The Lady with the White Handbag

This is not the woman in the story - we've kept her image private. This image by Sam Salt

This is not the woman in the story – we’ve kept her image private. This image by Sam Salt

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

When Maria’s carer phoned us with this challenge, we thought it might be an impossible task.

Maria Stanislav, aged 53, was born in Staffordshire to Polish and Yugoslavian parents who had come to England during World War Two. Her mother, Anna, was a 28-year-old widow when she married Maria’s father, Jan, in 1950. Anna had a son called John from her first marriage, and was working as a canteen assistant in the Ordnance Depot in Bicester. After they were married, Anna and Jan went on to have three children, the youngest of whom was our client, Maria.

Because Maria was now severely disabled and unable to make herself understood easily, her carer, Brenda, called us to see if we could help. Acting as an interpreter, Brenda explained that Maria had lost touch with all her family members and desperately wanted to know where her mother was buried and whether we could find out anything else about her or Maria’s father. Most of all, Brenda explained, Maria just wanted a photo of her mum.

Finding photos of specific people is not an easy task. Sometimes you get lucky on Facebook. Occasionally, you will find one attached to a public family tree on Less often still, one appears on a website posted by a member of the same family. Given Anna’s nationality and the era in which she lived – long before social media had been invented – we didn’t hold out much hope of being able to help. But Maria and Brenda persisted. “She really wants this,” said Brenda. “Please, will you do what you can?”

Our starting point was to track down Maria’s surviving family members and try writing to them. Maria’s parents had both already died and we could find no trace of siblings for either of them on the British BMD indexes. Looking for cousins would have meant finding Polish or Yugoslavian records on-line, which, we knew from experience are few and far between. Maria’s older sister, Nadeja, had actively broken contact with her and had even refused to tell Maria where their mother was buried, so we didn’t think she would be open to communicating with us. Maria’s older brother, Henry, was apparently living in Sussex under a different name – unfortunately for us, it was an anglicised name which was far more common than his original Polish surname.

Using the marriage and birth indexes we found several people who we thought might be Maria’s nieces. We wrote to them but the letters were returned unopened. We wrote to all the men in Sussex living under her brother’s new name, but no responses were forthcoming. No-one, it seemed, would even respond to us, never mind send us a photo.

Our last hope was to look for anyone who shared the unusual Yugoslavian surname of Maria’s half-brother. There were a few individuals, but we couldn’t tell how they all fitted together. We decided to write to them all and, yet again, after three months we decided that our attempts had come to nothing.

Until . . . two days ago, one of our pre-addressed envelopes was pushed through the door, with an intriguing thickness to it. It had been sent by the ex-wife of Maria’s half-brother and contained a photo from her wedding day. “Maria’s mum,” the letter said, “is the lady with the white handbag.”

We phoned the sender of the photo and asked if she would mind Maria getting in touch, then immediately forwarded it to Maria with contact details. The next morning Brenda called. “You can’t know how happy this has made Maria,” she told us, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to her.”

Some days you simply can’t beat this job!

My Essential kit for a Research Trip

My Research KitAs part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

I’m off on a research trip tomorrow. I’m hoping to glean lots of information from the documents that my client’s gathered, so I can start his family history. It occurred to me that you might be interested to see what I take with me on outings like this, as some of you may also want to visit your elderly or distant relatives on a fact-finding mission.

Here’s my checklist of essentials:

Research sheets

You can download a copy of the research sheet we use at Family Detective here: Research Sheet. It’s so important to record all the information you glean in a methodical and ordered way. See my blog post ‘Getting Organised’ for more.

Extra paper, pens, pencils and erasers

Use pencil for information that is hearsay or unconfirmed and pen for details you are sure of. Also, draw out a sketchy family tree on paper as you go along – this can help you visualise each generation as you find it.

Video/audio recorder

Will you be taking down stories and memoirs from your relative? It might be much easier to record them and transcribe your interview afterwards. You can use a dictaphone, phone with a message-recording feature, iPad or video camera. I use my iPhone’s recording app. It works like a charm. See ‘How to interview your relatives – Part 1’ for more. Don’t forget to charge everything before you set off. Or take spare batteries.

Scanner, camera or scanner app

This time I will mainly be copying documents, so I am taking an iPad with the Evernote Scannable app installed. This is so quick and simple to use – you only have to point it at the document, on a contrasting background, and the app will grab an image and clean it up on the spot. It’s also free, which makes it all the more amazing!

If not, a camera would do just as well, as long as you look out for flash glare from photographs.

Post-it notes

These are very handy if you are taking copies of photographs. Simply write a number or name on the post-it and attach it to the corner of the photo, or place it at the bottom, like a caption. Write a key with a full description of the photo including who, when and where. Don’t forget to follow the rules by using proper names for people and maiden names for women. See ‘Golden Rules before you start your Family History’ for more.


If you are conducting an interview, don’t forget to take along a list of questions that will be helpful in guiding the session. See ‘How to interview your relatives – Part III’ for more.

Right, well, that’s me all packed and sorted for my research trip. I’ll let you know how it goes when I get back!

