Family history is a rich and rewarding pastime, which can help you discover more about where you came from and those who preceded you. This guide offers some pointers on how to get started.
Family research always starts with you and your parents. Then your Grandparents and their parents (who are your Great Grandparents). A starting target would be to find these 14 people before going back too far down the generations. This will allow you to perfect research techniques in centuries where there are many sources before tackling eras where there are few. Genealogy is not just about 'collecting' relatives to make the largest tree. Nor is it a competition to claim the oldest ancestors. You will get the most out of this hobby if you find out about your ancestors' lives. Where they lived, worked and played. In recent years family researchers have noted trends for certain health issues in their ancestors which made them seek treatment before the issue become a problem for family members in this generation.
Start by asking if anyone in your family has already started family research or anyone who can tell you the names of your 14 direct ancestors. You can check these known people in records as a control group when developing your research techniques.
Family gatherings are an excellent place to collect oral family history so take a small notebook to weddings, christenings etc. It's not difficult to start a theme going people love to remember their past and to relate them for an interested audience and it will soon spark off others to add to the tales. You may find relatives who are the custodians of family photographs and papers. By showing an interest they may allow you to copy or, if you are very lucky, keep these documents and photographs. But before you gather up the 'treasures' ask for names and dates for each item. Its best to avoid labelling a relationship to photos such as 'Mum & Dad' as in the future this may not be obvious. Better to use personal names with any nicknames. Dates and places are also very useful to add.
Hints for taking oral history
- Try not to stop the storytellers' flow by questions as it may lead them off the subject. Details can be clarified at the end.
- Note the source, who said what so you can go back to them for clarification.
- Write down all the tale you are told, regardless of how far fetched the 'story', as pieces may be of use later.
- Don't ignore younger members of the family they may have been told things by their elders that will add to the mix.
- Record details of siblings as searches of close family may help when your prime subject gets 'lost' in the records.
If you become the custodian of family photos and original documents they will need to be stored for prosperity There are several specialist companies who provide archive standard storage systems and display folders. You will often find them at family history fairs or a web search.
Once you have some information you will need to start keeping it in some logical order and a notebook will be adequate to start with. However, you will soon start amassing a great deal of information and if you have a computer you will find it is the logical way to store it all. Most family historians keep hard copies as a back up. If you don't have a computer or prefer pen and paper then start with pre-printed forms. You can buy them but they can also be found as a free download on the internet.
You could make use of free online tree makers on family research sites such as:
You don't need to take out a subscription to use them although this may mean you don't get the full experience of the site and you do need to see original documents yourself and not trust the transcribed index.
Take care with personal information
Be cautious about giving out any personal details of living persons and never publish them on a public website. Its a great help when a distant cousin contacts you from across the world and you are able to swap information with them. But in the excitement it is so easy to forget that you don't really know them and things you pass on to them may be published without your consent and you will not be able to stop them doing so.
Tree maker software
There are many on the market and they are not overly expensive. It is difficult to recommend any but prime points to look for would be a version for the country you are from so the terminology is familiar to you and check that the reports generated are suitable for your personal needs. Best of all is to find a couple of experienced family historians and get them to show you how their tree-maker works and ask what they do and don't like about it. If you don't know any family historians then join a family history society near to your current home. It does not matter if your family are not local to that area as family research does not significantly change from county to county.
Starting your research with online documents and sources
If you have a computer at home you may like to get started immediately. But remember not to rely on indexes alone you must see the original record yourself or you won't know if it has been transcribed correctly. There are various commercial sites offering pay to view scans of the original documents for a variety of research material from census returns to telephone directories, military records to wills, civil registration to parish registers etc.
There are also some free sites you may like to practice on first.
Genealogical websites that are truly free
Some research sites offer free trials for 2 weeks. They mean 14 consecutive days so if you want to use the trial wait until you have the time to make full use of the offer. Some give free access to their indexes. But unless you read the original record you are not going to glean much information and for some surnames you will get too many options to be sure which is yours. However, FreeBMD and Family Search are currently totally free. So you can practice searching for someone whose details you already know to better appreciate what results are likely to appear. Experiment with alternative spellings, half the information etc. to see what happens. Then when searching for someone you don't know much about you will have better idea about what the database is capable of producing. It is not necessary to put something in each search field you may get a better result by giving less information.
