Starting your family history
This page is intended to give you an brief introduction to family history. It is not a complete guide – there are plenty of books around which will give you a better oversight.
What to do
Start with yourself
Start with yourself. Collect together your personal documents – birth certificate, marriage certificate etc – and create your first record (handwritten or digital). Extend your work to your spouse and down to your children. Then approach your parents. Always be careful how you approach people – they may not have the same enthusiasm about the work as you do. Some people may not be prepared to discuss what they consider to be personal information; some people may not be prepared to produce original documents. On the other hand some people are hoarders of information and will be quite happy to talk about it.
The elderly aunt
The next stage in your research will be to obtain some oral history. The ideal person will be someone in their eighties. They should be able to remember details of their grandparents and with some luck you will be able to prepare a draft tree back to 1911, which is when the latest census is available. Elderly relatives can be good at remembering names and relationships; females tend to be better with dates; males with locations and jobs.
You will soon collect some notes on ‘oral history’. These are important, as they are an important link to your ancestors. It is essential to record the stories told to you precisely as they are told to you. Do NOT attempt to interpret them. Write them down as told to you; sign and date them; and record where you obtained them (name of informant, date, and place).
Be aware that these stories may be misremembered, misheard, or misunderstood but will usually contain a kernel of truth in them. It is unusual for you to be told lies but they may be exaggerated or have improved with the telling of them.
Record keeping (traditional)
The traditional method of record keeping was to have a small notebook into which you would record the results of your searches; and a set of record cards on which you would record the personal details for each individual. Those cards would be cross-referenced to other people e.g. parents, spouses, and children.
Record keeping (modern)
The principles have not changed. The small notebook has been replaced with a looseleaf system and a ring-binder. The record cards have been replaced with computer software which is laid out in much the same way as a record card.
You will quickly generate a lot of paperwork and this needs to be stored systematically. The ring-binder should be split into sections – we suggest one section for each of your four grandparents. Each page should be marked with that family name in the top right-hand corner, possibly with a related name in brackets. There is no hard and fast rule about this but you do need to record your work, and to be able to locate those notes in the future.
The first step was actually to read some books. Most libraries have a reasonable selection to choose from. Concentrate initially on the period from 1837 when certificates were introduced. Skim over the earlier documents including parish registers as it will be some time before you need to know about those records.
There are lots of software packages around each with different features although the presentation of the basic data is much the same for all of them. In the past we have recommended Personal Ancestral File (PAF5) from the Church of Latter Day Saints (https://familysearch.org/) but it is has now been discontinued. It is a shame as it was free and contained all the basic reports that you need. We now recommend WikiTree (https://www.wikitree.com/). This is a free site, and also a collaborative site.
Whenever you record something in your computer database also make a note of your sources. This is usually something simple like ‘birth certificate’, ‘census 1881′, ‘freebmd’, or ‘oral dd/mm/yyyy’. You are going to make mistakes and at some point in the future you will be challenged on your data. You need to be able to justify your data. With your sources recorded and your paper records you will be able to respond with e.g. ‘that was told to me by my great-aunt who has since died. I did have my suspicions at the time but she was quite adamant about it’. You may not be able to resolve the challenge but at least you will be able to confirm that you are not the useless idiot you appear to be.
If your initial work has identified someone alive in 1911 then have a look at the UK Census. It is readily available online and most library services in the UK have a subscription which is available free to library members. You need to find your ancestor in 1911 and be reasonably certain that is them i.e. the name, age, and location should match. If they are married and/or have children then all the data should match up with what you have already obtained. Then use that data to proceed backwards through each census deducting ten years from their age each time. Married females cannot be followed this way, as their surname will have changed on marriage. With luck you will arrive at 1841 for one of your grandparent’s lines. That ancestor may have been born around 1770-1790 and for them you will have to change over to the parish registers.
Luck plays a large part in tracing your family. Expect to have an easy time with one of your four grandparents; a seemingly impossible task with one of them; the remaining two will be found, but probably after some head scratching along the way. Do NOT expect your paternal line to be the easy one; you may have to switch to one of the other three.
It also helps to have a distinct name, or to have come from a small settlement. You will know your own name and it will be special to you, but very few people have a unique name. Try putting your own name (in double quotes) into a search engine and see how many results you get. Then add another keyword (location or occupation) to narrow the search. You can do the same for your ancestors but it usually pays to add “family history” to the search terms. Some people have had good results. Many families have favoured names which will be repeated over the generations. Distinct names usually help but common names can cause confusion. You will at some point have information about a ‘name’ but be unable to work out who it is – father/son or cousins are the common ones. Expect to be hindered by people with the same or similar name and born at about the same time.
Do not be misled into thinking that you have to buy a certificate for every family member. They are expensive and actually contain very little information. Take a look at your own birth certificate. It gives you the names of your parents but nothing else. If you look at your family tree you will see that you need their date of marriage, their place of marriage, and their dates of birth etc none of which is given on that certificate. Scottish certificates contain a lot more information.
