Using FANs to take the heat out of your family history research

We all at some time come up against a genealogical brick wall which seems impossible to get over.  One method that may be useful is looking at FANs, the Friends/Family, Associates and Neighbours of the person.

Sources of FANs can include:

  • Researching extended family such as in laws
  • Witnesses to marriages, naturalisations etc
  • Baptismal records for Godparents
  • Neighbours from censuses and electoral registers
  • Co-habitants such as boarders, landlords or servants
  • Obituaries
  • Wills
  • Newspapers

Sometimes the perfect record doesn’t exist, whether you want to prove a relationship between two people or indeed if the Thomas Smith you are looking at is, in fact, your Thomas Smith.  By branching out your research into FANs, you can find that your ancestor is mentioned in another context that may tie them into your other research.  Or conversely you may find information that rules them out.

There are various types of networks that your ancestor may have been involved with:

  • An Estate network[i]. If your ancestor worked on and/or was a tenant of a local landowner then they may move to another property that belonged to the landowner that might not necessarily be in the same county.  Servants such as grooms and skilled servants are most likely to move around with their employer.  This means that they may not be where you think they should be on a census return.


  • An Economic network. If your ancestor worked in a specialised trade then they are more likely to move where the work is to be found.  For example, when a coal seam has been worked out then the skilled hewers are more likely to move to another coal seam rather than stay where they would earn much less if there was employment at all.  Andrew Todd also lists the examples of the woollen districts of West Yorkshire that attracted labour from Devon, Somerset and East Anglia in the early 19th[ii]  There was also a migration scheme in 1835 – 7 set up by the Poor Law Commission where approx 10,000 man and their families were guaranteed 3 years work if they moved from rural counties such as Northamptonshire, Suffolk and Norfolk to the northern textile centres.[iii]


  • A Huddle Network. In urban centres you may find that people cluster together with people from the same place as they are.  This makes sense as they will have the security of knowing someone who might be able to get them accommodation and/or work when they migrate.


When you visit a graveyard, look at other gravestones nearby to perhaps identify other family members.  Cemetery records are often more detailed than those of a church burial.  Private cemeteries started to appear in big cities in the UK in the 1820s and 1830s[iv] and municipal ones from the mid-1850s.[v] Grave books, if available, may include the name of the person who bought the plot and when, and also their address.  The people who are buried in the plot may not be on the headstone so it is always good to check.

In censuses, look forward or back a few pages to identify extended family.  Sometimes families tended to live in the same streets.  Make a map of the street and fill in details of who lived there to give you an overall picture.  Always take notice of people or families that share the house with your relatives.  They could of course be unrelated lodgers but more often or not there is a family connection or, in the case of migration, a link to their origins.

Newspaper announcements such as births, marriages and deaths may give family connections. Some marriages have a list of those attending, who they are to a couple and even their wedding presents.  Funerals also may attract press attention and list the attendees and who they were to the deceased.  In this way you can establish family relationships that can be the basis of further research.

Wills also can be a goldmine of information.  It could be that beside being a direct beneficiary, your relative could be an executor, a business partner, a debtor or creditor or involved with a mortgage.

All of these sources information help build up a picture of both an individual and a family that can be a godsend.  So next time you are stuck, think of the FAN method.  If it doesn’t always answer your question, it will give you more context and richness in your research.

Further Reading

Todd, Andrew. Problem solving through family reconstitution techniques. 3rd ed.

Legacy Family Tree Webinar.  Problem Solving with FANs. Beth Foulk.

Cluster Research – Start Your FAN Club!


[i] Todd, Andrew. Problem solving through family reconstitution techniques. 3rd ed.  P. 52

[ii] Todd, Andrew. Problem solving through family reconstitution techniques. 3rd ed.  P. 53

[iii] Todd, Andrew. Problem solving through family reconstitution techniques. 3rd ed.  P. 54

[iv] Todd, Andrew. Problem solving through family reconstitution techniques. 3rd ed.  P. 13

[v] Ibid.

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