Researching your family genealogy

Getting Started on Your Family Tree

Montage of letter and photograph
Family mementoes  

The first task that faces every family historian when they begin research into an individual is to collect basic biographical details about the person under investigation. The events that are shared by everyone - birth and death - are the best place to start. In many cases marriage will also be on the list. By compiling a skeleton of facts centred on these events from legal or parish records you can then continue to flesh out other aspects of that individual's history.

'... birth and death - are the best place to start.'

We have these records because, due to massive population expansion in the 19th century, civil registration for births, marriages and deaths was introduced in England and Wales in 1837, 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland. It became a legal requirement for every birth, marriage or death to be officially registered and a certificate issued as proof.

Before this date, other records exist that contain information about these events. Usually these would be the registers of baptisms, burials and marriages that were maintained by each parish. It is important to know how to use these records to make a satisfying family tree, but you need to record the simplest information about your family first.

First things

The National Archives Office, London
The National Archives office, Kew, London  
When starting to create your own family tree, the first thing is to talk to as many family members as possible. This way you can obtain the crucial first-hand accounts, memories and stories that will set you on your way, especially from older generations.

They can often provide you with details of names, dates, and key family events - although you should never take anything at face value, as it will be your job to investigate family myths. You may uncover skeletons in the cupboard as well - sometimes the most interesting part of your researches.

' You may uncover skeletons in the cupboard.'

Write all this down in your notes, as described in the companion article to this one, 'Before You Start Your Family Tree' (see right for link).

Now it's time to look through old family correspondence, photos, heirlooms and other material that can find its way into trunks, drawers, attics or cellars. You will be amazed how much information you can extract from these objects to obtain vital clues as to who exactly your blood relations were, when they were born, when they died, who they married and who their children were (or are).

While doing this, or even sooner, try to establish where key figures in your family were from originally, as this will play an important role when you start looking further afield for relevant records.

This background information is an integral part of family history, and should be your first task.

Visiting archives

Nick Barrat searching the archives
A visit to the archives 
Once you have collected as much background information as possible, you are ready to start searching for more concrete evidence. You will be looking at birth, death and marriage certificates, parish records, and wills left by your ancestors - among other things. Most of your research will take place in archives, local studies libraries or specialist family history centres.

'If you are not used to these places they can seem daunting.'

Other articles (particularly 'Basic Research Tools', see right for link) will tell you in more detail where to go to look for these records, but relevant institutions are located throughout the UK. In addition, places such as the The National Archives and Family Records Centre in London, or the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York, have large collections of specialist records for family historians to view.

If you are not used to these places they can seem daunting, but the job of their staff is to help you, and usually there will be someone to get you started. Try to contact an archive before visiting, as they often require you to bring some form of identification. Also they may be able to help even before you get there. Many provide useful leaflets about how to use their resources - essential reading that will make your research life easier.

The sort of records you might be looking at when you have got past the beginner stage could range from the Domesday book, to old tax records and accounts of law suits - but that's for a later stage.

Starting work

Man searching the archives
Searching at The National Archives, Kew 
Once you have registered as a user at your chosen archive or records office, read the relevant information leaflets before you start work. Your first port of call should be the enquiry desk. Summarise what information you want - be it a birth certificate, record of baptism or a will - and who the person is that interests you. This way you will probably receive a much clearer answer than if you fall into the trap of recounting your entire family history.

'Work from known facts and move backwards from the most recent piece of information. '

Many county records offices have compiled basic name indexes. Check these first, in case you uncover immediate references to an ancestor. Work from known facts and move backwards from the most recent piece of information. Then you can use other catalogues and reference works, to identify material that might contain information on relatives.

You can then ask to see the original documents and work through them, looking for the information you think might be there. Look for concrete proof of things you know a little about already, and avoid assuming a link between individuals just because the place or name seems right.

Organisations and events

Find an event in your region 
There are many established professional organisations for genealogists of all levels of experience. One of the most important is the Society of Genealogists, which maintains a vast library of research material and publications from around the world. It also runs lectures and provides research advice for beginners. Although its main site is in central London, it can be contacted in a number of ways - click on its link in the External Links column for further information.

