clue in any record that you’ve got that they had been in the army at some point.

Again, I found this in my own family. It was only by chance I discovered – it was actually on a Poor Law application. The wretched man had run off and left my great-great-grandmother with a couple of small children and a bun in the oven and he had just disappeared somewhere and it was only when she was putting her case to the Poor Law authorities and they wanted to know absolutely every single thing about her and her family that she mentioned that her husband had been a soldier and had come out of the army at such and such a date. This was completely news to me because I hadn’t picked it up in any other source. That just shows you where somebody who had served in the army – it was 12 years – covered quite a lot of the globe in the course of that.

And this is a much earlier one [shows image] and this is a direct ancestor of mine. This is a man called William Charlton. When I first knew he existed I thought, Charlton – that’s not a Scottish name. I think I may have an English ancestor. But luckily, he turned out to be Irish so that was alright! And he was pensioned out of the army.

Now these early, the early records, the early service records don’t give you as much detail as the later ones and he came out of the army in 1811. But this very helpfully gives me not only his approximate place of birth, although it’s completely misspelled but don’t worry about that. It also tells me exactly where and when and why he was discharged from the army. And he had a gunshot wound to the jaw at Fuentes de Onoro and that’s in Portugal and this was during the Peninsular War. And that was on the 5 May 1811 so there we are. There’s another direct ancestor who had been to Portugal… not on holiday, not to play golf. He was there in Wellington’s army. So that was another rather nice one.

Again these records they’re also on FindMyPast. The series is WO 121. You’ll sometimes pick people up in both series but it’s a rare British person who doesn’t have at least some direct ancestor who was in the army or the navy or at least if not a direct ancestor, maybe a brother…

This is the sort of thing that you might just have in the family if you’re lucky. This is a wonderful photograph [shows image]. It was actually put on an Ancestry family tree by a second cousin of mine, whom I’ve never met, but this is a great-uncle of mine. And there are two clues here. Now the first of them is very, very obvious because you’ve got the name of the photographer at the bottom and the fact that he’s in central India. So that’s a fairly big clue. This man has plainly served in India because that’s where he was having his picture taken.

And if you really know about army records, or you happen to be talking to our senior military specialist, he just glances at the medal on the man’s chest and points out that that’s the King’s South Africa Medal so he’s obviously been there as well. Now I had already looked up the man’s service record and I knew that but…he was just an ordinary soldier. He was my…great-uncle and a very ordinary family. They were just labourers and factory workers back home but this rather splendid photograph shows you, look, somebody travelled.

This is a bit more prosaic record [shows image] but it has got a lovely photograph. Sadly not a direct ancestor of mine, but it it’s something that a lot of people should be able to find and this is someone who was in the Merchant Navy. And of course we live on an island and not a very big one at that. We’ve had huge, huge trading connections, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, and particularly if you come from somewhere like Liverpool or Glasgow or Southampton, but really anywhere at all even places a long way inland. There’s a good chance that there’s somebody in the family who was in Merchant Navy.

Because he served after 1917, which is when these records start, we’ve got a wonderful description of him there and a nice photograph and I’ve looked at quite a lot of these Merchant Navy photographs and that’s one of the better ones. He does look human! He doesn’t look like a prisoner – he does look quite relaxed there. And there’s the name of the ship that he served on. And I have actually been able to find out a fair bit about him.

I wish I could find out a bit more about my own direct ancestor who was in the Merchant Navy but he unfortunately was killed just before these records started being kept so I don’t have a photograph of him, I don’t have a great deal of service records for him but this is a wonderful example. And of course this man travelled. Knowing what ship and some of the ships he was on, I’ve been able to see what some of his voyages were.

He was all over the place. He’d been to New York, he’d been to Brisbane, he’d been to South America, all sorts of places. Being a fuller paid up member of the baby boomer generation, we think we’re so special and of course we are and we think, oh we’ve had all these wonderful opportunities to travel and my passport’s got loads of stamps in it; I’ve been here and I’ve been there, haven’t I done well? And you know, of the many places I’ve been all over the world, there’s usually some wretched ancestor who turns out has been there before me!

So, you know, he’d been to New York, okay he may not have got much further in New York than the sort of bars that sailors go to on their time off, but he had been to New York and various other places around the globe.

