When searching for family history records it’s not unusual to encounter ‘brick walls’ or barriers. In an earlier blog post `I know their name so why can’t I find them’ we looked at the problems you may encounter when researching personal names.  This week we’ll look at some other common obstacles people face when researching Victorian records and we’ll provide some strategies for dealing with them.


Birth, death and marriage records are vital family history documents, but even they don’t contain every relevant detail. Marriage and death certificates may list the age of the individuals, but not their exact date of birth. If you do find a reference citation that lists the year of birth in its transcription, it’s likely to be an estimate, calculated from the age that was given.

Research has shown that people frequently lied about their age. They may have lowered or increased their age to seek employment, to register for military service, to be eligible to marry or to make themselves a more suitable age for immigration. It was also common to exaggerate the age of a child so that they received higher wages.

Try expanding your search to cover a broader date range (try 10 years)  and view all possible records. Don’t rely solely  on the information provided in the indexes either – always try and view the original document.  If you still can’t find the age of the person you are researching, try focusing on other family members, especially siblings. By collecting and evaluating family records you may be able to limit your results to a fairly accurate time period.

You may also find the information you require in other sources, such as obituaries, birth notices, wills and probate records, headstone inscriptions, military and employment records.

Family, possibly the Newtons, out on a drive in the country.

Place names

Researchers often have difficulties locating the place where an ancestor lived. When using an index to births, deaths and marriages (BDM’s) it’s worth remembering that an event may have occurred in one town, but may have been registered in another. So always check neighbouring towns and cities for records. With BDM records the information is only as reliable as the informant who provides the details. This is particularly the case with death certificates, where the informant may have only been a doctor or a neighbour and not known the full details of the deceased. If in doubt, check other sources for clues, such as marriage  and birth certificates, obituaries, wills and probate records,  headstones and military records.

One of the most common problems Victorian family historians face is that place names are often abbreviated on the available indexes.  A recent search of the Victorian Registry of births, deaths and marriages listed the place of death as K’TON. Was this be Kensington, Kingston or Kyneton? Luckily  I found a death notice on the Trove Digitised Newspaper database that verified it definitely was Kyneton.

For tackling the abbreviations that appear on the Victorian Registry of births, deaths and marriages, have a look at the Victorian BDM place name abbreviations list, which lists over 3000 abbreviations. Or, if you’re trying to locate the name and location of a Victorian town, search the Victorian Register of Geographic Names, VICNAMES site.

If you have trouble finding the name of a street or place, it could be because the name has changed or the location has disappeared.  Place names of Victoria by Les Blake, is a terrific book that will help you identify obscure locations. Or try looking at the Victorian places website, which includes the history of every town, village and settlement in Victoria. To confirm street names, consult old street directories  or directories from the region.

Unidentified family, H2005.34/121

No available records

You may have trouble finding the records you require because – they haven’t been indexed or digitised, they are not yet available to the public or they have been destroyed. If this is the case, then your next step would be  to try and locate a different source of information.

For instance, if you can’t access a death certificate, try to locate a burial register for the relevant parish church. Look for a will or probate document or an obituary or death notice in a newspaper. Or you could try identifying the cemetery for the town where your ancestor lived, then look for a cemetery or headstone record. If you’re trying to find details of the passenger ship your ancestors sailed on, but the shipping record no longer exists,  try looking for shipping information in an historical newspaper, or look for a ships log or a journal or correspondence that reports on that voyage.

If you still have no luck then it might be time to take a break and move on to another ancestor. Many records are still to be digitised and indexed so it might be worth waiting for a few months or years until further collections become available.

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I know their name, so why can’t I find them?

This article has 23 comments

  1. Great advice. I immediately thought of K’TON as Kyneton, but it could have been any of those you suggested. I’ve save this post for future reference.

  2. Hi I am looking for information on a James McKenna who was arrested by Melbourne Detectives for murder and robbery of a Joseph Thornley
    I found an article in the Victoria Police Gazette Tues Jan,3, 1871. There is a note See Police Gazette, 27th Dec, 1870 p.30.
    Which I have been unable to find.
    Would appreciate any help you can give me.

