How to Get Started in Genealogy / Family History
Most of us have a family story passed down to us from our parents about a famous ancestor and have nursed an ambition to find out more. This brief guide describes how to go set out on this journey of exploration. Most of these stories will turn out to have acquired a generous measure of embellishment over the years, but the process of separating fact from fiction is an engrossing and rewarding hobby.
Being systematic in your research right from the beginning is important. You will soon acquire masses of information that will become overwhelming if not organised properly. First of all write down all you know about your own personal details and those of your parents and siblings. Work outwards to uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. and backwards to grandparents.
Next talk to all these people and see what extra information they can add to (or correct) what you already have. At this stage treat everything as "tentative" since memory can play tricks. Talk generally about the family context. Even though the age or date of birth of someone is elusive, remembering that they were born the year before the Coronation pins it down just as well. Often someone has a family bible in which baptisms, marriages and burials have been recorded.
At this point it is also a good idea to sift through the family photographs and ensure that they are properly documented - get someone to write on the back the date, place and who the people are! You will also find it valuable to join your local family history society, even if your ancestors come from a completely different area, since it will give you access to national resources and other family history society publications as well as bringing you into contact with fellow researchers who will usually be pleased to help you. It is also a good idea to join relevant mailing lists on the Internet.
Since 1 July 1837, it has been possible, and
usually mandatory, to register births, marriages and deaths. You use these
certificates to give you information relating to the individuals in your family
tree. To get the full information on them, you have to buy such certificates. A
birth certificate will usually give the full names of the parents, including the
mother's maiden surname. You then use this information to locate your parent's
marriage and obtain the certificate of this (if you do not already have it).
This will usually list the names of the father's of both parties. This enables
you to find the births of both parties, and so on. Using this process repeatedly
will generally allow you to take your line well back into the nineteenth
century. Death certificates are also useful on occasions because they can
sometimes pin down a date of birth more precisely, since marriage certificates
usually do not have reliable ages on them! Wills are also very useful since they
often mention other family members. However, certificates currently cost £9.25
each, so this phase of your research can be expensive. There are also some
important official changes planned in this area which will probably affect
genealogists and family historians adversely when they are implemented over the
next few years. You need to be aware of these since there are some certificates
which you may want to get more quickly than others. It used to be possible to
visit a centre in
By now, if you have a computer, you will probably want to obtain a genealogy/family tree program to help you organise and present your information. There are many available to suit all tastes, needs and pockets, some free, some shareware and some commercial.
The ten yearly censuses from 1841 until 1911 are available and provide a fascinating insight into the occupations, places of birth, family and social structure of your ancestors. You can also often use this information to narrow down your search for a birth or marriage that has proved elusive. However, like all information that you will acquire, these returns are sometimes not wholly accurate and must be used judiciously. It is a good idea to take photocopies of any such public document that you locate, since it is easier, quicker and more accurate than manually extracting the information.
There are also lots of other public records
and documents such as wills, inventories and court records may be useful. The
Public Record Office at
Pushing Further Back
Before civil registration you will be
dependent on parish registers, most of which have been copied and some have been
indexed. These copies and indexes are usually available from Local Record
Offices and many are available at the Society of Genealogists in
As you work back through the earliest registers, perhaps to the later 1500s, the handwriting becomes more challenging! Some of the earlier registers are also in Latin! Apart from Parish registers, the other contents of the Parish Chest, such as Overseer's records, bastardy bonds, removal and settlement records, may also be of use.
Related to Adam & Eve?
Before the mid 1500s very few records survive that will help you push back further unless your ancestor was part of the nobility. A very few lucky individuals claim to be able to trace their ancestry back to William the Conqueror, but for most of us with ancestors who were "Ag Labs" (agricultural labourers) we will be lucky to get back to the beginning of parish records in the late 1500s. Sometimes even finding a grandparent at the beginning of the 20th Century proves an insurmountable stumbling block. However, in the course of your research, don't underestimate the chances of finding relatively close family (like an Aunt, Uncle or Cousin) of whose existence you were totally unaware!
As you carry out your research you will
become increasingly aware of how small the world really is and you may suddenly
find out that you are actually related to someone you have known only socially
for many years. With the widespread emigration to the
Some Useful Addresses
(not comprehensive, of course!)
Federation of Family History Societies
Scottish Association of Family History Societies
General Register Office for
New Register House
Belfast BT1 4HL
General Register Office (
National Archives of
Principal Registry of the
42-49 High Holborn
London WC1V 6NP
Society of Genealogists
National Library of
The Guild of One Name Studies
c/o Box G
The Society of Genealogists (at address above)
The Institute of Heraldic and
Some Useful Internet Addresses
(not comprehensive, of course!)
Newsgroups such as soc.genealogy.britain, alt.genealogy (and many others)
Cyndi's List: http://www.cyndislist.com
GENUKI (Genealogy in
Public Record Office: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
Addresses of LDS Family Record Centres: http://www.familysearch.org/Search/searchfhc2.asp
LDS's Family Search Site: http://www.familysearch.org/
RootsWeb: - Mailing lists for countries, counties, surnames etc.: http://www.rootsweb.com
Friends Reunited: http://www.friendsreunited.co.uk/
Lost Cousins: http://www.lostcousins.com/A US-focussed guide, with lots of links (Thanks to Isabella from Baker County for this one): History at Home: A Guide to Genealogy
Ordering E&W BMD Certificates: http://www.direct.gov.uk/gro
Society of Genealogists: http://www.sog.org.uk/
Access to Archives (A2A): http://www.a2a.pro.gov.uk/search/index.asp
Historical Directories: http://www.historicaldirectories.org/hd/index.asp
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Page last updated: 6th June 2015