Beginning your Family History Research - Getting Started
Golden rule - Work from the known to the unknown.
Family History research has changed greatly in the last ten years, both in terms of popularity, but also in terms of access to the sources. The development of online sources continues, though at both a financial price (though I think relatively the costs of many aspects of family history are cheaper than in the 1970s) and an academic price (we had to research, understand and locate the sources in the 1970s before accessing them). Access to the Internet has brought about a revolution in numbers who now research their family history, cable and broadband access had increased this. The development of CD/DVD data storage previously helped this growth, begun even earlier by the use and popularity of 'microform' based sources. That is why many family historians who have been researching family history for ten years or more own microform sources and microform readers. The increased opening hours of record offices has also assisted as valuable 'vacations' and 'leave time' do not have to be put aside for this purpose. At the same time leaving the research to your retirement is also to be avoided.
But there is a problem with the use of sources. A lot of correspondents do not know anything about the sources, so I will continue to maintain these pages which will assist people to understand the sources that they might be using or looking to use. Please read a family history book, there are many available. The more modern the better, and please if you are researching a British project then please choose a British source book.
The first step is to contact as many of your living relatives as you can and obtain any information that they may have. Send a clear letter requesting the information that you require with an SAE (or if abroad two International Reply Coupons). Photocopying certificates or old letters and documents is a good idea. If they have copies of Wills or other legal documents this is even better. At this point I might even make an initial search of Genes Reunited, but be careful! http://www.genesreunited.co.uk
Library telephone books will aid you in finding peoples addresses. Alternatively, contact someone who they may have known to see if they know anything about them. Nowadays the best way to find a telephone number is at: The Phonebook, a BT site to find people's numbers.
Old School and sports club records and pictures can be informative as can Parish Magazines. Non-Conformist periodicals can be found useful in the same way. Many of these are now available on the Internet, I would even try Genuki (a brilliant site for place information and for those who lived there in the past) if you know where to search. Try also the A2A site (Access to Archives), a fantastic source for locating archives. Some libraries have picture collections online which are useful sources of information and can be surprising.
Seek proof all the time. Relatives can confuse people and events outside their own time. If you can jog peoples memories by a photograph or a document than this will be even better. On a first visit you might not find out very much when interviewing a relative so a second visit is best to consolidate information and facts. Remember that some of us cannot remember people on a school photograph twenty years ago. Given time they can sometimes remember quite useful additional facts which will both confirm your research and enhance it.
Check newspaper indexes for mentions of the family and Electoral lists for addresses. Please check you family history society websites for information about the collections that they might publish. They will also help when you are trying to obtain Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates or Wills.
Before 1911 - The Census
Relatives memories might take you back to 1901 or before. Try and fix your ancestor in a place in that year, even the town. An exact address would be even better. Searching through the Census can be a big, but rewarding task. It can save time and money later. We now tend to use online or CD based indexes, though these are not always accurate. To search these be careful, do not put too many search factors in to the database and I would suggest and recommend the frequent use of wildcards (usually three letters followed by *)
Finding you ancestor on the 1901 Census can be most useful. From this you will get an age and place of birth at least, and usually a lot of other information. If for example, your ancestor is 35 years old in 1901 then they would have been born in about 1866. It is quite likely they would have been living in the place they were born in 1871. Check the 1871 Census for the ancestor as a five year old child and you could find them living with a parent or other relative, with perhaps brothers and sisters. Age and birthplace will be given for the parents, and then the other Census records can be checked for the 1841-1901 period to find out more information. If the mother of our ancestor had been a widow in 1881, but a wife in 1871 then the father would have died in-between. Thus this narrows the area of search for a death certificate, notice or Will. There is now an Index for the 1881 Census available on the Internet (See my Census sources information page some libraries and record offices maintain copies on Microfiche or CD Rom (available from the Mormon church).
Inevitably, at some time the researcher has to obtain information from Civil Registration records. These might be obtainable from a the local registrar in the area where they birth, marriage or death was registered. There are commercial sites and a free search of FreeBMD might be useful. You can then go ahead and organise the purchase of English and Welsh certificates from the official site, direct.gov.uk.
Check the Parish Records for the Parishes to see if there are any relevant entries. See Phillimores Atlas for the location of these records.
At this stage a check in the Mormon IGI would also be worthwhile, but it is important that all entries are checked in the Parish Registers. Earlier than the 1750's should always be checked just in case they are in the right year, the calendar changed about that time but was not always used immediately.
To aid researchers I have added some information about Social Developments in the History of the 19th Century. This will explain important developments that would have effected people living during the Victorian period. There is a separate page about the New Poor Law of the period.
Before Civil Registration the best source for Family History information would be the various Parish Registers and the Parish Register Transcripts (Bishop's Transcripts). Before the early part of the Eighteenth Century many records are in Latin and a simple guide is useful. Many students need help with older writing so help may be needed with reading older writing and a simple guide is useful. Look also for the lists of Marriage Bonds and Allegations which survive for the process of supplying Marriage Licences. Finding the Bonds and Allegations would add considerably to the material available for your Family History. The Parish Chest Records (Records of the Parish Officers) will add considerably to your family history research.
There are about 300 different Courts for the Proving of Wills before 1858, and a knowledge of the main registries at Canterbury and York would be useful. There is an example of a Seventeenth Century Will in my pages.
There were many changes in Society in the period 1700-1837 which included Enclosures and the development of an Industrial Society.
Quarter Sessions and Calendars of Prisoners will be useful for the research of some ancestral connections. The Calendars will not only show the accused, but also the victims.
Some ancestors may have been Apprentices and it might be possible to find out information about them. Apprentice records name no only the apprentice and the master but the parent, guardian or next of kin of the apprentice and the place they came from. I was very surprised when I looked at the Scarborough Apprentice record book how far away some of the apprentices for even marine apprenticeships came from.
In many places extensive Manor Court Records exist, for both Courts.
Many people have ancestors who were early members of the Nonconformist Religions. Some were Roman Catholics and suffered persecution before the early Nineteenth Century.
It would be worth while checking the seventeenth century records of holders of Coats of Arms Heraldic Visitations (many printed) which might have a record of an alliance between a minor gentry family and yours. It is always worthwhile checking if your ancestors were seventeenth century yeoman.
In the Seventeenth Century the Civil War had a great effect on records and this obviously effected what sources we use for Family History Research. Interestingly during the post Civil War period, the Commonwealth registers during the 1650s contained a lot of extra information and the marriage registers were brilliant.
Older Poor Records can help the Historian in understanding the period before the early part of the Nineteenth Century, and how the poor were treated.
To help you I am submitting a Reading List which should help you find some of the books which you require. But before buying a book please make sure that it mentions that the Family Records Centre has closed in late 2007, so it is up to date, and has been replaced by the online Family Records site for England and Wales. It is a brilliant site for buying certificates over the internet.
The National Burials Index is very useful, usually in the form of a searchable collection of CD Roms that index the burials in England and Wales after 1538. It contains 13.1 Million burials, not all the burials for that period but a worthy resource. It can be bought at Family History Fairs or from online Family History resource retailers.
This page is compiled by Timothy J. Owston of York, England, March 2009.
Please contact me with any comments or updates.
Please don't contact me to do research.