  3. Hi Ann, very informative piece. I have hit such a wall with my maternal grandmother, who was born in the Launceston area. Her year of birth on her marriage certificate is 1898. The main issue is she was adopted from birth before official records were kept. Her adoptive parents’ names are on her marriage certificate. She had adoptive siblings, but no biological ones as far as I know. Only her three youngest children are still living, and the official family story was her birth records were destroyed in a fire. I can find no trace of registration of birth for her d.o.b, or any baptism records. As you wrote, I have just had to give up on that part of my tree, and move on.

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

  4. Renae Blackman

    Hi Ann
    My mother and all her siblings birth certificates state that’s my grandparents (William Thomas Blackman & Marie Ann Chambers) were married on the 6th January 1960 but I cannot find any record of this. Do I need to wait until next year for them to be available or should they already be available?

    • Hi Renae, thank you for your inquiry. The restriction period for marriage certificates is actually 60 years after the date of marriage registration. So, because your grandparents married in January 1960, you should now be able to order their certificate. I’ve searched the index to the Victorian Registry (assuming they married in Victoria), but haven’t found an entry, so i recommend you bypass the index and order the certificate by going to this page of the Registry website. The Customer Service Centre of the Registry is currently closed, so there may be a delay of a few weeks before you receive the certificate. Regards, Ann.

  5. MargaretMcDonald

    Thanks for these interesting and useful tips
    I am looking for 2 McDonald families, emigrated 1852/3 Allison ship and were to go to the Goulburn River area to work for Mr Murchison
    I have found that Mr Murchison land owner, Kilmore Victoria
    But how do I find out if these McDonald families actually Worked at Kilmore for 12 months Contract, based on HIES?
    Thanks in anticipation

    • Hi Margaret, Many thanks for your inquiry. I will take it as a deferred query and get back to you shortly. Regards Ann

  6. Great article and I tried some but unfortunately still no luck . I’m trying to find information on my grandfather victor John newton who was married to my nan Annie Irene noble both buried at Springvale cemetery.

  7. Hi Ann
    I have recently discovered your blog and others at the State Library and love that you are
    able to help people explore family history. My Great great grandfathers birth certificate which I have purchased from Vic BDM, shows he was born in Sandridge in 1867, it states his parents were married in Emerald Hill in 1858. I have been unable to find this on Vic BDM records and on Ancestry. I see that the State Library has Church records on CD-ROM, would this possibly be a step I can take when the Library can open.

    • Hi Geraldine, Thank you so much for your feedback, I’m so glad you find our blogs useful. I believe that the Early Church Records CDROM only has records of baptisms, marriages and burials between the years of 1836 and 1853. As your ancestors married in 1858 it’s unlikely that their marriage would appear in the index. Once we reopen you are welcome to come in and check it – you might get lucky. You should also try checking the Vic BDM index using a variety of spellings as we often notice entries that have spelling mistakes or mistranscriptions. Also, if you know their religion you might be able to work out what church they married in. You could then check to see where the church register is now housed. I’m happy to look for you – I will send you an email. Regards Ann

  8. Thank you for your helpful information. Some years back I traced John Henry Spence b 1847 England and married Ann Crispin in South Australia 1872. Ann remarried 1883 and moved to Victoria. I cannot find John Henry Spencer death. I did find some information on microfiche some time ago and wanted to recheck. Has this now been digitialized? How do I access it. Not at local library I’m told. Thanks for advice.

    • Hi Gloria. Yes you can now access an online index to historical birth, death and marriage records on the Victorian Registry of births, deaths and marriages. If you can’t find John Spence you could try searching for spelling variations of his name and also try interstate indexes to births, deaths and marriages. You can find links to these indexes on this page of our research guide. Good luck. Ann

  9. Hello,I recently obtained the original Marriage Certificate from VBDM and discovered my biological father Jack Lyndon Stewart(B:13.3.1909)had married a Violet Robertson Muir (B:1915) on 16.11.1949 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Benalla ,Vic.Of course I now am desperate to know IF there were any children from this union, but have just been informed that Birth Records are not available for 100 years.I am presuming that means available online for the general public as many people on Ancestry find out this type of information and I’d like to know the procedure.My question is – can I pay a VBDM researcher to look for any births that were registered to the above couple? even if I cannot have the details if one is located, as I would like to know if or not such a person exists.Robyn

