Put It Into Practice
William Rowling, great-great-grandfather of Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, married in England in 1872 at the age of nineteen. His marriage certificate names his father as Edward Rowling. Because the marriage occurred just one year after the 1871 UK census, it makes sense to turn directly to census records in order to learn more about William's family. An exact name search for “edward rowling” in the 1871 UK census at
Next, head back one decade to the 1861 UK census. Again, the family isn't too difficult to find — but it will take a little more than an exact name search this time. Here the family is enumerated as Rowland, a name they did use for a time. It's close to Rowling, but not similar enough to come up in a Soundex search. A wildcard search for row* in the last name field does the trick, however, when combined with a few other fields to help narrow down the results (edward row* born 1830 +/− 2 years in cambridge*). This wildcard trick for first and last names is something to try any time that exact search and Soundex search fail to turn up the expected results. Use of the wildcard for the birth location is also helpful here, covering both Cambridge and Cambridgeshire in one search.
From the 1861 census, you learn that the mother's name is Sarah, born about 1831 in Southampton, Hampshire, England. Since the oldest child, daughter Harriet, is listed in this census as age ten, try going back one more decade to the 1851 census — the year Harriet was supposedly born. Here the standard searches come up empty, so the next step is to eliminate the last name entirely and search for edward born 1830 +/− 2 years in cambridge. Even this turns up nothing, so next try eliminating the birth county as well. A search for first name edward, born 1830 +/−1 year and spouse name sarah eventually turns up the family. It's no wonder they couldn't be found through traditional search methods. Edward Rowling born about 1830 in Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, was actually indexed in the 1851 UK census at
Now that you've traced William's parents back to their first census as a family, return to the 1871 census. Remember Edward listed as married, but with no wife Sarah? Was it a mistake that he wasn't listed as a widower? Or is Sarah enumerated somewhere else? Now that you have her name, a search for sarah rowling born in southampton turns up Sarah Marie Rowling as a patient in St. Bartholomews Hospital, London. Something else to investigate for the family tree!
Now that you know Sarah is still living in 1871, do you think she and Edward could still be living by the time of the 1881 census?
Edward is the one who's done a disappearing act in 1881, but Sarah Rowling, age fifty, born Southampton, is listed as a mother-in-law in the household of Frank Bennett in Medlock, Lancashire, England. You know this is likely the correct Sarah Rowling because Henry Rowling, listed as a brother-in-law, is the right age and was born in the right place to be the son Henry Rowling you found living with Edward Rowling in 1871 (also further confirmed when Edward Rowling is found living with the Bennetts in 1901 — see below). Since they are listed as in-laws, however, Frank's wife, Sarah, is probably a Rowling child as well. If so, where was she in the 1871 census? Something else to follow up in other records.
Further searches find Edward and Sarah appearing together again in the 1891 UK census, living in Hulme, Lancashire, England. The 1901 UK census finds Edward back with the Bennett family, unfortunately listed as a widower. You've now managed to locate the family (at least most of the members) in every UK census from 1851 to 1901 — something to be proud of. The family wasn't overly difficult to trace, but does exemplify many of the stumbling blocks you're likely to encounter during your own research — families that move around, families that aren't always enumerated together, names and locations that are misindexed, and so on.