Starting your family history

Are you thinking about starting your family history but not sure where to begin?

One of things I most regret is not recording the stories my grandfather used to tell us when my brother and I were children. But as is often the case as children we do not think about our family history and it is often once it is too late that our interest is sparked. I would therefore suggest the best place to start is with what you know or think you know about your family members and ancestors and what other members of your family – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc – know.

  • Ask them about their life and their parents and grandparent.
  • Ask them if they hold any family records and photos and get copies from them.
  • Have they conducted any research – if so, you should check it for accuracy!

What is the best way to record your family history?

  • Ask questions!
  • Use a Dictaphone/mobile recording app/etc to record their stories as they are telling you them so that you can transcribe them verbatim
  • Write their stories as soon as possible
  • Use timelines, topics, time periods etc
  • Incorporate local, country, world events to put their life in context e.g., wars, inventions, political events, discoveries etc
  • Research the area/properties in which they lived, neighbours, any friends mentioned, schooling etc
  • Photographs, records, memorabilia, heirlooms are all helpful in telling their stories and may themselves create a mini story of their own. Photos can usually be dated (by experts!) through the style, clothing etc in photos of those in military uniforms can be useful for identifying regiments etc

Once you have some basic information, you might want to think about organising your research – yes before you start:

  • decide who you are going to start with
  • how you are going to research the family – per generation, surname, blood line, siblings etc,
  • what do you want to know?

It is amazingly easy to get distracted and taking your research off on a tangent!

Family history is very addictive!

Most people are likely to start with a subscription website largely because you can search a variety of record sets in one place e.g., BMD/census etc.

Which one to use?

Ancestry is perhaps the best-known website because of its sponsorship of tv programmes and tv advertising

however, there are several other sites available such as:

with differing subscription levels (UK based, worldwide etc) and costs (monthly/annual).

With most sites you can try before you buy with a free trial period (usually 14 days) which gives limited access to the essential records such as BMD and census. This may help you decide which site you prefer.

There is also the free site Family Search www.familysearch.org which is a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and can provide a good starting point for family research although, in my opinion is a bit more ‘clunky’ to use than the subscription websites but still a great source for records.

All these websites have the ability to build your family tree which can be made public (so that other people can view the information in it) or private (either searchable or not) but beware the online tree:

  • the information may not always be correct!
  • check where they have taken information from, is it corroborated with documents?

It is usually better to conduct your own research, but they can be useful for cross checking!

Also be aware of using “hints” – they may need to be sifted through to find your ancestors and may not in fact be the correct people! DO not automatically accept them

Be openminded because you never know what you might find!

So, you have spoken to your relatives and recorded what they know about your ancestors. Now you want to take it further. So, what are the basic records to start your family history research assuming you are starting in the 19th or 20th century?

  • Birth certificates
  • Marriage certificates
  • Death certificates
  • Census returns

What are birth, marriage and death certificates?

  • Formal certificates obtained from the General Register Office (GRO) (may also be available from local offices and churches (for marriages))
  • Provide evidence of the date the event took place for an individual
  • Often provide other extremely useful information such as parentage, occupations, spouses, witnesses, children (deaths registered by an adult child), locations, ages etc
  • Provide the names and other useful information of the earlier generations which may help identify a member of a family particularly where there is more than one person in a location with the same name
  • Can also identify the correct generation where the same name is used across several generations of a family
  • Cost is £11 for paper copies
  • For births 1837 – 1913 and deaths 1837 – 1957 PDF copies are available for £7 (cannot be used for legal purposes such as confirming family members for inheritance purposes)
  • They can be search using the GRO indexes for each type of records available on:
    • GRO website – births and deaths searchable only and can be searched +/- 2 years
    • Free BMD – births, marriages ad deaths can be search and a much wider search period can be used
    • Can be searched by county and registration district – check the registration district as boundaries have moved over time
    • If no entry found check neighbouring districts particularly if they lived on a near a border, they could be registered in a neighbouring area
    • Also, check districts where parents were born/grandparents lived if different – mother may have gone home to have child and may have registered it there
    • Index entries on the GRO website give mother’s maiden name – if you have details of any siblings, it can be worth checking for their record in the indexes to cross check the mother’s maiden name.

REMEMBER whilst civil registration was introduced in 1837 registration of births was not compulsory until 1874 and therefore a birth may not have been registered before this!

If no register entry can be found, try searching for a baptism record – not everyone was baptised though!

If still nothing is found it could be there simply is no contemporaneous record for a birth date, whoever, depending on when they were born, they may be found in the 1939 Register which provide a date of birth (although not also accurate so should be used with caution) (see my blog/podcast on the 1939 Register)

Sometimes a birth certificate does not include the father’s name. How can he be identified?

