Family History Records

Guide to Getting Started

FamilyIf you are new to researching your family history records and wonder how to find out about your ancestors - or even if you already have some experience of investigating people in your family tree - the digitisation of records have made it so much easier to discover more about your ancestors than ever before. At one time you had no choice but to go in person to archives and record offices to look for records. You may have had to use microfiche or microfilm records without a name index, so making for a time consuming process as you search for your forebears. These days, a great many family records have now been scanned and made fully searchable online. It is simpler than ever to discover your ancestry by searching millions of records using a computer and an internet connection and you can do it from anywhere in the world. This guide will help by explaining how to find ancestors easily in the family history records and start your family tree, or even add to one that you have already begun.

Guide to Starting Your Family Tree

If you are beginning to research your family history and want to know how to find ancestors, then one of the first things to do is start with yourself and record your own dates of birth, marriages and so on. After this, talk to your living relatives and gather the names, dates and places that they know of. Next you should put together a simple family tree from the information that you've gleaned before going online to verify and build upon your tree. A simple tool to use is It is also worth getting a scanner or a digital camera to copy any family photographs and certificates that they are willing to share.

BMDs and Census

The first online family history records, that those new to family history research should look at, will be the Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) indexes that cover England and Wales from 1837 to 2005. These provide you with the details that researchers need to order certificates. These certificates will reveal interesting information that is not recorded in the indexes and obtaining certificates are considered essential to placing your research on firm ground. With a certificate in your hand you will be able to see details of the person and their relatives that will help prevent you make the mistake of tracing the wrong people who just happen to have the same name as your real ancestor.

When you have got your family tree back to the early years of the 20th Century, you can then expand your genealogical research into the census records. These government surveys were taken every ten years and are available to search online from 1841 up to 1911. They contain lots of important details about your ancestors such as when and where they were born, their occupation and where they lived. Once you have located an ancestor you can also find out who else was living at the address, providing you with information on other family members. In-laws and cousins are frequently discovered using census records, so you should have lots of information to help you start putting a family tree together.

1861 Census Page

1861 Census page

Researching before 1837

Before the government introduced Civil Registration for England and Wales, in 1837, the only family history records that relate to your ancestor's vital events of births, marriages and deaths, were those baptisms, marriage and burials recorded in the registers of parish churches and nonconformist places of worship.

In 1538 Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Chief Minister and Vicar General, declared that all marriages, baptisms and burials in England and Wales should be recorded by parish clergy. It is now possible to search many of these records on the internet and so this should help you find ancestors to build your family tree.

As not all our ancestors adhered to the established church you need to consider records from the Church of England parishes as well as nonconformist records. This is because there was thought to have been an equal number of nonconformist worshippers as there was Anglican. Many ancestors may have left the Church of England for a period of time and this being the case records of nonconformist groups, including those of Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Huguenots and more, are important to your family history research.

Taking it further

When you have researched your ancestors in the BMDs, Census and Parish records you will then want to turn to more advanced family history records. There are many to be found online including wills, which are an often forgotten resource by both the beginner to family history research as well as the more advanced family historian. Some people wrongly assume that only the wealthy members of society left a will. This is wrong as all classes of society can be found in these documents. Wills are a valuable source of information for the family history researcher that should not be overlooked. They contain inventories of possessions, lists of relatives, or even show if various family members inherited or not. England had two major prerogative courts that a will could be proved in as well as many minor consistory courts. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills and Probate records cover the period from 1384 to 1858.

You are able to search and view the original images of the PCC wills online, as well as search various will indexes for other courts including the Prerogative Court of York. Trade and Residential directories are another great resource and can help you find an ancestor before or after the census years (1841 to 1911). If an ancestor owned a business, the commercial sections of directories may well help you find addresses of where they carried out their trade or profession. Look also to telephone directories, electoral rolls and poll books (all of which are online) as these may also provide addresses.

Important Search Tools

There are some pitfalls to be aware of when you are searching family history records. Surnames for our ancestors can vary through time, and when researching before the 1860s it's important to realise that many of our forbears were not as literate as we are today. People would often sign with a simple cross as they couldn't write their name. Some records would be completed by the minister of religion, or some other official such as a census enumerator or the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. They would records people's names as they thought they heard them and so you should think about how an ancestor's name sounded, perhaps with regard to the regional accent. To overcome this, use a phonetic rather than a variant search option, as this will bring back names that could have been recorded incorrectly but sound the same.

If you are researching an ancestor with a common surname, a tool that allows you to search the family history records with multiple forenames is vital and will save you hours of frustration. The combination of forenames can often be unique to a particular family and so this can help you bring up the correct household in an instant.

Research tools that allow you to look for a street rather than a person's name in the census collections are really useful, especially if you are searching for an address recorded on a certificate, or if you want to trace details of ancestors who lived at a particular address. Often family members lived close to each other in the same street.

Marriage records are key to researching the female lines in your family tree. Before 1912, the spouse's surname was not recorded in the marriage index, so sites that can provide smart search options to link the bride and groom's entries together can save you the cost of ordering the wrong certificates.

Researching your family history is an absorbing and satisfying hobby, make the first step on the journey to your ancestors by searching the most comprehensive records online. Use the box below or go to

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