What is a brick wall?
Spend a little time researching your family tree and you will soon reach a point where you have more questions than answers. While this can be frustrating at times, it’s also part of what makes genealogy so addictive. Those who are passionate about family history often refer to these genealogical quandaries as brick walls.
As I research a particular ancestor, I keep track of the questions I hope to someday answer. What townland or parish was my ancestor from? Who were their siblings or parents? Where were they buried? While these questions may remain unanswered for months or even years at a time, it can be quite a thrill when you finally break through and find that piece of information you have been looking for.
While the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line, family research is rarely a linear process. By focusing on a particular ancestor, it is sometimes easy to forget to broaden the search and look at extended family members, neighbours and associates. This is exactly what happened to me when I was researching my Great Great Grandmother from Belfast, Ellen Little.
My own brick wall
Born in Belfast around 1857, Ellen Little married a lithographic printer from County Derry named Henry Creswell, and the couple went on to raise a large family of nine children. While I knew that Ellen was the daughter of a foreman named Lodowick Little, she had otherwise proven to be very elusive. I had not been able to prove who her mother had been or whether or not she had any siblings. This had been a brick wall in my research for nearly three years.
Broadening the search
I decided to take another look at the birth records of Ellen’s children, something made much easier with the Irish government’s recent release of historic civil birth records on IrishGenealogy.ie. As I looked at the birth records of Ellen’s children, I began to notice something I hadn’t seen before. A woman by the name of Ann Jane Cahill of Cullingtree Road was present for the births of five of Ellen’s children. I found this interesting as it is often the husband that is listed as being present at the birth of the child. Ann Jane Cahill now had my attention.
My first break came when I found the death record of Ann Jane Cahill on 6 January 1900. It indicated that she had died in the Belfast Workhouse of pulmonary bronchitis. The death record also revealed that Ann Jane’s daughter, E. Creswell of 11 Stanley Street, Belfast had been in attendance. Suddenly in one record, I had the linkage I had been looking for. Ann Jane Cahill was the mother of Ellen Creswell!
Getting around the brick wall
With Ann Jane’s death record, I was able to work backwards and find her marriage record to a pensioner named Edward Cahill in 1865. The marriage record established that Ann Jane was a widow at the time of her marriage to Edward, placing her first husband’s (Lodowick Little) death before 1865. I also learned that Ann Jane’s father was a farmer by the name of James Law. I had now gone back a full two generations further than I had previously thought possible. So much for that brick wall!
It seems that in the course of Edward Cahill’s duties as a night watchman, he was involved in a physical altercation which led to his death a short time later. Because the death record mentioned an inquest had been held into Edward’s death, I knew there was a good chance this event would have made the papers. Sure enough, The Belfast News-Letter had indeed reported on the story. The article can be seen below.
Looking for further patterns
I noticed that an individual by the name of E. Adams, also of Cullingtree Road, had been present for the births of two of Ellen Creswell’s children. I soon found the marriage record of Eliza Ann Little to a Blacksmith named William Adams in Belfast in 1880. The record indicated that Ellen and Henry Creswell were witnesses to the marriage and that the father of the Eliza Ann was Lodowick Little. I now had confirmation that Eliza Ann Adams was the sister of Ellen Creswell. Now the pieces were really beginning to come together!
I continued to broaden my search by looking at the spouse and children of Eliza Ann Adams. While Eliza Ann and her husband William appear in the 1901 Census of Ireland with their four children, I was surprised to see that by the time of the 1911 census, only the two youngest children were still living. An inquest had been held
into the death of Eliza Ann’s oldest son, William, who was only 24 years old when he died in 1909. The Belfast News-Letter also reported on the inquest into William’s death, which can be seen in the newspaper clipping above.
The funny thing about brick walls is, as soon as one is overcome, new questions immediately pop up to take their place. Knowing that Ellen Creswell was the daughter of Ann Jane Law and the sister of Eliza Ann Adams certainly opens up new possibilities for further research. Specifically I’d like to know if Ellen had any other siblings, and to find the marriage record of Ann Jane Law and Lodowick Little. It will also be interesting to further investigate Ellen’s grandfather, James Law. Early 19th century records in Ireland tend to be quite fragmented, so no doubt that will be a challenge.
Do you have a brick wall in your family research that you are struggling with? Try taking a step back and looking at the other people in the life of your ancestor. Who lived on their street? What other individuals are listed as being in attendance for births, marriages and deaths? Go back to the records you already have to see if there are any patterns you may have overlooked. No doubt you will encounter some interesting stories along the way, and if you are lucky, you just might find that ancestor you are looking for!