Philip Holmes – why every little match matters.

The last post on the search for Philip Holmes was, well, on the technical side. But, it served to illustrate a point. Finding family through DNA matching is not effortless fun. There is a huge learning curve at the start to figure out new language and resources to help understand what you are seeing when you open up your DNA results. What are centimorgans and why is the shared DNA at companies sometimes shown in percentages? Are segments important? Why does it say that a person is your second cousin when I know they are not?

It’s usually necessary to drill down through your match list to make something meaningful out of it. Smaller details such as which of your matches also match each other can be incredibly useful information. New techniques and tools for sorting matches appear with some regularity. There’s constant learning to be done.

How the X chromosome opened up this search.

You can’t see X chromosome matches at every site, but you can on Gedmatch, if you choose to upload there. Usually X matches are small and won’t help establish how you are related. However, when a female matches a male on X, it can feel a little like winning the lottery. This is what happened when Carol’s mom matched with someone on Gedmatch at around 40cMs, including a decent chunk of X (in this case, only 17cMs which some people would barely consider of the threshold of a decent match.) It meant she could only be related through that male’s mother’s side of the family. If we could get information from the match about their family tree, this could be an interesting development.

Luckily, Carol has a high success rate in contacting matches and asking them for information. It so happened that the match’s mother was the family genealogist. She was intrigued with the details of Carol’s search for Philip Holmes. Although she was pretty sure that the name Holmes was not represented in her direct ancestors, she gave us enough information for us to help build an accurate tree back to her 3rd great grandparents. From the size of the match, this is where we thought the connection should be.

At this point, the beauty of the X match kicked in. Based on its unique inheritance pattern, we knew that there were a number of her ancestors that we could discount. (Well, technically her son’s ancestors as he was the match). At great-great grandparent level, it meant there were only 5 surnames to consider. Even at great-great-great grandparent level, there were only 8 surnames that had to be consider. Given that we each have 32 great-great-great grandparents, that is a significant paring down of the possibilities.

To try and keep things straight, I downloaded a ridiculous-looking graphic from the internet so that I could mark the ancestors whose names we had to consider. I’ve edited the tree to protect the identity of the match, but this is what it looked like at the 3rd and 4th great-grandparent levels when I had completed that.

Boxall tree with x symbols for blog

I ran all of these surnames through the surname search on Ancestry but there really wasn’t any consistency to point me in a particular direction. This was hindered by the fact that many of Carol’s mum’s matches were distant and/or had no trees. It was frustrating, but I felt determined that somehow this match was going to give us a lead.

I had already made a few trees for a few Philip Holmes “potentials” – men who were around the right age to have been Carol’s grandfather and who were based in London. I poured over those too, looking for any of the surnames from the match tree. Again, there were none. So what now?

The answer proved to be this: I had to go back to basics. 

DNA evidence on its own does not constitute genealogical proof. Sometimes it may be all that is available to show a connection between two people. But that conclusion should only be made after a thorough search of related records.

I started reading through the records attached to one of the Philip Holmes possibilities and soon made two discoveries.

  • The ancestry for his maternal line contained a possible error that we had been unable to solve. His mother, Kate Phillips, was listed as the grandchild of a Mr and Mrs William Dobney  in the 1871 census. In the tree we had added her parents as Henry Phillips and Sarah Dobney, based on that census record. There were no other records linking her to the Dobney name, so the ancestral line was stuck there.
  • A close reading of the 1911 census record for Philip Holmes, (age 7), living with his parents in Hackney, showed that under the same roof there was an interesting occupant.  Emily Tilbury, aunt (relationship to head of household), aged 74.

And where had we seen that surname before? Right there in the tree with the daft X graphic.

Tilbury only tree

So, if we could connect that Ms Tilbury to the Tilburys in the match’s tree then surely, surely we had found our man.


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