How to figure out where William Smith was born and who his parents are?

+3 votes
Hi everyone!

This is a brick wall from my family tree that's been a doozy for me. It's been about three years and I've learned a lot but haven't solved the issue. Before starting my research I remember saying "I really hope I don't come across a William or John Smith in my tree" and here we are. I am starting to transfer my sources to this profile and family today, but I will break down what I know here:

My ancestor, Mary Ann Smith, born about 1839 in Nuneaton, is the daughter of this man, William Smith, who is listed as a cordwainer. With this fact I'm able to corroborate the 1841 census I have with Mary Ann's marriage license. On the 1841 census, he is there with Mary Ann and his wife, Hannah, and both are listed as about 21 years old. They're all born in Warwickshire.

This is where most of my knowledge ends. William has five more children with Hannah through the 1840s, and there are baptism certificates to demonstrate that they are their children, but is not present in the 1851 census, or any census thereafter. Hannah, however, is listed as married until the 1881 census, where she switches to widow. There is an additional child, but I haven't found a baptism certificate and there is a eight year gap between this one and the youngest of the original five so I am not confident enough to list William as the father just yet.

I was able to determine Hannah's last name due to one of the children staying with their aunt in 1851, whose maiden name is Varden; the last child's middle name is also Varden. I found the baptism records for the sisters who match the census ages, and they are found next door to each other once they had moved from Nuneaton to Leicester. Their father, John Varden, is also a cordwainer. Additionally, one of the children, Hannah, married into the Langridge family, and I have multiple of those in my Ancestry DNA matches.

However, I cannot find a marriage license matching Hannah Varden and William Smith, but they must have been married if they're living in town where Hannah grew up. I also can't find a marriage certificate for Hannah Varden in Nuneaton or nearby in case she had been married once before. She's not quite old enough to be married long before the 1837 mark, though it's certainly possible, but other than another Hannah Varden who is definitely not this one, the Ancestry Warwickshire collection doesn't populate anything at all.

The marriage license feels essential to hopefully finding William's father's name. Because the 1841 census only has a 5 year ballpark for ages, and does not list the town of origin, it feels a little hopeless otherwise. Likewise, the necessity of the marriage license would be moot if the name was less common. There are just too many William Smiths born about 1818 in the county of Warwickshire.

Ironically my family loves chatting about family history but we don't have anything to go on for this, and no one left to ask.

I think that's all I know, but I'm happy to answer follow ups. I was wondering about apprenticeship records, voter lists, but I'm not sure how to use additional records or whether they're available.
WikiTree profile: William Smith
in Genealogy Help by Adriana Hazelton G2G2 (2.5k points)
Good question Adriana, and you've done a lot of research already to get to this point! I'll watch with interest to see if you get an answer, because I've got a brick wall of my own, around the same time in Yorkshire, where absence of a marriage record means the father's name and occupation can't be confirmed. Good luck with it.
Thanks, Jim, this is very much appreciated!

3 Answers

+4 votes

The birth of a Mary Ann Smith with mother 'Varden', was registered in Q1 1939 (listed in the General Register Index).


GRO Reference: 1839  M Quarter in OF THE NUNEATON UNION  Volume 16  Page 399

It would be worthwhile purchasing a copy of the certificate to verify the father's name.

by Steve Hunt G2G6 Mach 1 (17.7k points)
See also:

GRO Reference: 1843  S Quarter in THE NUNEATON UNION  Volume 16  Page 416

GRO Reference: 1845  S Quarter in OF THE NUNEATON UNION  Volume 16  Page 418

SMITH, HENRY                   VARDEN
GRO Reference: 1847  D Quarter in OF THE NUNEATON UNION  Volume 16  Page 438

GRO Reference: 1850  S Quarter in NUNEATON  Volume 16  Page 487

SMITH, JOHN  VARDEN                  VARDEN
GRO Reference: 1858  S Quarter in NUNEATON  Volume 06D  Page 309
Thanks Steve! I bit the bullet and bought Mary Ann's certificate. It should arrive on the 8th and we'll see from there.

John Varden Smith married Sarah Ann Goodrich, 15 May 1880, at Leicester. His father's name was recorded as John Smith.

"England, Leicestershire Parish Registers, 1533-1991," database, FamilySearch ( : 6 June 2018), John Varden Smith and Sarah Ann Goodrich, 15 May 1880; records extracted by findmypast, images digitized by FamilySearch; citing Marriage, Leicester, Leicestershire, England, United Kingdom, page 81, citing the Record Office of Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland, Wigston, UK.

I was just adding Sarah to the tree, and pondering this certificate as you added this, haha. I find the "gentleman" part of the certificate very interesting. Hannah Varden Smith was a silk winder, and then a charwoman by the last census. If John V informed honestly, I'm not sure the father assumed responsibility for the child. I think it's more likely that it was fabricated? Though Hannah Smith Langridge lists her father as John Smith as well... but her baptism record also lists William Smith. John V also is a boot maker, which falls in line with the shoemaker family tradition...
Hi, Steve! The certificate came back very quickly. Mary Ann was born March 25 1839, William Smith, cordwainer and father, reported it, and listed the mother as Hannah Smith formerly Varden, so this is the first documentation confirming mother's maiden name. This also implies that the parents were married. But I have no clue where to find that information.
What place of birth was recorded?
It says Nuneaton! Born and registered. William Smith writes his address as The Meadow, Abbey Street, Nuneaton, which supports the 1841 census information.
It seems unlikely but one possibility is a non-conformist marriage. There was a Congregational Chapel in Nuneaton at this time.

but there is no marriage register listed.
It's certainly a possibility and wouldn't hurt to look at this point. I'll probably take a deeper look at this and whether it's available when I am done with my finals in two weeks!
+3 votes

Hi again Adriana. There's a William Smith son of William and Sarah Smith, baptised in 1821 in Nuneaton. See top right hand entry on this Ancestry sharing image (click the image to zoom).

The 1821 roughly matches an age of 21 at the 1841 census. Father William Smith was a cordwainer. Since your William was also a cordwainer, this seems a possibility, despite the commonness of the name.

Edited to add: But you may know this already:-)

by Jim Richardson G2G6 Mach 5 (56.4k points)
edited by Jim Richardson
Yes, I'm aware of this person. Because the name is so common I've been extremely hesitant of following this line - but I have marked them as possible parents in the ancestry tree for this family. I really do appreciate hearing others giving this parentage more support.

What makes me most reservation is why would there not be any marriage listed if they are from the same town? Nuneaton is not particularly large, though certainly not a village. They also must be legitimately married if they stayed in town and had several children baptised without further commentary. I'm starting to feel that they may have secretly married elsewhere or something else similar. The rest of the Vardens married more typically and are very trackable. I am also wondering if William found himself homeless, or in prison. The findmypast newspapers for Nuneaton have not been helpful for this family, but I'm also considering skimming through the 1837/1838 papers at the time if they're available.

What about this December-quarter 1837 civil marriage registration at FreeBMD?

VARDEN Hannah Nuneaton Vol 16 Page 474

It doesn't tell you about the spouse, of course, but since Varden is a rare name it does seem to confirm that they married in the Nuneaton district, and it gives a date.

That Hannah Varden married Thomas Grimes, and is the daughter of a Thomas Varden. They married in the parish next door, Chilvers Coton, which is part of the Nuneaton district :)

I was so disappointed, Varden is an unusual name and ideally one you'd like to find paired with Smith...

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