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Using "negative evidence" to solve a research problem

I didn't find Mary Hague in the census - and now I'm more excited than ever. (That just doesn't sound right though, does it?)

We often get excited when we find our ancestor in the census, or in other records. Often, NOT finding our ancestors can tell us just as much. I had such an experience this morning as I searched for Mary Elizabeth Hague in the now-complete 1911 England census at (Just this morning I read the announcement that they've now added the final counties to complete the census.)

I have searched many times for Mary's father, Edwin HAGUE, in the 1911 England census. Until yesterday, I hadn't searched for him as Edwin HAGNE. In the image below, I can easily see how the indexer thought the U in the surname should be a N, but it stumped me for a little while.


Using various searching techniques, I finally located the family. In previous census years, Edwin and Annie's children were living with them. Their youngest daughter, Mary, was with them in 1901. She was 18 years old. In this 1911 census, Mary was no longer listed with her parents.

What happened? 1) She could have died. 2) She could have left home to live on her own. 3) She could have married.

According to the "Total Children Born Alive" and "Children Still Living" columns, the parents had 4 children, and all were still living. So theory #1 is not true. Performing searches of a Mary Elizabeth Hague, born 1883 in the area was negative, so theory #2 might not be true. What most likely happened, is she married sometime between 1901 (when she was living with her parents) and 1911 (when she was not living at home).

In her book, Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills explains that negative evidence is an "inference we can draw from the absence of information that should exist under particular circumstances." In this situation, the negative evidence is the absence of Mary in the household of her parents, and we can now come up with new research possibilities.

I have now narrowed the time frame of Mary's possible marriage to between 1901 and 1911. Using Legacy Family Tree's built-in Research Guidance (shown below), I clicked on the Goal: Marriage tab. One of the suggested sources is to search the England/Wales Civil Registration Indexes. Clicking on its Online button, Legacy provided six different Internet links to these databases, including a link to a free database.


I performed various searches and found a terrific possibility of a marriage to Edmund Hoyland in 1901. Legacy's Research Guidance also gave me a direct link to order the marriage certificate, so this morning, that's just what I did. Legacy explains that the fathers' names and occupations should be listed on the certificate, so I am hoping that when the certificate arrives in my mailbox, it will list Edwin HAGUE as Mary's father. If so, I've then solved a research problem from the clues I learned from a record that did not even include Mary.

I know...I get excited about the littlest things....

Do you have an experience of using negative evidence to solve a research question? Let us know by using the comments form below.


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It is also possible to go a little further before receiving the certificate, and that is to look in the 1911 English census for Mary Hoyland, wife, born in the same place and at the same time as Mary Hague.

In Britain in the 19th and 20th centurys, a young woman not found at home very well may have gone into service. Worth trying a broader search for them.

Ron - good tip. I have actually done this and believe I've located her. Isn't genealogy fun!!!

When you order a UK certificate you can make it conditional - in this case you can specify the condition that you only wish to proceed with the order if the bride's father is named Edwin Hague. If he is someone else then you would be informed and the order cancelled saving you wasted expense.

You could always use the two surnames to search for children of the possible marriage. Hoyland with mmn Hague. I often use this method when the marriage is between 1900 and 1911 as mmn is given on birth records after 1912. I also do a marriage search just to check their isn't another possible marriage in the area and I usually do the same searches for the other couple in the Hoyland/Hague marriage entry. It's not conclusive proof but can often point me in the right direction :-)

Great tip Geoff. I didn't know about the conditional ordering. I'll keep it in mind in the future.

Of course, with a young woman in 1911, she may be missing from the census if she was a suffragette and refused to be registered. My great grandfather had all his six unmarried sisters missing and I can only assume this is why. I can find all the men.

Could we reprint your article in our Gene Soc. newsletter?
Doreen Johnson
Genealogical Society of South Whidbey Island in Washington (state)

Absolutely Doreen. Thanks for asking.

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