Beginners Guide to Family History
How to Start with Family History
As anyone who has seen the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ series will know, tracing your family history can stir all sorts of feelings – from excitement and satisfaction, to emotion and frustration. Yet as your research unfolds, you will soon evolve into an expert detective, as you follow different trails and lines of enquiry. It’s a journey worth taking though, because not only will you understand where you came from; you will learn what your ancestor’s lives were like and about events that shaped history, even if your ancestors were not directly involved. Here are a few tips to get you started.
First write down everything you know about yourself
If need be check your official certificates and write down a record of:
- Your date of birth
- Where you were born
- Where you were baptised
- When and where you married
Also write down similar details for your:
- any other relatives you can think of
Seek out information from Birth, Marriage, and Death (BMD) Certificates.
Draw a rough family tree
Draw up a rough family tree – you can add to it as you go along. Don’t worry about unknowns – you can fill them in later. Include dates and places of births, marriages, deaths, burials etc. To start with keep the rough tree in a loose leaf folder, together with a separate sheet for each family member to record notes and information. Later you may wish to use a computer to help in this task, and there are packages available to assist you.
Talk to your relatives
- Talk to your oldest relatives, they are your first and best link to your ancestors. They may remember people and events from when they were young; for example, if your great-grandfather was in the war they might remember him and other events of the time. If they have no objection, you could make a voice recording of the conversation, to play back and make proper notes from later.
- Ask them about any family stories, rumours or scandals that they heard from their parents. These may have been embellished over the years, but often carry a grain of truth.
- Older relatives may have their own collection of certificates, letters or photographs; you could ask to photocopy any important pieces. Sometimes the first information given proves to be incorrect; but if you keep asking, more memories may be recalled and the accuracy of your information will improve.
- Show your family tree, documents and old photographs to other family members – they may spot errors or mention things that you didn’t know about.
- Ask if any other relatives have been researching the family – you may save each other some time.
Read around the Subject
There are scores of websites, books and several monthly magazines devoted to family history; some very specific, some general, and many suitable for beginners. You could borrow some books from the library before buying your own. Also, the HGS Research Centre in Cosham, free to members and non-members, has a selection of suitable books that you can come in and browse (check on the Research & Resources page for opening times and directions).
Join a Family History Society
Join your local Family History Society (FHS). Even if your ancestors are not from your local area, you can meet and learn a lot from like-minded people who can give you guidance and new ideas. Societies are inexpensive to join and provide you with membership, a society magazine or journal, access to search services, and often hold local meetings with expert speakers.
It’s also a good idea to join a society in the area where your research will be based. They will have their own indexes and search services, and as a member you may receive preferential rates or access to member-only services. Through their journal or magazine you can learn about the history and people of the area, and be kept up to date with new local research resources.
Some Family History Societies have a Computer Group. This is where you can ask about computer packages that can assist you in drawing your family tree and recording information.
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) in England and Wales became compulsory in 1837, but the law was not rigidly enforced until 1875. By searching a BMD index you should be able to find a record and order a copy of the relevant certificate – this will give more information about the event. There is a good Government website that will help you find out how and where to search BMD indexes and order copies of certificates.
Census returns over 100 years old are in the public domain and can be an inexpensive source of information. The census was taken every 10 years from 1841; the most recent return available is for 1911. Information given varies from year to year, with the 1841 census giving the most basic information. All census returns can be found through The National Archives website. They are also available on some subscription websites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk.
Wills are a tremendous source of information. They can reveal family details and relationships that you may have been unaware of. Some wills list complete families in birth order, although sometimes close family members are omitted if they had fallen out of favour with the Testator or were of independent means. For more information see the section on Wills and Probates on this site.
Pitfalls to Avoid
- Barking up the wrong tree – don’t take anything at face value; if you start searching for John Smith, don’t assume that the first ‘John Smith’ you encounter is ‘yours’, even if the date and place fit. This applies equally to less common surnames – in one location there can be a pocket of different families with the same surname. File the information until you have more evidence. If you do trace that line, keep an open mind and be prepared to change tack if need be.
- Tracing too many lines at once – particularly for beginners. For your own sanity it is best to focus on one ancestral line at a time. It can get mighty confusing if you try to do too much at once. Avoid the temptation to go off at a tangent, and save any information you find for your other lines for later.
- Limiting your research due to beliefs about your ancestors lives – this can seriously limit your trail. You need to keep an open mind – just because you believe your family are ‘all Church of England’ or they ‘all come from Hampshire’, does not make it true – much as you may wish it. Don’t dismiss the possibility that your ancestors could have been non-conformists, or that they originated from elsewhere (people did travel in search of work)- investigate all possibilities, especially if the obvious avenues have proved unsuccessful.
Useful Information Sources
Local libraries often hold short courses on tracing your ancestors. Many have subscriptions to Ancestry or Find My Past and you can book research time on a computer for free.
Family History Societies and Related Sources via GENUKI.
Directgov Website has a PDF leaflet called ‘Discover your Family History’ that is very useful for beginners and can be downloaded for free.
The National Archives (TNA)