I've been blessed with very common surnames in my family — my grandparents were named Wright and Brookes and Jones and Roberts. But the most challenging recent line so far is my maternal grandfather's: he was Tom Jones son of Thomas Jones son of Thomas Jones, and all born or living (yes, you've guessed) in the South Wales valleys. Tracking them down is like looking for needles in a haystack.
My grandfather Tom was almost easy, since a common address ran as a thread through some of the important records, confirming when found that they were related: the address where my mother was born. Her birth certificate told me she was born at 6 Milton Terrace in Merthyr Tydfil in January 1925 and gave me her parent's names. There was only one marriage registered in Merthyr between a Thomas Jones and a Margaret E[llen] Roberts in the 10 years before her birth, and the certificate for that marriage showed that her father (a coal miner) was living at 6 Milton Terrage at the time of his marriage, and his father was also a coal miner called Thomas Jones. (Sadly, that address also helped me confirm I'd found the right death for my grandmother in 1931, when my mother was 6).
A check of the 1911 census revealed my grandfather was already at Milton Terrace with his father Thomas and his mother Agnes, aged about 6, which tied up with his age in at marriage, and born in Merthyr. But using freebmd.org to search for Thomas Jones born 1904 to 1906 in Merthyr threw up 64 possibilities (or 21 if I assumed he had no second name, an assumption for which I had no proof). Narrowing the data range down to 1905 only threw up 14 possibilities, so as this was in the days when the GRO would still do reference checking (such a shame they've stopped), I ordered the certificates to be supplied only if the father's name was Thomas Jones and the mother's name was Agnes. Only one met the requirements, and to support the identification, the father's occupation was a Traveller for Singers Sewing Machines, which matched very well what my mother had said about her grandfather: that he had been a sewing machine salesman for a time. So I had my grandfather's birth and marriage, and both his parents' names: Thomas Jones and Agnes James, married 17 years in 1911 according to the census, so about 1894.
Thomas and Agnes were relatively easy to find in the 1901 census, using the names of their older children to confirm the match, but tracking Thomas back from that has been harder. I found their marriage: using freebmd, I looked for marriages 2 years either side of 1894 anywhere in England and Wales between a Thomas Jones and an Agnes James: there was only one match, in 1893 in Merthyr. When the certificate was delivered, I discovered that the my great-grandfather's father was also Thomas Jones, a deceased Engine Driver.
Finding gg-father Thomas conclusively in the 1891 census has been much harder — however, I've made a tentative identification of him as a Haulier lodging at 9 Rees Street in Merthyr. At his marriage he was living at 10 Rees Street, and one of the witnesses was a Daniel Davies; in 1891 the occupant of 10 Rees Street was a Daniel Davies. I've not been able to trace him conclusively in the 1881 or 1871 censuses (yet).
All the records found so far for my gg-father suggested he was born around 1870 or 1871 in Merthyr or nearby Dowlais -- and there are a mere 150 births of a Thomas Jones between 1868 and 1872 in the Merthyr registration district, and insufficent information to ask for reference checking by the GRO. So at this point I ground to a halt on this line for several years.
And then it became possible to requent information from the 1939 register for the payment of a horrendous fee (which would still be cheaper than ordering a slew of fruitless birth certificates). This was before findmypast put the register on line — you wrote to the NHS Information Centre and waited for ever for them to provide the information. I knew from my mother that she'd been living with her grandparents at the outbreak of war, and they had both died sometime after WW2 when she was living with them in Birmingham, so all three of them should appear on the 1939 register with their dates of birth (and possibly death). So I sent off a cheque requesting information about the household in which my mother was living and held my breath...
And there they were with my mother, still at 6 Milton Terrace! GG-father was born on 5 March 1870 and died on 15 June 1946 (when he would have been 76). At one stroke I had the information I needed to get both his birth and death certificates.
According to freebmd, there were two deaths in Birmingham in 1946 registered between April and December, one Thomas E Jones and one Thomas Jones. I ordered the Thomas Jones certificate and when it arrived the informant was shown as J. H. Jones son of 6 Milton Terrace Merthyr Tydfil. Bingo!
The birth certificate was even easier: the GRO don't do reference checking any more, but you can order a certificate with the relevant names and dates from the relevant local Register Office. I wrote to the office in Merthyr Tydfil and received a birth certificate a few days later: Thomas Jones born 5 March 1870 at 9 Pond Street, Dowlais. His father was an 'Agent' called Thomas Jones and his mother was Elizabeth Jones (formerly Hughes). Onwards!
Or not, as the case turns out. 14 possible marriages across in the 10 years before his birth, and 13 of those in Wales. No way of knowing which certificate to order, although there's only 1 in Merthyr Tydfil so I might take a chance on that. No obvious entries for the family in 1871 or 1881 — a possible 28 year old widow in her grandfather's house in Aberdare in 1871 with a one year old son born in Dowlais, who might be the same pair that show up in Merthyr Tydfil in 1881 near the two addresses where Thomas and his wife Agnes were living at their marriages.
So the 1939 register has moved me forward, but there's still a long hard slog ahead on this line...