And this has an influence on families. If you’ve got a member of the family who has been abroad, they bring stuff back. In his case, it was an African grey parrot – all sorts of stories about that. But they bring back influences; they bring back sort of tastes in food, so you may find there’s some odd overseas influences that you’ve never really questioned, it’s just something that’s always been there. Oh, that belonged to Grandpa, and because you’ve grown up looking at some strange ornament, or thing, on the sideboard, you may not realise that this is actually a really interesting thing from China or India or South America or wherever. So, there’s another man who’s travelled.

Now this is something you may well have looked at – a passenger list. This is one of the incoming passenger lists [shows image]. It’s a ship from New York to Glasgow. Now these 20th century ones, this is 1921, the more recent they are, sometimes the more detail you’ll find on them. This is a particularly good one. It’s also typed which is very nice because it means you can read it.

But this is a list of passengers there and these are people who are coming back from New York to Glasgow. And these are just ordinary passengers in third class so these are not the rich and the famous swanning back and forth across the Atlantic. And you’ve got their occupations – labourer, laundry maid, housewife, domestic servant, and details about them, their ages. But…the columns on the right: country of last permanent residence. Now all these people, there’s about a dozen of them – USA. And then to the right of that: country of intended future permanent residence.

Now out of these people, four of them are marked in the column that says ‘foreign countries’ and it doesn’t specify which foreign country so these are people maybe who’ve (been) resident in America – they’re all British, in fact they’re all Scottish – they’ve been living in America, they’re coming back to Scotland and because…they’re now intending to reside in a foreign country, they’re probably just here on a visit and they’re going back. But most of the people, country of last permanent residence – USA, country of intended future permanent residence – Scotland. They’ve been to America, they’ve lived there, don’t know how long but they’re coming back to Scotland. That’s quite a lot of people.

And if you are descended from some of these people you may or may not know that they had spent some time in America. More interestingly, lower down, because this is the end of the passenger list, there are two people who have been deported. Now what it was that Andrew Hamilton and Michael MacDonald did to get themselves deported I do not know and I’m not sure how I’d go about finding out but I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind it.

And right down at the bottom, ‘distressed British seaman’. And this is Frederick James Allison who is basically hitching a ride on this ship because he’s been signed off from his previous ship and he’s coming home. You do find crew, you find Merchant seamen sometimes on passenger lists. It’s always worth a punt if you’ve got some wretched elusive Merchant seaman, you may if you’re lucky find him on a passenger list. Even though they’re lists of passengers, sometimes those passengers include seamen who are just there as a passenger; although he is a seaman, he’s not serving on that ship.

Incidentally…from an outgoing ship going into New York or some other port, when people are landing in your country, you’re interested in who they are and how long they’re staying and the fact of whether they’re crew or passengers doesn’t really matter to you, so it’s worth looking at the other end of the journey if you’ve got somebody…you think may be a crew member, they may be picked up in the records of immigration which doesn’t mean permanent immigration, it just means people coming in through the borders.

So it’s always worth having a look for these Merchant seamen who can be terribly difficult to track down because they keep moving. And this, this man, Fred Allison, I keep finding him. He’s all over the place. He’s always on other ships that he’s not serving on. He’s moving around an awful lot.

This is another passenger list [shows image], South America from Buenos Aires coming into London in 1935. And you see much the same sort of thing, you have a list of people, engineers, and they’re coming from Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay and the first two on the list and another one a bit further down, they are intending to stay in England. So they’ve plainly been working abroad and they’re coming back to stay. But the majority of them – intended future residence – a foreign country. Probably the one that they’ve just come from although you don’t know for certain.

So you’ve got an awful lot of people going back and forth, back and forth, and they’re not just the rich and the famous. Just have a look at passenger lists. Don’t just look at them for ‘I’m looking for a person and when you’ve found them, note it down and go away again’. Just have a look at the people they’re travelling with. And if you’ve got one like this that gives you all this level of detail, just look and see how many people have been abroad and they’re coming back to stay.

[Shows image] This is from the births registered with the district of the British Consulate in Boston. And although as you’d expect these people are in advice consul, so a couple of children of the consuls, but there’s also the daughter of a master mariner, so when he was there, the child was born there and the child was registered there. In the details, with the signature and the residence of the informant – it’s very helpful – he gives their precise address back home in England, right down to the address: 3, Clifton Terrace, Whitstable.