Certificates are a modern document and prior to them there were Parish Registers (see below). Certificates started in 1837 for England and Wales, and later in Scotland.
Indexes to births, deaths, and marriages
There are quarterly indexes to birth, marriages and deaths, commonly known as the General Record Office indexes, and are located at National Archives at Kew. They have been microfilmed and are readily available as microfiche in local libraries.
From 1912 there are cross-references in the index which usually help with your search. For births this is the mother’s maiden name; marriages the surname of the spouse. The GRO has now indexed these early years (births and deaths) and those cross-references are now available on their website (see https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/)
freebmd (at http://www.freebmd.org.uk/)
freebmd is a group of volunteers who set out to digitise the indexes to the certificates (England and Wales only) and they have largely succeeded. Their databases are available online; are free; and have an effective search engine. Try it out by trying to find the marriage of your parents – using ONLY the information on your birth certificate. Their work only extends to the 1980s so you might need to start with your grandparents.
Note that marriages are recorded with two on each page and they share the same reference number. When you click on the reference number you should be presented with four names, and before 1912 no indication as to who married whom. Results in italic indicate a query, usually a misread or mistyped digit.
A lot of data is now online and you will need to learn how to use a search engine effectively. Do NOT try to fill in every box available. Fill in one box at a time and see how many results you get. Then fill in another box until you can bring the results down to a manageable number. Be careful with ages and dates – always search with +/- 2 years to cover any inaccuracies.
A digital camera, or a smartphone, is a must. You will encounter documents that are relevant and a quick snap makes a permanent record. It also saves having to transcribe the original document, but take care to record the name of the original document and location so that you can find it again.
Laptops, pads, tablets, and smartphones can be useful. Most computer software allows you to export your data as a web page. You can then load that data onto your device and have it available to you wherever you go. Also useful for boring your family and friends. Instead of ‘would you like to see our holiday snaps?’ you can ask ‘would you like to see my family tree?’
Other people’s trees
Many people have published their family trees. You may be lucky and find that someone has done a lot of your work for you. Never take that work as being gospel – you will need to check it. There are now a large number of family trees on Ancestry (http://www.ancestrylibrary.com/default.aspx ) and you can expect to find at least one of your grandparents there. Be warned that the quality can be dreadful – a lot of users appear to have just grabbed a convenient name from freebmd.org without bothering to verify the data. However, you can find copies of certificates and a few images there. The trees on wikitree (http://www.wikitree.com/) appear to be much better although that site is predominately north american.
Whenever you go out to do some research you should take with you some action sheets so that you know what it is you want to do, and what you are trying to find. It is very easy to go somewhere and become distracted with some irrelevant information. Be prepared to spend many very enjoyable hours reading through papers that are actually irrelevant to you. The action sheet can be a simple note: trying to find marriage for xxxx; census gives first child as xxxx born xxxx; wife’s name xxxx. Sometimes you can print out a part of the family tree from the software and use that as a guide.
Always take several sheets with you in case you are stumped with the first one. These sheets do not have to be tidy – the back of an envelope is often sufficient, but using a sheet of A4 means that you can record the results of your search on that sheet and file it when you return home.
Until 1837 (England and Wales) baptisms, burials, and marriages were recorded in the registers kept at the parish church. From 1837 births, and deaths had to be recorded with the local Registrar; although the churches continued to record baptisms, burials, and marriages. The ‘official’ way to trace your family is to visit a record office and work through the microfilm of the register. You should be able to work out the relevant parish from the place of birth in the census (1851 onwards). The Church of Latter Day Saints (http://www.familysearch.org/) has indexed a lot of registers so use their site first, it may save you a lot of time. Be aware that there are a lot of errors in their data and it all needs to be checked against the original registers. Our Research Centre contains a large collection of transcripts but only for Northumberland and Durham. All library services have a good collection but only for their local area.
The content of parish registers is very variable. Many contain only brief details – ‘Thomas, pitman of xxxx married Elizabeth’ – which tells you nothing about their ancestry. A few are very detailed and will give the name of the parents of the groom; and both names and location of the bride’s parents, which can take you a generation further back. However, it is all down to luck. There can be a profusion of abbreviations: otp (of this parish); botp (both of this parish); ns (natural son i.e. illegitimate).
The fundamental rule is: PENCILS only. After that there is no hard and fast rule. Assume that you will not be allowed to take bags etc into the search room. Some offices allow folders etc but be prepared to take only your action sheets. And it is not like the television series – you will have to do your own searching and you will not get to see the original records. For most family history records all you will see is a microfilm.
From September 2019 most Record Offices will require you to have a CARN card. These are available free of charge at Record Offices but you will need to identify yourself – providing proof of address, signature, and photograph. The webpage at our local archives: Tyne & Wear Archives Service (TWAS) provides details – other Record Offices will have a similar page.
Proof is not a good word to use in family history. You will rarely find absolute proof of an event, or a relationship. Most of the time what you find will be circumstantial evidence. You will often have to accept something as relevant to your family as the names, dates, and location match but without any direct links between the records.
(Last updated 6th September 2021.)