Alt banner image’s Brad Argent shares 10 tips for finding just the girl you want

Are you trying to trace a female ancestor who seems determined to stay hidden in the records? Brad Argent, content director for, offers his advice for tracking down the maiden name of your elusive lady…

This story originally appeared in issue 4 of Inside History. Click here for more.

As family historians we face many and varied challenges, but one stumbling block we all hit is the mystery woman. Known only as “Great Nanna Johnson” or “Great Great Aunt May” these women can be something of an enigma. When we go looking for the evidence of who they were before their marriage, we occasionally draw a blank as no marriage certificate can be found.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips to help you overcome the challenge presented by a mystery woman, and hopefully they’ll get you “just the girl you want”.

Start your search offline. Never underestimate the amount of information sitting in the minds of those around you. Does anyone in the family know the maiden name or recall other family names that could be associated with your mystery woman?

Is there a family member with a house full of memorabilia, or maybe a stray shoebox or two?
I never cease to be amazed at what lies hiding in the bottom of random broom closets. A stray birthday card, wedding invitations, funeral cards, details on the backs of photos, notes on postcards and letters, or even an old diary, could point you to that elusive maiden name. The inside covers of old books can also contain hints, and possibly an old address.

Three-year-old Rhonda Argent (née Emery), Brad’s mother.
A picture found in a broom closet: Three-year-old Rhonda Argent (née Emery), Brad’s mother.

Also check related collections at, including public member photos and documents — there’s almost 30 million of these on the site. Even if you come up empty-handed, a good rummage through the detritus of your family’s history is always therapeutic.

Now it’s time to get serious. Prior to Federation, individual States were often hit and miss with civil registration of our vital records. This isn’t a comment on the role of our registries — if they received the paperwork then it’s in their records. But when you leave it up to men to fill in and file paperwork, well…

However, church records and registers (parish registers) may well hold all the details you need. Start with the church in which you believe the marriage took place — people usually got married close to where they were born or where they settled so start there, but you may have to expand your search. There are no hard-and-fast rules in relation to church recordkeeping in Australia – some are stored locally, some centrally, some are kept with the minister. You’ll need to ask around, often multiple times.

The number of family trees online is growing exponentially, so get searching: you may discover that someone else has already jotted down a maiden name for your target. But be warned – you will want to reconstruct the research done by the person who put the tree online to be certain it’s the right maiden name and the right woman. Remember: online trees are just a signpost that might point you in the right direction — they are not a substitute for your own research!

Historically, families stuck together and it’s highly likely that the person you are looking for lived within cooee of their siblings and parents. Post office directories, such as the Sands Directories, often provide a layout of who is in the street, so it’s worth having a look at some of the nearby names and seeing if anything leaps out. Also look at property records as land was often passed within the extended family. More and more of this is coming online every day. Check with your local State Archive or Lands Department.

Birth records, particularly Australian ones, are the core of any family history research. However, apart from the obvious details they can also provide a wealth of other information. Middle names are a great example as they may have come from the mystery woman’s side of the family, or could even be her maiden name. This was quite common, particularly when the maiden name had some standing in the community, or when there were no male heirs to carry on a line. Baptism records can also include the name of a sponsor or godparent who was related to your mystery woman, so keep this in mind when you research church records. Children were often baptised in the same church in which their parents were married.

Families often remained together even after death. Cemetery and burial records may mention your mystery woman’s side of the family, and their cemetery plots may be close by. This is one of the benefits of visiting a cemetery; you can see who is buried nearby and make connections that you couldn’t make just by looking at a death certificate. Often a headstone is the only place a familial connection is recorded. Once you’ve found where the person is buried — check out Ancestry’s growing collection of cemetery transcriptions — arrange a visit to the cemetery. If you can’t get to the cemetery try the nearest family history society: many of them will photograph a headstone for a small fee.

Clues in the census records may point you to your ancestor’s past. If another adult of a different surname is listed with the family, it could be an elderly parent or a younger sibling, who’s helping with the kids. Follow that person back through census records to see if he or she might be the clue you need to locate that missing maiden name. This approach can also work with the electoral rolls, but it requires a bit more “elbow grease”.

By now everyone should be aware of the fantastic digitised newspapers on Trove. Set aside some time to search through the obituaries, funeral announcements and death notices. These personal notices can hold valuable details, including the names of male siblings or cousins, whose surnames mirror her maiden name. Also look for wedding and engagement announcements. Do the same (plus birth announcements) for her children — if their grandparents are listed, you’ll have found her parents, too. Trove has solved more “mystery women” issues for me than any other source.

Once you have gathered some information on your femme mystérieuse revisit the storytellers in your family — the hints you’ve uncovered along the way will trigger memories and bring new information to the fore.

Rhonda Emery, Nita Emery (Brad’s grandmother), and Evelyn Higgins (née Hatton).
Family portrait: Rhonda Emery, Nita Emery (Brad’s grandmother), and Evelyn Higgins (née Hatton).

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