    • Hi Robyn

      Thank you for your query. The 100 year embargo applies to both print and online certificates and I’m afraid it’s not possible for researchers to obtain certificates on behalf of another person. Full certificates of births that occurred less than 100 years ago, can only be purchased with the authorisation of the person in question. You can find out more about the requirements by going to this page of the Victorian Registry website.
      There are also a few other ways you might be able to find details on possible children. A cemetery record, or death notice for Violet may list the names of children. Or look at Australian electoral rolls (available on the Ancestry database). If you search 20+ years after they married, you might find adult children still living with Violet.
      I did a search for Jack Lyndon Stewart on the Ancestry database and found many entries for him, including two other possible marriages, so this is something you might wish to investigate further. You can access Ancestry through your local public library and if you live in Victoria you can join the State Library Victoria and access Ancestry from home (until the end of March). You can find out more about the many records you can use to research Jack and Violet, by going to our Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide. Regards, Ann

  10. Ann, thanks for the hints will take note. We are struggling to find a 2xgreat grandmother who came from South Africa sometime in the 1840’s. We can find her marriage in Adelaide in Feb1849 but no record of her arrival in Australia. We have no ship name either. She did not stay in the marriage and we can only assume that she had a defacto relationship and children with my 2xgreat grandfather as we are unable to trace the first husband after having 3 children with him. All searches of Shipslists has to date provided nothing. Can you advise where we should investigate this information? Surnames: Catherine nee Corrigan Short Floate
    Thanks Sharon

    • Hi Sharon, thank you for your query. Unfortunately not all passengers lists have survived, so it’s not always possible to find a shipping record for an ancestor. You could try looking at her death certificate or an obituary in a newspaper as arrival details were sometimes recorded. Most of the South Australian lists can be found on the State Records of SA website – https://archives.sa.gov.au The State Library of SA has an excellent series of Family History research guides, https://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/collections/family-history including a great guide to Birth, Death and Marriage records (many of these indexes are not available online). You could also try contacting their Family History staff, who would know more about available SA records. Regards, Ann

  11. Trying to find relatives name of Matthews all children were born in the 1920″s we think in kensington but in the birth registe for Vic Birth Deaths and Marriagesr it only gives me dates of 1921. I know one uncle was born in 1922 and says to” Refine my search”. When I put other relatives and their dates nothing comes up its as though the year 1921 is it and we know they lived in Victoria. What does refine my search mean.
    Thank you

    • Hi Dianne, thank you for your query. For privacy reasons there is a 100 year block or restriction on Victorian birth records. This means that the index on the Victorian registry of births, deaths and marriages website only includes birth records up to 100 years ago. There is also a 50 year restriction on marriage records and a 30 year restriction on death records. The `Refine my search’ option on the index, is what people would use if too many results were being retrieved. By adding additional details it can help to limit the results down.
      There are a few ways you can try and find your relatives. The Ancestry database (available here at the State Library Victoria and at all Victorian public library services) contains copies of the Australian electoral roll from 1903-1980. If you search the roll for the parents names and look at listings roughly 20+ years after they married, you may find the names of their adult children – if they happened to still be living at the same address at the time the roll was compiled. The Trove digitised newspaper database includes digitised copies of over 350 Victorian newspapers from 1803-1954 so you could look for birth records for the children, or look for death records for the parents (which often include the names of children). The Ryerson index lists death notices from major Melbourne newspapers so you might find a reference to the deaths of the parents. Many of the newspapers that are listed in the Ryerson index are held at the State Library, so you could then visit the library and look for the actual notices. Wills and probate documents usually include the names of beneficiaries/children. These documents are kept at the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) – our state archive. You could search their online Wills and probate index to see if the parents are listed. If they are, you could order the will for viewing at PROV. I hope this helps you with your research. Regards Ann

  12. How do I get a copy of a birth certificate that has been rectified? Some of my ancestors have r after their birth registration number and I also have one that has an X192 after the number. I do not know what this means. Would like some advise please. I know the family changed their name unofficially when their mother met a new man. This was in 1907 approx.

    • Thank you for your query. If the birth was registered in Victoria you will be able to purchase a copy of the certificate from the Victorian registry of births, deaths and marriages. If it was from another state or territory you can order it from the relevant registry. I’ve checked one of our indexes to Victorian records and it states that the letter R means that there is more than one entry in the index. An X indicates that a re-registration took place at a later date – with the year of re-registration following the X.
      I hope this helps you with your research. Kind regards Ann.

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