FOPL Family Tree

A FOPL Guide to Researching your family tree at Penketh Library

Why start now?

There's never been a better time to make a start on your family tree. More information is available online now than ever before. However, some records are still only available on paper or on microfilm, so be prepared to do some travelling at some time in your research.


Livewire libraries offer access to Ancestry which you can use free of charge on a Library PC. There are many other online resources, some of which are free so you can also access these on your own PC at home, e.g. Familysearch or FreeBMD.

Where to begin

How do you make a start? Don’t go online yet! The best way to start your family tree is to ask your family. Persuade your parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts etc. to tell you what they know about your ancestors. Make a note of names, dates, locations and any anecdotes about your relatives. See how far back you can get. When you write up your findings, be sure to record the source of information. This is called citing your sources and there are many guides online to show how to write citations. But in this case, noting the person’s name and date obtained should be sufficient. Citations are really useful when reviewing your information later and especially if you pass your tree information to others. People will trust your findings if they can see your sources.

Take a flexible approach

Each family is different and will need an individual approach, but there are some general methods which can be used. Firstly, start with what you know; hopefully information obtained from relatives has taken you a couple of generations back, so review these before going back further. See if any of these ancestors appear in online searches. This will confirm any word-of-mouth information. There are a lot of records available, but unfortunately, they were not written for the purpose of family tree research. You will often need to be a detective when hunting down an elusive relative.

Which records can I search?

There are three main sets of records which a researcher will look at for U.K. family trees: census, civil registration and church records. To find these for your family, try using Ancestry on Penketh Library’s PCs. Using the information from these three sources, census, civil and church in combination, will help you to build up your tree. There are also numerous other records that your research may lead you to e.g. military, immigration, newspapers etc. All of these are useful, but to start with, let’s consider the main three.


Censuses have been held every ten years. The first useful census was in 1841, then 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 up to 1911. Records are generally not released until 100 years has passed, so the 1921 census will not be available until 2021. Access to later censuses will require a long wait, but there is the 1939 Register available on Findmypast if you want the latest ‘census’. Originally handwritten, the census contents have been transcribed into computer databases, making fast searches possible. Having located the record, you may prefer to view the image of the original handwritten sheet rather than rely on the transcribed version being totally correct. Typos do happen! Hopefully you will find your ancestors in a family group in one census and possibly on the next or previous census. Also check nearby addresses as relatives may live a few doors down the street. It is useful to see the place of birth and occupations. Approximate dates of birth can be worked out from the stated age.

Civil Registration

Civil registration started in England and Wales on 1 July 1837, and covered births, marriages, divorces and deaths (BMDs). Coverage was not universal, especially in the earlier years before tougher laws in 1874. BMD events were recorded and an index created every three months. Ancestry can be used to search these indexes or you could try the excellent FreeBMD. The index itself does not give you full information about the birth, marriage or death. To get this you will need to order certificates at a cost, currently £9.25, from the General Register Office. As the cost for these can add up, ask yourself if you really need to order a certificate and are you sure you have found the right person on the index? You may be able to find almost equivalent information in the church records.

Church Records

Church records were required to be kept following a nationwide order given in 1538 that each parish keep a register of baptisms, marriages, and burials. The Church of England or Anglican Church was the predominant and state religion since 1536. You may also see it referred to as the Established Church. This is the go-to source of information before 1837 and very useful after that too. Records were kept in large books in the church. Copies known as bishop’s transcripts were regularly made. Sadly some of the earlier records have been lost or destroyed. However, many records do exist and have been microfilmed, some of these are even available online. These baptism, marriage and burial records can be a good alternative to the General Register Office certificates. Often the baptism records will have the birth date noted in the margin, in addition to the baptism date. Records for other religions, non-conformist and Roman Catholic records are not as extensive. The excellent FamilySearch website can give guidance on how to research ancestors in this country and overseas. Before 1837 and during the years of oppression, many Catholics were baptised and married in Anglican churches and even buried in Anglican churchyards, so church records may exist but could be misleading regarding the faith of your ancestor.

More Information

This is a very brief guide on how to start your family tree. For further guidance you could read one of the many books which have been written on the subject. Ask your librarian to suggest one. There are also regular family tree sessions organised by LiveWire libraries. Ask your librarian for details. Happy researching!


Ancestry: Use for free on a LiveWire Library PC, otherwise requires paid subscription.

Familysearch: Free, but you will need to register and log on

FreeBMD: Free, no log on needed

Findmypast: Requires paid subscription, some library services offer free access e.g. Liverpool Libraries