And this master mariner had a daughter who was born in Boston which means that his wife must have been there as well. You might have been looking for the birth of that child and wondered where on earth she came from. Now if you were lucky, you will have a clue in the census if you found her there, but it might well just say ‘America’. America’s an awfully big place and every state keeps its records separately so that’s the sort of thing that you might find. People going backwards and forth and of course the people in the Consulate, they might be living permanently in America; they might come back here – I don’t know, I haven’t followed any of these people up, but it’s just an example of British people being abroad and it might be permanent, or it might be temporary.

This is another example [shows image] of British people doing things abroad. These ones are all online – this is an RG 34 which is overseas records. RG 32 to 36 is a series of records; they’re on BMD registers and they are British people being born, getting married and dying overseas.

And some of them are like this. This is what is called a lex loci. It’s somebody who married in France. Actually these things are fairly easy to work out because they’re printed and although it’s often difficult to read, until you look closely, the important details are written in small translation. It’s written in pencil at the top. But the words for born, married and died, they’re not that difficult to figure out even if it’s in a language that you don’t understand.

This is quite a nice example. This happens to be from 1914, but we do have quite a lot of marriages and deaths of British people, mainly serviceman in France and Belgium just at the end of the First World War in particular. And a lot…of the deaths aren’t on Commonwealth War Graves. But if you do find somebody who is born, or had a child born in France, or who was married there, or died there, France has had a really good system of civil registration right back to Napoleonic times. So this is something you might not expect.

This man was an engineer and he’s marrying somebody who from her name is obviously also British and they’re marrying in France. And…when I looked at these marriages I noticed that you’ve got, for the ones from the armed services, slightly later than this because this is just before the start of the First World War, the ordinary soldiers, they tend to be marrying local girls but the officers, they’ve got their girlfriends, their fiancées, they’ve brought them out from England and they marry in France, or Belgium. So that’s a bit of social history.

But this is not the sort of place you might think of looking. Again, this is two British people and this is precisely the sort of marriage that you might not be able to find, but they’re two British people – why can’t I find the marriage? As far as you know they’ve only ever lived in England. Well, they were in France. Don’t know how long for, they may have stayed there – I don’t know. But sometimes people go and get married somewhere you really weren’t expecting and had no clue about.

From an American census [shows image], between 1930, as a result of one of my Hit-and-Hope searches. I was searching for a bit of family history…for the husband of one of my cousins and I knew his parents…I mean I had met his parents, I knew their names and I couldn’t find their marriage and I thought that was odd. And his mother had a very distinctive surname which was Lavelle, L-a-v-e-l-l-e.

And I couldn’t find…their marriage and I thought, I’ve met these people; they’re very nice, respectable couple. I’m sure they really were married. And I did my ‘well she’s got a really unusual name’, so I did a search on ancestry, searched everything everywhere for anybody of that name and approximately the age that I believed she was.

To my great surprise, I found the marriage I was looking for. And these two people who as far as I knew had only ever lived in Renfrewshire, they got married in Cook County, Illinois which is Chicago. I wasn’t expecting that! And then when I followed it up, I looked on the census. In America the censuses are released much sooner than British ones so the 1930 and actually the 1940 census, they’re online and searchable. And I found her in the 1930 census. She is the head of the household and she has with her, her three younger brothers and they’re all in the building trade, carpenter and brick layer.

And the American census, or at least this particular one, it also gives you the year when somebody arrived in the United States. So one brother went out in 1923, the two younger ones followed in 1927 and then their big sister went to keep an eye on them in 1928. At least that’s the way I read it. And that’s why she married in Chicago. And then I’ve since looked and of course I can find these people on the passenger lists. And I found her coming back, still under her maiden name but then that’s the name her passport would have been in.

But I really wasn’t expecting that. I had no clue that these people had been in America; I’d no reason to suppose that they were. So I was quite pleased, quite impressed with myself for actually finding that. But that was a good example – if I’d looked in the sensible places, I’d looked in the logical places, south of Scotland, maybe they were in England for a while, people don’t elope that way, they go Scotland, they go England to Scotland. But I’d looked in the sensible places. I’d even tried Ireland. Didn’t occur to me to look in Chicago, well, why would it? But there you go.

