At some stage most people will come up against a barrier or dead end when undertaking family history research. But rather than giving up and moving on to a different ancestor it’s worth trying out some well known genealogy strategies and tips that may help to break down that `brick wall’.

One of the most common problems that researchers face is finding the right records for a specific person. You know their name, you know they exist and yet you can’t find them. In this week’s blog I’ll look at some of the difficulties you may face when searching for personal names and I’ll list some tips for working around these problems. In coming weeks we will look at ways to overcome other barriers, including finding geographical locations, dates etc.








Unidentified family portrait. H93.23/148


Spelling and transcription errors

It’s not uncommon to find misspelled names in documents.  Although most major events were recorded by an official, it’s possible that they were either misspelled by the informant or misspelled or misheard by the person taking the details.

Forms may have been filled in incorrectly too. Mr. William Henry Joseph may have had his given names mixed up and been listed as Mr. Henry William Joseph, or perhaps his surname was listed as his given name – Mr Joseph William Henry.
The details on an index are not always reliable either, as poor handwriting or typing errors could have resulted in transcription errors.

This example for Hannah Bellingham (Bourne) shows just how a name can vary. On the registration index to her children’s births and deaths you can see how her maiden name is written five different ways.

Nicknames, anglicised and abbreviated names

It’s not unusual to see individuals listed by their nickname rather than their given name. This is often the case when someone has used a nickname their whole life and considers it to be their  unofficial real name.  In this case John may be listed as Jack, Henry as Harry and Elizabeth as Betty or Lizzie.

Records show that migrant ancestors sometimes shortened or anglicised their names, or had their names anglicised for them. So the surname Rosenberg may have become Rose or Rosen, the given name Panayiotis may have become Peter and the surname Schmidt may have become Smith.

Many genealogy sources use abbreviated versions of popular given names – Wm for William, Jno for John, Jas for James and Elizth for Elizabeth. To give you an idea as to the wide range of abbreviations used, have a look at the following list.

Brick wall solutions

There are a number of ways you can try and overcome such barriers.

Begin by writing down a list of every possible spelling variation of the name, including names that sound similar, nicknames etc. Try rearranging the order of the names too. Then methodically search for each name on your list.

When searching genealogy databases try truncating individual names. This will help you to retrieve every variation of that word. To do this you need to remove the end of a word and replace it with a truncation symbol – usually an asterisk *. So if I wanted to retrieve all variations of the name Katherine, I would search for the truncated word Kath*. This should retrieve such names as Kath, Kathy, Kathleen, Katherine and Katharina. I’d then do a second search for Cath* – just to be sure!

Many databases have a search function that allows you to search for name variations, including similar names or alternate spellings.  This will help you to retrieve a greater range of possible names.

When it comes to locating anglicised names try searching our catalogue for books on the surnames for specific countries i.e. Greek surnames or French surnames. This should help you identify the origin of the name you are researching. Or browse the internet for sites that focus on the Anglicisation of names. We also recommend that you look for the immigration or naturalisation documents for the generation of ancestors who migrated to Australia, as these documents might contain such important information as their original name and the  names of their parents.





Three men standing on deck of the ship Liguria, enroute to Australia. H2001.326/6



If you still have no luck, try and broaden your search. Look at records for other family members –parents, spouse, sibling or child. I only came across the name variations of Hannah Bourne (see above) when searching for her husband Timothy Bellingham. You could also try researching the surname and place, but not the given name.

As with all research you should regularly step back and review the records you’ve been using. If you’ve only been using online databases and websites then it’s time to explore some of the indexes and unique record collections held here at the  State Library Victoria, in various state archives and in local and family history societies.  To help you discover more about the range of resources available please go to our online research guides.


