Dates are, of course, the backbone of ancestral research – they are essentially the thing we are looking for, and the more we can narrow them down the better. This is why I think looking at dates in context is really important: a genealogical reconstruction of events, if you will.
Keep an eye out for any specific date you can attach to your ancestor, even if it’s not an event that has much effect on their own life. Even just a passing mention can help give you some clues as to where your ancestor was and what they were doing at that time
As part of my indexing project I am creating a timeline for each ancestor and plotting as many events onto it that might have been relevant to their life as possible. It’s easier in some cases than others. In my own family tree, Amy Hall, the eldest sister of my 2x great grandmother Mabel, was a touring actress, and theatre archives enable me to pinpoint her movements pretty much continuously for twenty-four years, even though I can’t positively identify her on two out of the four possible censuses in her lifetime. (Frustratingly, in 1911 I know where she was just two days before the census was taken, but no luck so far...) A more general set of records you might be able to achieve something similar with is the electoral rolls.
This ‘time-lining’ been quite an eye-opener, just in terms of the new perspective it has given me – people having children just days before the death of a parent or even a spouse, for example. All too often, I think, we consider an individual ancestors life as self-contained, whereas in fact the lives of their family would have had a huge impact on them. A more careful consideration of this could bring all sorts of new possibilities to life, particularly those details beyond the fundamentals of birth, marriage and death.
Individual dates also have their uses as well. One of the most important ways to use dates though is to look out for larger gaps between siblings and consider why this might be. Did their parents have other children? Were the parents apart for a period – for work, in the military, even in prison...?
It’s also worth picking apart the various birth years given for children on censuses to narrow them down a bit. Logically, your ancestor is just as likely to have been born the year before the census entry suggests, because they turned the age they are on the census any time in the year leading up to that point. As the census tends to be taken in the first half of the year, this means that someone who is aged twenty on the 1881 census was born in either early 1861 or late 1860. Considering when the census was taken and any discrepancies in ages on various censuses and other documents can help you narrow down a likely birth date. Alternatively work through the data for an entire family or families to weed out errors and identify likely records where there are multiple possibilities. Check out On James Wade, mason for one of my attempts at this!