News / Ask the Expert – the mystery of Mary

Ask the Expert – the mystery of Mary

29 November, 2011

Our resident expert Stephen Rigden, pictured below, answers your queries.

From Daniel Martin:

‘My great-grandmother’s name was Mary Ann Bell, who I can trace as marrying in Hammersmith in 1872. I cannot find her or her family (one known son from 1872) in the 1881 census but she appears again in 1891 with two children born in 1884 and 1886.

There are no family stories of overseas travel and I further note that while my grandfather father is given as Samuel Bell (1886), she appears to have been living with George Arrow from either 1882 or 1883. My question is: what tricks might I use to further seek information on my great-grandmother during the 1880s?’

Stephen says:

‘Thanks for your question. I think the root of the problem lies in the estrangement of Mary Ann from her husband Samuel Bell and later cohabitation with George Arrow. This leaves Mary Ann with a ‘married but separated’ status in 1881, which often makes an individual hard to find in a census. I believe, however, that I may have found her in 1881.

From background enquiries, I saw that Mary Ann was born nee Norman in 1853 in Ipswich and married Samuel Bell, as you say, in 1872 in the London registration district of Kensington, which at that date included Hammersmith. Using this information and considering variables, I located a Marian Bell, aged 26 and born in Ipswich, residing at 2 Cambridge Place in Kensington.

What is interesting is that she is described as being married but is not co-resident with a husband or children. She is recorded as a domestic servant, which agrees with the description of her as a general servant in the 1871 census. In the circumstances, although I cannot be certain, I believe that this is probably your ancestor.

To retrieve this record, go to our census reference search, select the 1881 census from the dropdown list of census years, and then search using piece 22, folio 117 and page 6.

If this is indeed the correct record, it raises the question of what has happened to her husband and to the child you mention who was born in 1872.
Stephen Rigden,'s resident expert

If the husband had died, I think it is more likely that Mary Ann would have married Mr Arrow later in life, which I infer from your email she did not. It is likely, therefore, that he is residing elsewhere in London, and perhaps you can locate him with the background information you have not included in your emailed question. Don’t eliminate any candidates simply because they appear to be married to another woman in 1881 – cohabitation was often recorded as ‘married’ and, of course, bigamy was not unknown.

Assuming that their son born in 1872 did not die in infancy or early childhood, he may have been a) living with his father, b) living with his paternal or maternal grandparents, c) living with other kin on his mother’s or his father’s side, or d) in care of a foster parent or an institution. You may need to consider each of these options for the 1881 census, by which I mean proceeding upon the basis that the father Samuel Bell and the son born in 1872 may well be living separately from one another, but I expect that father and son are in the English 1881 census somewhere. I hope this helps.’

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  • ken paterson


    • ken paterson

      do your records cover scotland?????????????

  • jessmoore

    Hi Ken,

    You can search the 1841, 1851 and 1861 Scottish censuses on

    We’re working to put further Scottish censuses on the site so look out for more good news coming soon!

    Good luck with your research,

    Jess ( editor)