This article has 30 comments

  1. Thank you. Knowing that Thomas was often abbreviated to Thos has helped me no end!

  2. HI Ann,
    in Sept., 1902 my 4th G/ Grand father Bartholomew Beckett bequeath his father’s( also Bartholomew), peninsular war medals along with three clasps, along with his own good conduct and long service medals, to the Melbourne Public Library. is it possible to still view these?.
    Bartholomew was an historian, I am wondering if there might be some of his work in the library, and available to view. I am hoping that it might contain some of the family info., that I can’t find anywhere else!!
    Regards Rhonda Comenos

    • Hi Rhonda
      Thank you for your query. I will take it as a deferred inquiry and someone will get back to you in the next few days. Regards Ann

  3. Hello Ann
    Looking for information for Susan Duro in Victorian , Australia , Police Gazette 1855,1864-1924 any help would be much appreciated.
    Best Regards Bryan

    • Hi Bryan, Thanks for your query. Susan and her children William and James actually appear many times in the Police Gazette – between the years of 1872 and 1882. The `Victoria, Australia, Police Gazettes, 1855, 1864-1924′ collection is a part of the Ancestry Library Edition database, which you can access at your local public library and here at the State Library Victoria. Once you get into Ancestry, do a search for the Police Gazette collection, then search for the surname Duro. You can then open each record and print or download the relevant gazette page. Regards Ann

  4. Hello Ann
    How can I find records of a person who was a patient at the Benevolent Asylum Bendigo 1872-1875
    Regards Bryan

  5. Hello Ann, your notes gave me new hope of perhaps finding details of the death of my grandfather – William Francis Salvador(e) SINNETT (I’ve tried SENNETT/SYNOTT/SINET/SENITT, etc). He was born in Richmond 1894, married Permella ADAMS in Ballarat, deserted in 1923 and was divorced by Permella in 1926 also in Ballarat. Apart from a reference to his attending his father’s funeral in 1929 in Ballarat, I can find nothing from there os. So he’s now 124 years old, and still no death notice, funeral notice, cemetery record, anywhere. Any suggestions please!!

    • Hi Frank,thank you for your comments. I will take your details as a deferred inquiry and get back to you shortly. Best wishes Ann

  6. We cannot find the death cert., of my G Grandmother Chistina Baird wife of James Baird,, lived in Sth., Melbourne, not listed in Victorian records, not in the census around the late 1880 ,s

    • Hi Iris, thank you for your comments. I will take your details as a deferred inquiry and get back to you shortly. Best wishes Ann

  7. I have a written description of a party held at the Apollo Hall to celebrate the 21st birthday of Miss Jane Dickson who was the first white child born on Clunes.This was apparently published on the 2nd Feb 1877 which would have been her actual 21st birthday.
    I understand the write up was also published in the Coupar Angus (Scotland) paper.
    I have been unsuccessful in my searches on Trove. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Marg. I’ve had a look at the National Library of Scotland’s catalogue and I believe that in 1877 the main newspaper for the Coupar Angus region was the Blairgowrie advertiser and Strathmore and Stormont news. This ran from 1861-1879. Prior to that it was known as the Advertiser for Blairgowrie, Rattray, Coupar-Angus, Alyth, Kirriemuir, Strathmore and Stormont. The Blairgowrie advertiser doesn’t appear to be held by any Australian library however you might be able to get a copy of the article by contacting a library in Scotland. Start with the Coupar Angus Library. If they don’t hold historical newspapers then you should go direct to the National Library of Scotland. Here is a link to their Ask a Librarian service. Good luck! Ann

  8. Thank you for this article, it has been very helpful for tracking down the movement of my French ancestors between Australia and New Zealand. I’ve still been stuck one fellow though, ‘Adolphe Blanchet’ must have come over to Australia (born in France c. 1830) I think between 1840s-1850s (one source says he was married in Maryborough but the I haven’t found it on the BDM site, first known kid at 1858) although I’ve widened the search from as early as the 1830s, because he moves about a fair bit from goldfield to goldfield. Eventually in his kids birth & marriage certificates the name becomes ‘Adolph Blanchet’ and ‘adolph blanch’ (1897). I have not been able to find a singer passenger record from his movements, whether that be immigration, or the two confirmed journeys he has made from Australia to NZ (Otago), then NZ to Australia (a child born in 1873 in Melbourne). I’ve tried several variations of his name, and was wondering why I’m still hitting the brick wall. His occupation is listed as ‘miner’, and on 1 document, as ‘mariner’ – any advice for broadening the search, or why this cheeky ancestor might be eluding my grasp? Thanks.

