First steps in family history

Everyone has a different way of approaching their family history, and a unique motive for doing so. For many people, it is natural human curiosity, for others a need for some kind of escapism from the routine of everyday life, or perhaps a search for identity and a desire to learn more about our make-up, to discover who we are and where we have come from.

What are you aiming at?

You have lots of possible avenues to research, but at the outset you need to decide whether, for instance, you will begin by tracing your father’s line as far back as possible, or perhaps you will try to tackle your direct female line (your mother’s mother, her mother, and so on). Taking the second option will mean that the surname you are searching for will change with every generation.

You might decide to research each of your grandparents, giving you four different surnames to explore, or perhaps try to discover all you can about each of your great, great grandparents. The second option will keep you busy, since you will have sixteen different names to find, possibly widely scattered around the country or even the world. Then again, you may be particularly fascinated by a particular ancestor, and devote your time to finding out as much as possible about him or her.

Starting out in family history


Begin with what information you know all the dates and events you are certain of, concerning your immediate family – your birth date, your brothers’ and sisters’ birth dates, your parents’ names, marriage date and birth dates. You may also have information on uncles and aunts, or earlier generations, perhaps knowledge of your grandparents’ generation, or even further back. Do you know where these people lived, or what they did for a living? Write it all down.

‘Grill Your Granny’

Find out what knowledge is available from older family members. If your parents or grandparents, uncles and aunts, are still alive, they will probably have a lot to tell you. Do not neglect your own generation: an older cousin may remember a grandparent who died before you were born. Make a separate note of what each person says. Interview as many family members as you can, and write all the information down, in a systematic, legible and comprehensible form.

Family Documentation and Sources

What phototographs do you have? Or your parents, grandparents, cousins? Nothing is quite as thrilling as seeing a photo of a family member who died long before you were born, and checking out the resemblance to your own generation. Photographs can also provoke a whole stream of memories from older people. Copy as many photographs as you can, noting where the originals were seen, and the names of those portrayed. See what documentation exists among various members of your family. If there are copies of old birth, death and marriage certificates, this will save you spending money on getting further copies of them. Letters, wills, deeds and newspaper cuttings may all be found in cupboards or attics. Family Bibles, ‘birthday books’, and other family memorabilia may all prove invaluable to your research. Scour these records and make a note of any firm information you find, as well as where you found it.

A Family Tree

You will already have quite a lot of notes, made from your own information, from interviews with relatives, and from old certificates, cuttings and memorabilia. Now is the time to use these sources to draw up your first family tree, with yourself at the bottom, with a line linking upwards to your parents, another going upwards from them to the previous generation and so on. It does not need to be particularly neat, as long as it is understandable. Include names of brothers and sisters of your parents and grandparents. Against each of the names try to put dates and places of birth, marriage and death, and occupations. Your family tree will show you what information is already known, what is still missing, and what is most vital to find next. It will also prove to be a convenient method of explaining your requirements to librarians and archivists, avoiding the need for lengthy and complicated explanations.

Your next sources - civil registration and census

Births, Marriages and Deaths

Civil registration, which began in 1837 in England and Wales, is the system still in operation today for recording every birth, marriage and death that occurs in the U.K.

These official records are the essential links that should enable you to take your family tree back several generations beyond the memories of living family members. Registrars all over the country recorded all the births, marriages and deaths which occurred in their own local districts and copies were forwarded to London, where they were indexed. There are separate indexes for each event, and prior to 1984 they are arranged in quarterly volumes, with four books per year. The entries in the indexes are listed alphabetically by surname and the forename.

The indexes can be searched in various ways. Microfiche sets can be found at some record offices and major libraries around the country, where they can be checked free of charge (We have a set covering 1837-1950 at the History Centre). Within the last few years, several websites have begun to offer searchable, digital images of the index pages. In addition, FreeBMD is a free site on which volunteers are gradually putting transcriptions of the index pages. At the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre we have a subscription via the People's Network to another site, Ancestry, which contains a lot of material of use for family history including civil registration and census material.

Each index entry gives the individual’s name and surname, the name of the district in which the event was registered, and a reference number. Once you think you have found the correct entry, you can use the details from the index to apply for a copy of the original certificate. Addresses given on certificates can help in tracking your family down in census returns.

Census Returns

Census returns provide snapshots of families, ‘frozen’ in time, as they were gathered together at home on one night over a century ago. They show whole family groupings and can be a very useful free supplement to the information which you acquire by buying civil registration certificates. They have been taken every ten years since 1801 (except 1941), although the 1841 census was the first to collect personal details on individuals (including ages, rounded down to the nearest five years for adults, and whether or not born in the county of residence). The 1851 census was the first to give exact ages and places of birth – or, at least, as far as people were aware of these themselves. To ensure privacy, the information from each census is closed for a period of 100 years. Even so, all of the Victorian censuses, from 1841 to 1891, are now available. The latest census available at present is that taken in 1901. Census returns are arranged by address. The records we see today are microfilms or microfiche of the enumerators’ schedules, copied from the original householders’ forms.

