I recently had someone get in touch who had a brick wall problem over an ancestor by the surname of Campbell - a missing birth from Glasgow in the early 1810s. The ancestors in question had moved to England in the mid 1850s and had taught at a deaf institute in Manchester and then Doncaster. He had married prior to moving south and had had two children in Scotland, but when he died his death certificate did not name his parents, and there were no details on his wife's maiden name. The English census records stated he was born in Glasgow circa 1810, but there were five or six different possibilities on ScotlandsPeople (and that was just for Church of Scotland registered events). Without his wife's maiden name he could not find the marriage, and the children's births were also not found. There was a possible 1851 census entry in Scotland which could not be confirmed as being the couple, as the information was limited (the children were not yet born).
In desperation the client had taken a DNA test, thinking that as it was a 'clan name', that might help. In his original approach he actually sent me the results of his test and asked me to interpret them for him. Before doing so I asked him to confirm a few points. He was from Glasgow? Yes. He taught at a deaf institute? Yes. Was he deaf himself? Absolutely. So who taught him? Ah...
The DNA test was going to be a very long shot indeed, so I suggested he park that for the moment and concentrate on what he already knew. It was entirely possible that he had been taught in Glasgow as a deaf child - if so, where would that have happened? The first thing I did was to search the online British Library 19th Century Newspaper collection to see if I could find any mention of a deaf institute in Glasgow. In fact, I not only came up with details of such an organisation, by a stroke of good luck I actually found an announcement of the ancestor in question having a dinner held in his honour! In a Glasgow Herald article from 1856 I discovered how he had been presented by the Deaf and Dumb Society "with a Sum of Money, as a small tribute of their gratitude and respect for him as their Sunday Meeting Teacher, on the eve of his Departure for England.” A few tributes followed, with the article then stating that “their guest had taught them for the past seventeen years”, and he was wished every success for “a missionary field of similar character in Manchester”.
Knowing he had been connected as a teacher to the Glasgow based society, I looked on the internet for any kind of additional information about the organisation, and found a site at www.gsedd.org.uk/history.html which provided a brief history for it. The Glasgow Society for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb had been formed as a satellite operation in 1819 to an earlier body instituted in Edinburgh. A check of the NAS catalogue (www.nas.gov.uk/onlinecatalogue) confirmed that the Edinburgh records were held at the archive but not those for Glasgow. Unable to find the records for Glasgow listed on any other catalogue (NAS, NRAS and SCAN), I therefore decided just to call the modern day society, details of which were on the website. It turns out that the modern day version is no longer a school, just a fund issuing grants for those seeking to assist deaf/blind people. The fund is administered by a chartered accountants in Glasgow, and with nothing to lose I asked, "You don't happen to have the records by any chance, do you?" The answer was that in actual fact, they did! I asked for permission to come in and see them, which was granted.
When I visited, I was immediately given some annual reports from the 1830s and 1840s which had been published in book form. I sifted through them and found a couple of earlier letters written by someone as a pupil sharing the same name as the teacher, including one discussing how whilst playing with his (named) brother at the Broomielaw he very nearly drowned on one occasion, but nothing to confirm that he had in fact been the man who later moved to Manchester. After an hour ploughing through them I asked the accountant responsible if there might be any actual original minute books or any kind of school admission rolls? She disappeared for five minutes and returned with a minute book from the very beginning of the society's existence. As I worked my way through my eyes nearly popped out of my head - the detail was extraordinary. I soon established from the minutes that the pupil was indeed the same person as the teacher. The Campbell boy had started off as one of the society's first eight pupils - his father was noted as a shoemaker from Partick, and after finishing school he was taken on initially as a Sunday School teacher, and later as a full teacher at the school. Combined with the AGM minutes I found enough detail to conclusively prove which birth record was the right one, and managed to take the family back a few more generations.
DNA tests are a wonderful tool for genealogy, but there is an increasing hype about how they can be used. In this case the test ended up being completely unnecessary. Sometimes it is worth putting yourself in the position of the person at the heart of your brick wall and trying to imagine what life must have been like for them. As in this case, it just might point out an option that didn't at first present itself on the face of it.