Discussion: Any other tips you’ve got for when you’re off on a research trip? Drop them in the comments below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Family History breakthrough – Find the missing siblings

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

Have you hit a brick wall in your family history research? Here is a very simple technique that we use at Family Detective, which can sometimes bring you a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

Hopefully you will be tracing your family history using a very methodical system (see ‘Getting Organised’) and you will have crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’, because the key to a breakthrough can sometimes be in the details.

One simple way of going back over old ground is to turn your attention from your direct ancestor, the one person in the family who continued your family line, and look instead at all the other children in the family. This can be of benefit in several ways:

1. Was there a child missing from a particular census? Perhaps you assumed that they had died young? Always check for these children by searching for them by name and recording their death date if you find it. Sometimes they hadn’t died at all but were staying with grandparents or uncles and aunts. You then have a new lead and might be able to trace further back using these new family members.

2. Even when children in the family had moved away and started families of their own, it’s sometimes worth following them forward in time. Perhaps you might discover that they gave a maiden surname as a middle name to one of their own children? Or maybe their marriage or birth certificate might record their parents’ name differently to your direct ancestor? They may have entered a different occupation or another address you could check out. One of my ancestors recorded her father as ‘Bill, a Cattle Dealer’ on her marriage certificate. Her sister said he was ‘William, a Veterinary Surgeon.’

3. Sometimes parents used traditional naming patterns (see Naming the Baby) and christened their children after their own parents. It’s only when you have found and recorded all their children’s names that you can see the pattern emerging.

4. If a child appears with the family who should have been on the previous census but wasn’t, it’s always worth going back to see if you can find them ten years before. Sometimes this can lead to the discovery of previous marriage or relationship.

5. Go back and check that your ancestor never had lodgers, boarders, visitors or even siblings staying with them on the night of a census. Try tracing these strangers back for a little way, to see if they were actually related. Leave no stone unturned!

6. If your direct ancestor is called John or Mary and you want to order in their birth certificate, consider ordering one for a sibling with a more unusual name. Hopefully you’ll find a Marmaduke or a Constance – but even a Benjamin or Lilian will give you a better chance of finding the right certificate.

In all your research, stay methodical – document everything and keep it in order. Be rigorous, and you’ll be successful!

Discussion: Got any interesting tales of research successes? Feel free to share them below. We’d love to hear about them! You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Finding Mother

June and Celia

June and Celia

As part of a nostalgia season we’re having in the bureau this month, I thought I’d revisit some of my more meaningful blog posts. I hope you enjoy them:

June and Celia are cousins. They had never met before this photo was taken and Celia had never seen photos of her mother before. Their meeting is the very happy ending to a complicated piece of research carried out by Family Detective on behalf of Celia’s nephew, Tony.

When Tony came to us, his first request was that we would help him get through a brick wall in the search for Fazal, his paternal grandfather. Fazal was a Bengali Stoker in the Merchant Navy who had left Tony’s father and aunt in a children’s home at the start of the Second World War and never returned. ‘What had happened to the children’s mother?’ we asked. Tony gave us her details but said he held out little hope of ever finding his grandmother, Freda, as she had disappeared without trace during the war.

We found records of Fazal and a very likely death for him on board a ship in Karachi which explained why he never returned to the UK for his two children. Never wanting to be thwarted, we then took on the quest to find Freda in that difficult period of time – the 1940s. The hunt was on and the territory was huge – we learnt from her marriage certificate that Freda was actually Olive Winifred. Which of her forenames was she using? Was she living under her married name, her maiden name or perhaps a new married name? Where in the country had she gone? Her family was from Bedfordshire, but she had married in London and her children had gone to a children’s home in Wales.

Our best hope was finding a death certificate for Freda and with a clever little research trick we found it on the death indexes under the name Frederica Olivia and with a completely different surname. When the certificate arrived the birth date and place were correct and we knew we had found the right woman.

From the change of surname we deduced that Freda had married again. However, no marriage certificate was ever found nor any birth records for other children. The only clue to finding out about Freda’s later years was the informant of her death, June.

We traced June back and forth, trying to find a link to Freda and our client but nothing matched up. Our only hope was to get in touch with June and hope that she would talk to us about Freda. When we send letters to possible living relatives less than half reply. Weeks went by and we heard nothing from June. We were about to close the file when she rang our office, apologising for the delay because she’d been on holiday! June’s father was Freda’s brother. June and Celia were cousins. The reason we hadn’t made the connection was that June’s father had taken on the surname of his step-father (another complicated story).

June agreed to pass on her details to Tony and very quickly the two families were reunited. June had photos of her aunt Freda and Celia was able to see them for the first time. There are still many questions, of course, answers to which probably went to the grave with Freda but also a great sense of joy at having helped Tony and Celia find a few missing pieces of their family history jigsaw. Tony’s letter to us is here: Thanks from Tony Hague

Discussion: Have you ever hit a brick wall like this? What did you do to get through it? Are you currently stuck and need some help? Drop us a line in the comments and we’ll be in touch.