Family-history societies can also provide a ready-made support network of other genealogists working in your area, and the Federation of Family History Societies can provide useful contact details. Most family-history societies hold regular meetings and welcome new members. They hold activities and events, such as talks by members on their own research, visiting speakers and professional genealogists, and even excursions to record offices or other institutions.

Family History Centres, maintained by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, store printed or microfilm copies of genealogical sources - click on its link in the External Links column for further information. Specific material can be requested and ordered in, if your research takes you away from the local area.

'Consider attending an event in your area before you begin your research.'

Family history fairs are a popular way of finding out more about genealogy and are designed to allow researchers to meet representatives from major organisations. Many of the larger fairs are accompanied by lecture programmes and are great fun for beginners looking for inspiration.

Consider attending an event in your area before you begin your research, if only to pick up tips from other researchers. They might pass on information about local research services, or even help to arrange for research to be undertaken on your behalf, if you are not able to travel to a more distant archive.

Most local archives or family history societies carry publicity about local events. As do many family history magazines, available from many booksellers and newsagents. These usually feature nationwide fairs, lectures or other events, as well as useful articles on all aspects of genealogy.

The internet

Bloodlines, the BBC Family History Gateway
You can search for family history information via the internet 
The internet is a major source of information for family historians. Here you'll find advice about how to get started, and sometimes useful pre-researched data. Many genealogists use the net to share their research results.

Everyone will have their own reasons for using online genealogy websites. Some may want concrete data, others to see who is researching a particular family name. Whatever your reasons, you should always ask yourself how reliable the site is, before using the data it contains. Always check whether a source is given - such as an archive of origin or, better still, an archival reference - for any information provided. This will allow you to check the validity of the data.

'Unless your relative's name appears in the title of the document, it will not be found.'

Many archives, large and small, are placing their catalogues online and giving researchers the opportunity to search for information by typing in a keyword. Therefore you can, in theory, type in a relative's name and see if there are any documents relating to them.

This development is not as exciting as it first sounds, though, as usually it is only the document descriptions that are searched, not the document content. Unless your relative's name appears in the title of the document, it will not be found, even if that same name is constantly repeated in the text itself.

Remember to consider the question of copyright. Material that someone has placed online cannot simply be taken for your own use, especially if you are thinking of putting it on your own website. Attempt to contact the person who has taken the time and trouble to compile the site. In return you may find they can help you still further with your own researches.

A wider context

A family on holiday at the seaside
A family holiday snap, 1910 - a good start for a family tree 
Your ancestors were part of communities, working and interacting with other individuals. This is what makes family history so much fun. It is so much more than an attempt to collect names and make a linear link through the generations, it's a unique opportunity to bring these people back to life through your research, and discover how they lived.

People set foot on this same voyage of discovery every day. Most are surprised and delighted by what they find. Now it is your turn. Armed with these basic hints and tips, you are ready to travel back into the past, with your ancestors as your guides.

  • Ask the family
  • Do the groundwork
  • Contact an archive before visiting
  • Work from known facts and move backwards from the most recent piece of information
  • Never assume a link between individuals, just because the place or name seems right - always look for concrete proof of a link
  • Establish a clear set of objectives when you visit an archive. Ask yourself: What do I know? What do I want to know? Where should I look? Why should I look there?
  • Remember that everyone comes to a halt from time to time. When this happens to you, societies and professional organisations can assist you, as can specialist magazines.
  • Check source of internet data and its validity
  • Establish copyright
About the author

Dr Nick Barratt worked at the Public Record Office (now The National Archives, or TNA) from 1996 to 2000, with the family history team. He has given many talks on family history, and has written frequently for the TNA's genealogy journal, Ancestors. He has worked for the BBC as a specialist researcher on programmes such as 'One Foot in the Past','The People Detective' and 'Who Do You Think you Are?'.