- Free BMD: Excellent site for English and Welsh records from 1837 when civil Registration of Birth, Marriages and Deaths started. This site has been transcribed by volunteers mostly family historians themselves who have a vested interest in getting it right!
- Family Search: Provided by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). It is always a good idea to find more than one source of evidence. This is especially so on this site as when they first started members of the church were allowed to upload information without it being checked or providing any sources.
Although there are earlier censuses for various reasons they do not provide information of use to the majority of family researchers and are probably best left for when you are desperate and have gained some experience. Start with censuses which provide the most useful information. That is those from 1841 to 1911. From 1841 a census was taken every 10 years (except for 1941. There is a 100 year closure on censuses and due to data protection it requires legislation for them to be released any earlier. Although, in the case of 1911 census, some information was released in the last few years of the closure period.
Free pay to view
Ancestry has given free rights of use within public libraries and some archives. You will need to book a computer and may find a village library is often less booked up than a town library. Archives and local studies libraries usually hold census films, particularly of their local area, which are Free to use within their walls.
Some archives such as Cheshire, Lincolnshire, Canterbury etc. have allowed Find My Past to publish their records. Hence Find My Past is free to use within some archives. Remember its always best to book a computer or a film reader in advance of your visit and when making contact ensure you have the right depository for the area you are researching. Administration areas have changed over the years and are or were not always logically organised. For example parts of the city of Canterbury are actually in Blean registration district and not Canterbury.
Vouchers versus subscriptions
When searching online you will find families go missing from time to time and then you will need to think out of the box and find other ways to find them. This is when you'll find that your voucher will run through like water. You may find that the more cost effective option is to take out a month or part year subscription as you can then search the site all day and all night, if you so wish, for the period of your subscription.
Further documents and sources
Before civil registration started in England in 1837 it was the church that kept records about the milestones in people's lives. Christenings, banns, marriages, burials, poor relief etc. are amongst documents kept in the 'parish chest'. You may have seen old chests displayed in churches although the records they once contained are no longer kept within them. Mostly they are held in an archive but due to wear and tear from constant handling these old documents have mostly been filmed to avoid further damage. Once they were only available in archives but are gradually appearing online on the pay to view search sites mentioned in Step Two. Dates in Registers - if there is no evidence of date it can be record as 'About month year' in your tree until you find an accurate and reliable source.
The Chesterfield Act of 1750
shifted the start of the year by three months. Before this time Britain and its colonies mostly used the Julian calendar which started on Lady Day; 25 March. The 1750 Act switched to the Gregorian calendar, as used in Europe, which starts on 1 January. Hence it is customary to use the format 1654 / 55 for dates in the first months of the year (January February and up to and including 25 March) to show the year as recorded in the Julian calendar and the year as it would be recorded today using the Gregorian calendar. You may see this date format displayed on old tombstones of the period. A hangover from this time is our tax year which still goes from March / April each year.
Baptism versus christening - what's the difference?
Historically there was a subtle difference but nowadays for most of the population both terms will have the same meaning. It is the ceremony when someone is dedicated to the Christian church often by sprinkling water on the person or immersing them in water. Sometimes the former was done just after birth especially if it was feared the child could die and go to purgatory. Then it did not have to be someone in holy orders then any person who had previously been baptised / christened could do it. Once the baby could be taken to the parish church they were then named to the congregation. Sometimes an entry was made in the register to this effect but sometimes not. No one should have more than one christening / baptism but it could and did happen on occasions. Some parent's religious beliefs may mean they did not believe in this ceremony at all or thought that it should not to be carried out until the child was old enough to understand what they were committing to. Whilst others had all their children christened on the same occasion and some people waited until they were about to marry or at deaths door. During the Commonwealth period it was accepted that you did not have to go to a church to be baptised. However, people soon realised that as there was no formal registering of a person, other than an entry in the parish register, then it was a necessary evil if only for inheritance purposes.
