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.

Essential Preliminaries

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.

First Steps

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 London to locate and order these certificates but this is no longer possible but you can do the necessary work and order on-line. You can locate the entry you require from sites such as FreeBMD or Ancestry but do check the original image to ensure that the information has been transcribed correctly before ordering! When you have the full index information, you can order the certificates on-line at but since these are expensive, make sure that you identify the correct person or, if there is any doubt, use the checking facility.

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.

Corroborative Information.

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 Kew also contains a great deal of information on Military and Naval personnel.

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 London. This stage of your research is usually less financially demanding but becomes much more time-consuming. One can often reduce this by using the information collected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) which is now widely available on the Internet. Some years ago, they created the International Genealogical Index (IGI), originally available on microfiche. However, although an invaluable resource at that time, this index was far from complete and was also known to contain many inaccuracies and uncorroborated "guesses" so information extracted from it should always be double-checked with an original source. The IGI and all the other information collected by the LDS is available on their web site known as Family Search. The LDS also have geological research centres all over the world and the they hold, or have access to all the filmed copies of Parish Registers, and the public can visit these centres to access these films.

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 USA, Canada and Australia, it is a fact of life that we all have relatives in those parts of the world. The increasing use of the Internet, with the genealogy newsgroups and mailing lists, is rapidly allowing people of common ancestry to link together and share their research. Although it will be a long time before it will be possible to simply sit at home and do all the research from the comfort of your armchair, more and more information is now available on-line or can be purchased on CD-ROMs.

Some Useful Addresses
(not comprehensive, of course!)

Federation of Family History Societies
PO Box 2425
Coventry CV5 6YX

Scottish Association of Family History Societies
27 Woodland Drive
Aberdeen AB15 6YJ

General Register Office for Scotland
New Register House
Edinburgh EH1 3YT

 General Register Office (Northern Ireland)
49-55 Chichester Street
Belfast BT1 4HL

General Register Office (Eire)
8-11 Lombard Street East

National Archives of Ireland
Bishop Street


Principal Registry of the Family Division
First Avenue
42-49 High Holborn
London WC1V 6NP

York Probate Sub-Registry
Duncombe Place

York YO1 2EA

Society of Genealogists
14 Charterhouse Buildings
Goswell Road


Public Record Office
Ruskin Avenue

Surrey TW9 4DU

National Library of Wales
Penglais Road


The Guild of One Name Studies
c/o Box G
The Society of Genealogists (at address above)

The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies
79-82 Northgate
Kent CT1 1BA

Some Useful Internet Addresses
(not comprehensive, of course!)

Newsgroups such as soc.genealogy.britain, alt.genealogy (and many others)

Cyndi's List:

GENUKI (Genealogy in UK and Ireland):

Public Record Office:

Addresses of LDS Family Record Centres:

LDS's Family Search Site:

RootsWeb: - Mailing lists for countries, counties, surnames etc.:

Friends Reunited:

Lost Cousins:

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:

Society of Genealogists:

Access to Archives (A2A):





Historical Directories:

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Page last updated: 9 February 2024