When my father died, I discovered a sketchy family tree going back to my great-great-grandfather Phillips who had five children who lived to adulthood - the tree showed most of the descendants of two of the five (my great grandfather and one of his brothers) but little information about the others. There was a letter from a third cousin of mine of whom I hadn't even known existed. He was descended from my great grandfather's brother and had recorded the information about his line. What I wanted to do at that point was to trace back my Phillips line as far as possible but there were no leads.
On a visit to England, I met my third cousin but he could shed no light on other Phillips ancestors of ours. I then decided to track down descendants of my great-grandfather's other siblings. Two were males. The tree indicated one had left for Australia about 1871, had married "Emily", and had a son "Harry" but where in Australia the English side had not heard. I decided to look for my Australian Phillips's later. Another brother had stayed in England. Using census information for England taken in 1901 (there are no more recent censuses publicly available at this time), I discovered he was still single at age 41.
On another trip to England, I went to the government operated Family Research Centre in London but searching the quarterly indexes for marriages of Thomas Phillips's from 1901 forward soon revealed that I would go broke buying marriage certificates just to see if I could find this Thomas getting married, a real needle in a haystack. I then diverted my attention to the third sibling, Sarah Anita Phillips. Using the 1901 census (my great grandmother Phillips was still alive then) I found Sarah Anita (now married to a Moon) and three children of hers living with her mother. Now Moon turns out to be quite a common name in England but fortunately Sarah's children had distinctive forenames.
I painstakingly searched quarter by quarter for their possible marriages, births from any of their marriages, and their deaths. It was hard slogging but by the second day I had found children for two of Sarah's children but no deaths for the children who would have been in their eighties by that time. I bought the pertinent marriage and birth certificates and these confirmed I had the correct Moons. An interesting and helpful thing is that since sometime in the mid-1850's, all probated wills and administrations are available at the Principal Registry, Family Division, in London. I hightailed it to that office and located the necessary information to order the wills of the two sons of Sarah Anita. It turned out that each had left their estates to his only child (the children for whom I found no death records), with their towns of residence noted.
A trip to another source (the London Guildhall) allowed me to look up phone numbers for each of them - I phoned, and Eureka, they were indeed the right individuals. One lived a 20 minute train ride from downtown London and he invited me to visit. That I did and there was a second miracle - not only did he have a more comprehensive family tree than my third cousin had prepared, it went back a further generation to a Thomas Phillips (born 1785) who was my great-great-great grandfather. It did have a birth year for my great-great grandfather Phillips and we then searched the IGI on the web for him. Fortunately he had a distinctive name, "John Richardson Phillips", and we found his christening and the names of his parents: Thomas and Selina.
Another IGI search yielded Thomas's christening and his parent's names, Joseph and Martha. Concentrating on the ten year period before Thomas's birth we located his parents' marriage on the IGI. A search of the actual microfilmed record at the London Metropolitan Archives in London turned up a George Phillips as a witness at that marriage - father or brother, we thought. Because we knew that Thomas had been baptized as a non-conformist and that his mother Martha had registered the event, we correctly surmised that his parents might be buried in a non-conformist cemetery. We used the British National Burial Index and found a Joseph of the correct age who died in 1796 at the Bunhill Fields cemetery in London.
The Family Records Centre in London had more detailed records and we found a George Phillips buried in the same grave but in 1813. Initially we could not locate a will for Joseph but located one for George on the British National Archives website. This gave us the name of another brother, William, and a brother-in-law, Thomas Chevalier, and George's children. Space does not permit going in to detail but a multitude of searches pieced together a set of siblings: William (the eldest), Joseph (my ancestor), George, and Elizabeth (married to Thomas Chevalier). No where could we find their parents. We located William's will and discovered several children including a son named William Joseph George! I reasoned that possibly descendants of either William or George might have better family information.
Using the British search engine on www.freeBMD.org.uk which indexes almost all births, marriages, and deaths from September 1837 to 1900; certificates purchased to follow-up on the index findings; searches of the Times of London; censuses on ancestry.com; and other sources we found that George's granddaughter had married a Cheshire and that one of her descendants was British World War II hero Leonard Cheshire. We found his bio through Google which mentioned a deceased brother who had worked for an international company - the HR department of that company passed on a written query that put me in contact with his son. Initially the son (he turned out to be my sixth cousin!) could locate no records but months later discovered a box of family memorabilia including the name of the father of George, a Thomas Phillips whose dates were given as 1720 to 1763.
Luck was with us - the National Archives website, for a fee of £3.50, coughed up the will of a gin distiller named Thomas Phillips who died in 1763 whose children were William, Joseph, George, and Elizabeth. Knowing his residence at the time of death, we were able to locate birth information for the children through another trip to the London Metropolitan Archives. In similar fashion to George, we tracked down two living descendants of William. Now, Phillips are numerous in England but their middle names were distinctive. Using the internet paid search facility TraceSmart, addresses were found and letters were dispatched and one Phillips replied. He was a descendant of William, all right, but his family lore suggested William had been born out of wedlock, the son of a son of the king of France! This is where DNA came in handy! I met with my suspected new found relation on a trip to England and he agreed to submit a sample to FTDNA - lo and behold, we matched on 35 out of 37 markers. This clinched the fact that William and Joseph were indeed sons of the same father (Thomas).
The moral of this story is that a lot of time consuming searching is called for in tracing family history and, while there are many tools on the internet, locating distant British ancestors may well require a trip to various archives in London. Further, DNA testing will probably be needed at some point because family lore gets to be more myth than fact as time passes.