This [shows image] is my great-great-grandparents. I don’t have very many old family pictures, only about half a dozen if that and this is probably my favourite. Now, the man there is called Robert Donaldson, and his wife, Mary, or Mary Hill, and I know an awful lot about these people. I’ve got his baptism, I haven’t got hers but I know roughly where and when. I’ve got their marriage, I’ve got the births of their many children and I’ve got them in a lot of census years, I’ve got their deaths and …I’m descended from one of their older sons.

And this [image] came down through the family: they said that’s your grandpa’s grandparents and they’re sitting outside their cottage in Montrose which is, you now, close enough. And one of the things I like to do is to trace forward as well as backwards. Now without going into all the details about how Scottish records are kept, this is actually slightly easier to do with Scottish records because of the level of detail that’s in a lot of them – and the fact that women are cross referenced under maiden and married names.

So just out of interest I was looking to see what happened to all the rest of their family and I found quite a lot of them. The son that I’m descended from, he’s one of three sons who went to Glasgow. One of the sons went back and we’d always thought, oh what a sweet old couple, you know, the sons went to Glasgow and then you know…we’re the pioneers, we’re in Southeast England. Haven’t we come up in the world? And this sweet old couple, they’re sitting there in their cottage in Montrose and they never left the east coast of Scotland and you know, oh how sweet, how traditional, and oh look she’s knitting – isn’t that lovely.

And then I discovered, again as a result of a Hit-and-Hope search cos I couldn’t find one of the sons, that this sweet old couple that I’ve got all this information about, all in Fife and Forfar. They went back and forth across the river Tay but that was as far, as adventurous as they got as far as I knew.

I was trying to find one of their sons who had a distinctive name. And his full name was Robert Robertson Donaldson. And I just did the Ancestry search everything everywhere exact search and I put in his full name and I got one result. And I knew it had to be him because it had his exact date of birth. It was a conscription paper for the American Army in the First World War. It was what’s called the Old Man’s Draft. He was actually born in the 1870s and these men, they didn’t serve, but they were, they potentially could have been drafted. And I was not expecting to find him in North America!

So, I had a closer look and I followed this up and I thought well maybe I can find him on passenger lists and what have you, and naturalisation and census. Found him in the American census easily enough and that is when I discovered that the reason I hadn’t got this pair in a couple of Scottish censuses, which hadn’t bothered me cos I’d got everything else, was because they’d spent 13 years farming in Minnesota. I was not expecting that. I guess maybe it was the 13th Minnesota winter made them decide perhaps Scotland wasn’t so bad after all! They were in their 50s when they went to America and in their early 70s when they came back and they lived on for a good, another 15 or so years after they came back.

The son and as it turns out another son, the younger son was called James and there’s an awful lot of James Donaldsons. But when I followed this up, they had gone out to America with their two youngest sons. The two sons stayed in America. Robert Robertson Donaldson married cos I’d found him on the census with his wife although I didn’t know where he’d married, or what her maiden name was. But he married comparatively late in life so there are no descendants so I don’t have any distant cousins in Minnesota. I was not expecting that. This sweet old couple, they had actually… lived quite an adventurous life, very hard word I’d say farming and they lived to a ripe old age, I mean they both lived into their 80s and I have their death certificates.

What I don’t know is why this picture was taken although I have an idea. Usually when you have your picture taken you go to a studio and you have your best clothes on. These people are not in their best clothes, that’s you know, that’s a pair of working boots, if ever I saw them. Those are their ordinary working clothes. They’re sitting outside their cottage. I think she’s knitting, I think she’s knitting some socks – looks like she’s got four short needles. It is an ordinary, everyday picture and my best guess is that this may have been taken round about the time of their 60th wedding anniversary because that would have been news. Especially if this old couple had managed to stay married for 60 years, had also been half way across the world. So I’m working on the theory that maybe this was a newspaper picture. And I want to try and track down the newspaper. I haven’t found it yet.

But this was the thing that really kicked me off. It was so surprising that this sweet old picture that we’d always taken for granted, was always on my uncle’s sideboard, oh yeah, that’s the Donaldsons and they were on the east coast of Scotland. And when I just did a bit of digging around and I found that they’d had a most unexpected life. They had gone to America.