  • Marriage certificate for the ancestor’s mother – the mother may have later married the father
  • Marriage certificate for the ancestor in question – is a father named? However, this could be fictitious though or a stepfather
  • Children, particularly boys, were often given the fathers name/surname as a middle name – particularly useful if the mother later had that name as a married name or can be identified in census returns living with someone with the surname (as happened in the case of my maternal great grandfather!)
  • Census records – who was the mother living with before the birth and who is the mother and child recorded with in the first census following the birth
  • Parish records/workhouse records often identify paternity (depending on the year(s) concerned)
  • DNA
  • Baptism records
  • Birth records for siblings who may have the same father

What are census returns?

The National Archives website describes census returns as “ a head count of everyone in the country on a given day”

  • Taken every ten years in England and Wales, and separately for Scotland, since 1801, with the exception of 1941, during the second world war
  • Take to provide information about the population as a whole
  • In theory they list everyone by name, wherever they happened to be on census night

But not every can be found (or at least found where expected)! Why they might not be there:

  • they may have moved away from the area so try neighbouring areas or whole county/country searches
  • They may be away on business – think about their occupation and where that may take them
    • e.g., an agricultural labourer may be working away on a farm
    • travelling salesman may be away selling his goods etc
    • soldiers and sailors often missing if they were not at home on the night of the census
  • look at the wider search results on subscription sites
  • They may have gone abroad – search passenger lists (depending on period – post 1890 available at TNA)
  • search more than one website if you can
  • Does the census exist? Check on the National Archives website what census returns are missing
    • e.g., many census returns for 1861 are missing – in a research project for a client recently I could not find any of their ancestors who were living in various parts of London in the 1861 census and when I checked they were parts of the census returns which were missing
  • Transcription errors (see more below)!
    • They could have been missed when the returns were indexed online
    • Their name could be mis-transcribed – always check the original document (online image)

See my blog/podcasts on census returns for more information on census returns.

Consider other ways of spelling the name:

  • Spelling did not become standardised until the later 19th century when education became more widespread, and even then, variants of spelling can still be found – even today!
  • A variant is an alternative of a surname. When researching, think about how a name sounds and unusual ways it could therefore be spelled
  • Common spelling variants can include, e.g., W or V; G, J and Y, T and D, interchangeable vowels o/u a/e/i etc; also, i/y
  • Names were often spelled differently in different documents, within the same document were written by different individuals often due to location/accent/mishearing/mis-transcribing – could even result in the wrong name being recorded
  • Many surnames had common roots often based on a family’s location, a person’s occupation, nickname, and many names were passed down through the generations i.e., eldest son – paternal grandfather; second, maternal grandfather; third by paternal great grandfather and so on
  • If you would like to know more about surname development and variants, my next blog will be on just that subject!

There are some common errors made by beginners – yes, we have all made them! But how can they be avoided?

  • Be aware of online family trees, the information may not always be correct!
  • Check where they have taken information from, it is corroborated with documents
  • It is usually better to conduct your own research but they can be useful for cross checking!
  • But be aware that if using websites such as Ancestry, Find My Past etc, you may need to sift through numerous records they “hint” at to find the correct ones for your ancestors!
  • Do not automatically accept “hints”
  • Do not assume what you have been told by family members and family stories are correct
  • Be prepared to find information which may not be comfortable to accept or may not ‘fit’ the ‘known’ history
  • Be aware that researching your family history is not as easy as it may appear from the popular television programmes and that brick walls are more common that one might think!
  • Not all our ancestors complied with the paperwork and not all may be found where we think they should be!  
  • Organise your research – paper records can be organised in many ways but however you do it keep it consistent! Could be by surname, family group, couples etc
  • You could use online trees – Ancestry/Find My Past/My Heritage/Family Search
  • Tree Vault – The genealogist
  • Purchase Specialist software:
    • Family Historian – links to FMP and My Heritage
    • Family Tree Maker – links to Ancestry and Family Search
    • RootsMagic
    • Legacy

Struggling? When is it time to commissioning a professional Genealogist to add to your ancestral research?

  • Time – It is our job so we have the time to concentrate on your research rather than you are spending endless hours of your precious spare time – but of course it is some people’s hobby!
    • Professionals understand unforeseen circumstances/complications which can occur during research and should have the ‘toolbox’ to resolve those
      • Cost saving – probably have subscriptions to numerous search sites saving you the cost of subscribing – this may mean they have access to a larger range of records than you do if you are only subscribing to one site
      • You may not want to subscribe
      • Costs of travel to archives – use a local professional who knows the archives and has easy access to them
      • Specialist knowledge of areas / records which can help identify local or specialised records to help your research
      • Break down brick walls using skills which can often only be developed by education (academic and practical use)

Contact me to see how I can help you research your family history sarah@yourfamilythroughtime.co.uk

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