Hence an entry in a parish register of a baptism is not an accurate way of gauging a person's age as it can take place at anytime or never. Occasionally you may be lucky and find that whoever wrote the entry in the register did record an age or date of birth in the margin. Marriage - you may be 99.9% certain that the marriage would have taken place on the date written in the parish register.
You can presume the death to be within a few weeks of the burial as keeping cadavers for any time before refrigeration would have been unfeasible. Also in a bad winter when frozen ground made it impossible to dig a grave there might be a longer period before burial took place. But a delay such as the remains not being found immediately is often noted in the parish register. Stillborn infants or babies who died very young were often given to the grave diggers to put in the next grave they dug in that case it is unlikely there will be any mention of this in the registers.
These are copies of the parish registers which were sent off regularly by the incumbent to the Bishop. When parish records have gone missing or are unreadable you may find these helpful. Interestingly some have extra entries not in the parish register and visa versa. So are definitely worth a look for a lost ancestor! These are not normally available online so a visit to the appropriate archive will be necessary.
Church parishes and civil parishes may not necessarily cover the same area you might expect. Parish boundaries and counties have not stayed the same over the years. For example, in recent years London has taken several large chunks out of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. So if your search is pre 1900 you may find the records you want are still held in the county archive not in the London Metropolitan Archive. Useful for tracking down administration areas are:
You do need to check with the archivist to save a wasted journey and it is best to book in as they can get busy.
Churchwardens and Overseers of the poor
Taxes were collected by the Overseers in some parishes by the Churchwarden. these funds were used to help the poor of the parish when it was needed. The Elizabethan Poor Laws worked reasonably well in a village or a place where the rich were not overrun by high numbers of poor. In the parish the well-off land owners would be assessed for a tithe or tax on their lands and property which would be recorded in the parish records. The names of those who received assistance, sometimes with little snippets about why they needed help, sets the scene of how our ancestors lived their daily lives. Often the poor were maintained in their own homes and sensibly assisted over the short period they needed help or they might be given respite in the Poor House which was a more benign institute that the later Victorian Work House. After the Victorian Poor Laws came into being poverty was considered alongside crime and the Poor were treated worse than criminals. Indeed there are many documented cases where some residents committed small criminal acts, such as ripping clothes or swearing at the Master, so they could have a weeks 'respite' in prison where food and conditions were often superior to the Workhouse.
Other parish records
It is a thought by some that in the past people were not allowed to leave the parish in which they were born. In fact they did and this series of records shows that there were systems in place to establish which parish was responsible for a person in their time of need.
An extensive cross examination of the mother would usually take place in the presence of Magistrates, Churchwardens, Overseers. Usually the court was held in the local inn to decide if the father could be named and made responsible for his child. This could result in an order in which a parish was named that would be responsible and provide for the child in the event that neither parents could do so. Some orders Bound Over the father to pay a set amount if the child had to be supported by the parish. In these records he is known as the Bounder and you can see where the term 'Bounder' for a man who loves and leaves comes from.
Established a right of someone to live and to receive poor relief in a parish in which they were not born. This might be because they had worked sufficient length of time in the parish to claim it or because they were married to a parishioner etc. Although there were several ways you could claim a parish it still had to be certified before you received any poor relief.
The parish officers would meet with Justices of the Peace (JPs) to swiftly make the order to return people to their home parish so as not to expend funds on an 'outsider'. Sometimes no parish would take responsibility for an entire family unit although they agreed on certain members being their responsibility. In this case a family could be split between parishes.
There so much more to say about genealogy and the resources you could use to push back the boundaries of your research. But this is merely getting started so we will leave it at this point and wish you the best of luck in tracing your ancestors. We hope that these pages have been helpful as you start out on your quest. Hopefully you will find some interesting people and fascinating facts and not too many brick walls on your way.