    • Hi Ashley, thanks for your query. I’ll take it as a deferred query and will email you in the next few days. Regards, Ann

  9. Geraldine McCarthy

    Hi Ann,
    I have been trying to find the Marriage records for Patrick McCarthy and Mary Maher. I have searched Ancestry and Vic BDM with no luck. Their son Joseph McCarthy my Great Great grandfather was born in 1867. I obtained his birth certificate from Vic BDM which says Patrick and Mary were married on 26th March 1858 in Emerald Hill Victoria. Could it be that the record is on CD ROM’s available at the State Library workstations?
    Hope you can help and stay safe. Geraldine

    • Hi Geraldine. I see what you mean. I’ve checked both Ancestry and the Vic BDM index and haven’t had any luck either. This could possibly be due to a spelling or transcription error with their names, that makes searching difficult, or that their record wasn’t lodged with the Register. They married only five years after civil registration was introduced in Victoria and apparently for a few years the registration process was somewhat haphazard. Once the library reopens you are welcome to check our CDROM Digger indexes, which allow you to browse through a list of all records for a particular year or event. We also have an Early Church Records index, which may help you to find a marriage registration for the church in South Melbourne/Emerald Hill. Updates on when we will reopen will appear on our website. Regards, Ann

  10. Hi Ann, I have been searching for a while now for my Grandfathers death details and where is is buried. Also my Great Grandmother death details etc. I know when they were born but not their death. My grandfather was Philip Trathen Harris born on the 30th January 1891 in South Melbourne, my Great Grandmother was Mary Harris born Trathen on the 23 March 1871 in Horsham. I hope you can direct me in the right direction as I have tried nearly everything. I am on, my, Billion graves and Geni and have no luck. Thank You Gail

  11. Hi thanks for the article. I am stumped by the ‘disappearance’ of my 3x GGrandfather Henry Dale from about 1885. I have looked at many variations & other databases (Trove, burials) but I just cant seem to find his death ( Ive looked in NSW as well). They had their last child in 1885 & his wife Harriet Williams Dale died in 1887 & he definitely wasnt on the scene then as the kids all went to different places for care. I vaguely remember mention of someone going ‘missing in bushland’ in this branch. If he really did go missing – what would be the procedure? Would there be a death record for him? How long would be the delay, etc.? Any info would be appreciated. Thanks Rob.

    • Thanks for your question Robert. I’ve transferred your inquiry to our Ask-a-librarian service.
      You’ll be hearing from us soon.


  12. Hi Anne. I’m trying to get my GG Grandfathers birth certificate (Amos Eddington B 1838?) but the search reveals nothing.
    Is it because of (what I understand to be) the 100 year rule?
    Any and all help is appreciated.

    • Hi Robert, The 100 year embargo on births in Victoria, means that records are blocked for births that occured after 1923, so that wouldn’t be the reason you can’t find Amos Eddington’s record. Using the Ancestry database (available here at the State library and at all Victorian public libraries) I discovered that he emigrated from Liverpool in 1860 on the Marco Polo. Knowing that he was born in Great Britain helped me to then locate the following record for a Amos Eddington (note the spelling variation)- hopefully this is for the right person.
      In the Scotland, Select Births and Baptisms, 1564-1950
      Name Amos Edington; Gender Male; Age 0; Birth Date 26 Apr 1838; Baptism Date 27 May 1838; Baptism Place, Falkland, Fife, Scotland; Residence Date 1838; Residence Place Falkland, Fifeshire, Scotland; Father John Edington;
      Mother Agnes Amos.
      For further information on researching his life in Scotland, you might like to look at our Researching you ancestors from Great Britain and Ireland research guide. Kind regards Ann

  13. Hi Ann,

    Any suggestions for locating asylum records that seem nonexistent?

    I know my GGG Grandmother was sent to Yarra Bend Asylum in 1861 for about a year. It’s documented in newspapers and her court trial records. However, I am unable to locate her there. I have checked all avail PROV records, to no avail?

    Any suggestions would be appreciated?


    • Hi Karen. Thank you for your inquiry. I’ll email you directly, so that I can get some more information from you. Regards Ann

  14. Hi Ann,
    Great work.
    I have a copy of my Grandmothers 1922 Victorian second schedule.
    There is a word in the No. column 1 just above the actual number.
    In the When and Where Born column 2 it has the date of birth and address (being The Haven) and almost in line with word in column 1 it has Albury NSW.
    Would you know what this word would be, due to the copy it is difficult to make out.
    Kind Regards

    • Hi Rachel. Without seeing the document it’s hard to know what the word is. Could you possibly take a scan or photograph of it, and send it to me? If you use our Ask a Librarian form and mark it attention to me, that would be great. Kind regards Ann

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