And just a few days ago when I was just looking at this talk to see if there was anything I needed updating and I did my Hit-and-Hope search again for Robert Robertson Donaldson and you know what, I found his marriage. He got married in Canada! He and his wife, Jane, whose surname rather confusingly turned out to be Robertson before she married, although they lived in Minnesota, they got married in Winnipeg. When I looked on a map, in North American terms at least, it’s not that far away. It’s about a hundred odd miles. And they lived in a place called Argyll in Minnesota which is way to the north and it’s quite close to the Canadian border.

So that’s another one. Well, I wouldn’t have thought of looking in Canada for the marriage. But there it was and if had just been Robert Donaldson, Robert Donaldson marrying Jane Robertson? Oh please, how many of those do you think you’ll find? But that was yet another unexpected one, just to keep me on my toes to remind me that things might not be where you expect them to be.

And I just want to finish by talking about what I mentioned, older people going overseas, well, this is just a fantastic case. This lovely old couple went abroad and then they came back. But I had, on a different bit of my family, I had a mystery couple who as far as I could tell weren’t born, never married and didn’t die. And…when I was looking for something else and being my family, I found the answer in a Poor Law application. There’s a lot to be said for being descended from poor people in Glasgow. They’re awfully well recorded.

And I was looking for my poor old great-grandmother who had been deserted by her husband – this is a bit of a pattern emerging here, different one form the last one I mentioned. And she is being asked all sorts of details about her own family and about her husband’s family because it’s her husband’s settlement that’s important. And she gave all sorts of details about her husband and about his parents. She said that his father’s dead. Yes, we know that. And his mother went to Canada about three years ago. I was not expecting that.

Unfortunately, her name was Jane Collins, but eventually I did manage to find her and she went to Canada when she was think round about late 50s, early 60s – difficult to tell cos she was born in Ireland so I haven’t got an exact date of birth. But she went to Canada with her married daughter and her family and… when I found them in Canada, they had actually gone to be with her married son and his family. So, the whole of the family, except my great-grandfather, his parents, his brother, his mother and his brother and sister, they all cleared off to Canada and never came back and he was still in Scotland. But this did account for why I couldn’t find them, his parents being born, married, or dying.

But they went to Canada and she was a widow. She was a grandmother and she went abroad and we tend not to think about that but quite a lot of people did. Look on the passenger lists and you will often find a family, husband, wife and children and maybe there’s a granny going with them. I did have another one, did much the same sort of thing. She went with her sister, she was a widow. She went with her sister who was also widowed and the sister’s married daughter and family. The difference with that one is that having spent a few years in Rhode Island she came back to Glasgow (who wouldn’t?). And she died in the Poor House, so that was obviously a really good decision on her part. But again I wasn’t expecting that and I knew everything about her. I’d got birth, I’d got marriage, I’d got children, I’d got her death and it was when I looked at her Poor Law application, she said that she’d spent x number of years in Cumberland, Rhode Island. So yet another thing I was not expecting.

I’m sure I will carry on finding things that I wasn’t expecting. And I hope I’ve given you a few ideas of things that you might want to look at and sometimes some really daft searches to try because sometimes they will work. And sometimes you will find quite unexpected things when you’re looking for something else, or just when you’re just having a wild speculative search.

But the thing to remember is that hindsight’s always 20/20. When people got on a ship or more recently on a plane, went to another country, did they know they were emigrating? Did they mean to come back? Because it wasn’t always cut and dried. Some people fully intended, oh I’m going to go and make a wonderful new life in a new country and it doesn’t work out and they come back. And other people firmly intend to go there – I’ll go there for a few years, make some money and then I’ll come back but for one reason or another they either do so well that they can’t see the point in coming back, or they do so badly that they can’t afford to come back. But when they go, they don’t know that.

So, your family, like my family, might have moved around more than you think they did and they might have gone to some quite unexpected places. So always be prepared for the unexpected. Thank you.

Transcribed by Grace Brady as part of a volunteer project, April 2015

Leave a comment


You can find help on how to download and listen to our podcasts in our quick guide to getting started. If you wish to re-use any part of a podcast, please note that copyright in the podcasts and transcripts in some cases belongs to the speakers, not to the Crown. Please contact the Copyright Officer with queries. If commenting, please be aware of our moderation policy.


Select an option to receive our free podcast series, using either RSS or iTunes. See our help guide for more information on podcast subscription.