Tracing your Family Tree

Written a few years ago, some links may be broken and other sources of information become available on a regular basis.

How to get Started in Genealogy

The first thing is to get a good computer program to store the results of your research. This is so much easier than having scraps of paper all over the place. I use PAF, which was  free from the Mormons but has been discontinued. There are now many online family tree tools and facilities to share your trees with other researchers.

Once you’ve got a suitable family tree tool running you can enter your immediate family and any members of your extended family you have details for. Ask around aunts, uncles, cousins for any missing details. Important things to record are dates and places of birth, death and marriage.

Next thing is to obtain your grandparents’ birth and marriage certificates if they are not already in your family’s possession. They will give information about the names of their parents. To do this you will need to find the index reference of the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths. There is a free lookup website at the FreeBMD project. It is nearly complete but occasionally very slow at peak times. When ordering certificates at the GRO there is also a search facility there now.

From these references you will get the date (year and quarter), the district, the volume number and page number for the person’s record. The GRO give you some background to this information. These are required to place an order with GRO. Note that is quite easy to get the wrong person’s certificate! Check carefully all available information before placing the order. Sometimes you have to take an educated guess and get a couple of certificates knowing that at least one will be wrong.

You can get corroborating evidence (although this sometimes just confuses things!) from the census data. If the person you’re looking for was alive in 1901 the you can look them up in that Census. (Similarly for 1911.) Again this will cost money to see the results, but you can find out a bit from the basic searches. Also it is important to check the age of the individual before you pay to see the results. The censuses were usually conducted around March/April time so you need to be careful about the age at the date of the census, taking into account that their birthday might be before or after the census date. The census data are also useful for finding other family members and of course where they were living. The 1921 and 1939 records give more information on occupations and dates of birth.

For someone who was alive 1837-1939 you can search the records at FindMyPast website and again that will cost money to see the full results. There are also various other censuses available.

When you get further back in time the resources become harder to find. The first compulsory registrations of Births Deaths and Marriages were in 1837, but for people born before then you need to look in Parish Records. These are the basis for a lot of information in the IGI. Other research sites are beginning to put these parish records online also.

By working backwards in time, one generation at a time, you can soon build up an impressive database. Occasionally you will hit a dead-end, where the information is apparently missing or too ambiguous. In this case it’s often best to leave it for a while and look into other branches. Tracing the paternal line through a particular surname is relatively easy. The maternal lines can be harder and marriage certificates are very useful here. Sometimes a great deal of lateral thinking is needed especially when records have been badly transcribed and can’t be found in the conventional searches.

As well as a tool to store details of individuals and their families, it is useful to have a folder in which to keep the various certificates and extracts from censuses. A notebook to record avenues explored for each individual can help to prevent duplicated effort over the years. It is very easy to forget in which resources you have searched for which individuals!

Each generation introduces nearly the same number of new names as there were people in the previous generation, so you can very quickly build a database of a large number of people. So there will be four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and 16 great-great grandparents. If you include all the siblings then it will grow even faster. Including the siblings’ spouses and children can be fascinating too.

There are also resources focused on either a geographical area or on particular surnames. Places to look for these are GENUKI and GOONS. GENUKI also have a more comprehensive Getting Started guide than my brief description.

Good luck and happy hunting!

Updated 16/11/22 Copyright © 2022 Mark Wigmore