It's fascinating, satisfying and extremely addictive, but if you’re new to family history, where on earth do you start?
For most the desire to uncover our ancestors stems from a deep personal interest in the lives of our forbearers; ordinary men and women who like us were influenced by the events and opinions of their age. But as every genealogist knows, this is merely the beginning.
The colourful personalities that chequer the family tree are as individual as the choices made by the researcher. The lines you pursue and the sources you chose to use, add to its personal complexity and turn genealogy into a unique and absorbing hobby.
1. Start With Yourself
It’s easier to trace your family tree if you start with yourself and work backwards so begin by writing a list of every known relative. These will be the first points of call on your journey into the past. Then, sketch a rough outline of your family tree, placing yourself at bottom of the page and working upwards. Incorporate the known relatives and add any personal details such as dates of birth.
2. What Do You Actually Know?
Dig out any family heirlooms, keepsakes and documents and ask older relatives to do the same. Birth, marriage and death certificates, diaries, photo albums, ration books, military papers, newspaper cuttings, school certificates and family Bibles all provide clues. Check inside books for inscriptions, the back of photographs for dates, and military papers for regiment details. Tangible items kept for future generations or deemed too important to throw away have something to say about the people who treasured them.
3. Talk To The Family
Now you have some ammunition it's time to speak to the family and jog a few memories with your heirlooms. There are basic details you should aim to find out about every ancestor (see table opposite) but if they are in living memory you might also find out about their personality and character.
Arrange a family reunion and spend an afternoon reminiscing. Take along your family tree and any photographs that need identifying so you can fill in as many gaps as possible. If you've lost touch with relatives write to them, enclosing a copy of your family tree and requesting information.
At this stage it's vital to find out as much as you possibly can from living relatives. They may muddle generations and offer inaccurate dates but their vivid stories set a time frame for later research and those dusty records will still be there long after they're gone.
4. One Step At A Time
When starting out you'll want to find out everything you possibly can which is fine when interviewing older relatives who can quickly provide handfuls of leads, but when visiting record repositories it's easier to concentrate on one line at a time.
Be methodical from the onset. Everyone has two parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents let alone numerous aunts and uncles so it can become confusing, especially when you're dealing with large families of eight or nine children, often named after the previous generation.
5. The Internet
Genealogy is big news on the net, new records are being catalogued all the time and online access is gradually becoming a reality.
The internet can be an invaluable tool for the beginner providing food for thought, useful articles and interaction with others but anything learnt should always be substantiated with official records and treated with the same caution as any other source.
It can prompt new avenues of research and provide inspiration but the World Wide Web isn't sufficient alone. Trips to record repositories and libraries are still a necessity.
6. Up, Into The Branches
The next step is to verify the family's oral history in national records so you can confirm dates, locations and name spellings.
Start with birth, marriage and death certificates, also know as civil registration documents. These provide details about the individual concerned, the full names of their parents, occupations and residence so it is possible to form the bare bones of your family tree by just using these sources. Civil Registration began in England and Wales in 1837 and Scotland in 1855. Registers of births and deaths in Northern Ireland are available from 1864, and registers of marriages from 1845. These records can be found in the relevant public record offices.
Census Returns are a cheaper source for the genealogist and are also found at the relevant Public Record Office. Taken every decade, they paint a picture of the household through its various stages within its social environment. Census records provide an address, the dates of births of everyone living at the address, their occupations, details about children and the inhabitants' relation to the head of the household. As long as you know the area your ancestor lived at a particular time you should be able to find the relevant census return, although caution should be taken if you have a common surname or one that was popular in that area. You don't want to research the wrong family!
When it comes to tracing your ancestors prior to civil registration in 1837 the most valuable sources are parish records. These have been kept by every parish in England and Wales since 1538, and Ireland since 1634. Complete sets rarely survive but many that do are available free from the International Genealogy Index (IGI), a database maintained by the Church Of The Latter Day Saints (LDS) as part of their faith. It can be accessed via the internet or at your local LDS Family History Centre. Many local libraries also have parish records on microfile.
Higher & Higher
These records will form the backbone of your family tree and pave the way for further research into wills, trade directories, local newspapers, military records, ecclesiastical records and property transactions. Once the basic skeleton is complete you can use more detailed sources to put the flesh back on the bones of your ancestors.
Federation of Family History Societies - www.ffhs.org.uk
Po Box 8684, Shirley, Solihull, B90 4JU.
The Family Records Centre - www.familyrecords.gov.uk
The Office For National Statistics - www.statistics.gov.uk
Myddelton Street, London, EC1R 1UW. Telephone: 0208 392 5300
Public Record Offices
England & Wales - www.pro.gov.uk
Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Telephone: 020 8876 3444
General Register Of Scotland - www.gro-scotland.gov.uk/grosweb/grosweb.nsf/pages/home
Ladywell House, Ladywell Road, Edinburgh, EH12 7TF. Telephone: 0131 314 4411
Northern Ireland - proni.nics.gov.uk/index.htm
66 Balmoral Avenue, Belfast BT9 6NY, Northern Ireland. Telephone: 01232 251318
International Genealogy Index - www.familysearch.org
Ministry Of Defence - Army Records Centre - www.mod.uk/contacts/army_records.htm
The Ministry Of Defence does not hold all records because some have moved to the Public Record Office but the MOD should still be your first point of call.
Ministry of Defence DR2b, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF. Fax: 020 8573 9078
Commonwealth War Graves Commission - www.cwgc.org
2 Marlow Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6 7DX. Telephone: 01628 634221
Historical Manuscripts Commission - www.hmc.gov.uk/main.htm
Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1HP. Telephone: 0207 242 1198
www.origins.net is a great starting point for British genealogy. The site is broken up into three mini-sites, www.scotsorigin.net, www.irishorigins.net and www.englishorigins.net. Features include how-to articles, information on various records available and online access to the Public Record Office.
GENUKI is a non-commercial virtual reference library maintained by an ever-growing group of volunteers in league with the Federation Of Family History Societies. www.genuki.org.uk
The International Genealogy Index (IGI) is an enormous database maintained by the Church Of The Latter Day Saints. They catalogue and index baptism and marriage records dating from 1538 - 1875. Access is free and there are surname search facilities. www.familyrecords.gov.uk
Cyndi's List contains nearly 150,000 categorized links to genealogy websites around the world. www.cyndislist.com
Fact Box: Basic Details To Acquire On Each Ancestor
Full Name - Ask older relatives about family nicknames and variations in first and surname spelling
Date & Place of Birth
Marriage - To whom and where
Death - Date of death, how they died, place of burial and if there was a tombstone.
Religious Denomination - The name and location of the church they worshiped at
Education - Name and location of all school, and the dates they attended it
Employment - Trade, known employers, location of employment
Military - Which armed force, dates of service, where they were posted and the wars they fought in
Rachael Hannan: 2003
Published in Viva magazine and on 50connect.co.uk