Census  returns often provide the link enabling the family historian to make the leap back beyond civil registration ( beginning in 1837) to parish registers ; the birthplace information given in earlier census returns may well enable you to track a family back into the late 1700s. The census can also help in many other ways. If children have different birthplaces, it indicates where and when the family have lived.  A child staying with its grandparents may lead you to a daughter’s married name, and relatives lodging with the family may suggest previously unknown branches, or perhaps the wife’s maiden name. The census can also reduce the time spent in searching the civil registration indexes: if someone is unmarried in 1881 but married in 1891, those are the ten years of indexes to search.

There are now many census indexes available, in many formats, including typescript, microfiche and CD-ROM. Several commercial websites now have names indexes linked to digital page images. The Ancestry website includes complete census indexes and images 1841-1901 for England, Scotland and Wales, and is free to use if you use the People’s Network computers at the History Centre or at any public library in Wiltshire.

Get into good habits!

Right from the outset, you should keep your records in a form which will make sense in months or years to come. Try to write notes up neatly, or word-process them, as soon as possible. Notes scrawled on the backs of envelopes, with no indication where the information was found, are a recipe for chaos.

Record what names you are searching for, what years or quarters you have checked, if there are any gaps in the records, and also if searches prove negative.( No one wants to have to check the same records more than once.)

Write down exactly what it says on the record. An 1851 census entry showing  43 year old  John Smith recorded as born at Box, is not the same as saying  that John Smith was born at Box in 1808 – although he may well have been. If you find information in a book, keep enough information to enable you to locate it, if you need to check it again. As you progress to working on sources in record offices, you should always note the reference numbers of the archives you are using; these are vital if you want to order them again. If you ever write up your family history in any form, you will need to quote the references of records on whose accuracy you are relying. If you can only vaguely recall finding a vital piece of evidence in one of a dozen bundles of deeds you looked at a distant record office, that information is as good as useless.

Be sure to note the source of every piece of information you record in your notes.

Use a computer (if it helps!)

These days, many people use computers to store their family research, to draw up family trees, and to record the information they find in a tidy and convenient way. A lot of people find e-mails a quicker and more convenient way of contacting people, and keeping in touch, than writing letters. A vast number of commercial software programmes now exist to assist genealogists. In the last few years, many of the most important original sources, like census returns and indexes of births, marriages and deaths have been digitised, and the internet has become, for many people, the easiest way to consult them.

However, it is still possible to undertake family research without touching a computer, while you can, if you wish, make use of internet resources without needing to have your own computer. For instance, the commercial Ancestry site, giving access to indexes and images of the census returns for England, Scotland and Wales, 1841-1901, as well as much other useful indexed material, is free to use if you are using the People’s Network computers at the History Centre or at public libraries in Wiltshire.

By all means look at what there is on the internet relating to your family or surname, but do not rely solely on ‘online’ sources. It is good advice to check everything you find on the internet against the original source of the information. (With the census indexes on the Ancestry site, there is a link to images of the original census pages, so you can check to see if the indexed information is accurate and complete.) The internet includes information put there by many different people; much of it may be copied from other, unchecked sources, or may be positively misleading or untrue.

While it is true that internet sources for family historians are growing all the time, we must remember that for the foreseeable future, much of the information we need will be found only in books or on paper, or on microfilm or microfiche, in various record offices and libraries. Many records can only be seen in the building which holds them, and only a very small proportion of what has been microfilmed is yet available online.

Read a book

For a lot of researchers today, the internet has become such an indispensable and comprehensive tool that they no longer do what  previous generations did -  use books to broaden their knowledge, discover new sources, answer their questions, and put their own local and specific interests into a wider context. This is a great pity, since there are now so many books in print to cater for every possible need of the family historian. There are lots of general guides; to choose one from a wide field, Starting Your Family History by Margaret Ward (2006) gives good advice for the beginner. There are also numerous books giving guidance on particular sources and types of records. Useful brief guides on a variety of sources and subjects can be found in the Gibson Guides series by Jeremy Gibson; McLaughlin Guides series by Eve McLaughlin; and My Ancestor was… series published by the Society of Genealogists.

As well as extending your knowledge, reading books will show you what to expect to find in particular records. We need to familiarize ourselves with the sources we use, because we have to remember that the records we use were not originally made for the use of future family historians; most were produced for entirely different purposes, to meet the practical needs of the Church of England and the government. By knowing what is normally found in records, we can learn to look out for what is significantly unusual in our researches. Well-written family histories, like Donald Titford’s Moonrakers in my Family (1995), which makes excellent use of Wiltshire sources, can inspire us as well as inform our own researches.  There are also several family history magazines currently on sale, which are useful for keeping up to date with recent developments and initiatives in the family history world, as well as containing informative articles, readers’ letters and queries, etc.

As a final suggestion, join your local family history society, and consider joining the ones in locations where your research is concentrated. As well as a chance to meet fellow enthusiasts, societies offer local expertise, produce journals and directories of members’ interests, and offer a chance to participate in transcription and indexing projects.