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, for example, to a county records office.
LiveWire libraries offer access to Findmypast 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 PC at home, e.g. Familysearch or FreeBMD. The BBC has an informative Family History: Get Started section on their website.
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.
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 the information obtained from your relatives has taken you a couple of generations back, so review this 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 many records available, but unfortunately, they were not written for the purpose of family tree research. You will often need to become a detective when hunting down an elusive relative.
There are three main sets of records which a researcher will look at for UK family trees: census, civil registration and parish records. To find these for your family, try using Findmypast on Penketh Library’s PCs. Using the information from these three sources, census, civil and parish 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 can be useful, but to start with, let’s consider the main three.
The first UK census which is useful to genealogists was held in 1841. Others we can access were held every ten years in 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911 up to 1921. Census records are not released until 100 years has passed, so the 1921 census is the latest one that is available to genealogists. (The 1921 Census is available on Findmypast from 6 January 2022. Findmypast currently charge for each record accessed, or you can view these for free at Manchester Central Library, at The National Archives at Kew and at the National Library of Wales, in Aberystwyth.)
The England and Wales 1931 census was destroyed by fire and the 1941 census was not held due to WW2. However, the 1939 Register is available on Ancestry and Findmypast for later-dated information. The 1939 Register was a mini census, taken on the eve of WW2. The NHS used this for patient records after the war and made updates until 1991, e.g. women's married names were added.
Originally handwritten, the census records 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 at least one census. Occupations, places and approximate dates of birth can also be found. Also, check nearby addresses as relatives may live locally.
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. Findmypast can be used to search these indexes or you could try FreeBMD. The index itself does not give you full information about the birth, marriage or death. To get this you can order certificates at a cost, currently £11.00, from the General Register Office, though some records have a cheaper PDF option. 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 parish records.
Parish records were required to be kept following a nationwide order given in 1538 that each church parish keep a register of baptisms, marriages, and burials. The Church of England or Anglican Church was the predominant religion since 1536. You may also see it referred to as the Established Church. For many families, parish records are the go-to source of information before 1837 and they are 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. Baptism records will often 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 of different faiths 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.
You may want to build a tree online. Ancestry, for example, lets you build your own tree. Familysearch lets you add your ancestors to a collaborative tree that anyone can access. If you look at other people's trees, remember they can and often do contain mistakes!
Keeping your data on your own PC is another option. There are numerous genealogy programs available, some are free, some cost money. Have a look at some online reviews before choosing one.
Paper records may be your preference. Organise these logically to suit yourself. Family Group Sheets can help you collect information about a family into one place. These are forms you can print and use for storing information or perhaps as an aid to understanding a confusing family. (See the Links below for examples from Ancestry and Familysearch. The BBC have some Record Sheets on their Family History page.)
Remember to record where your information came from. Citing the source may seem tedious at first, but it really is worth doing!
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 a Library Assistant to suggest one. There are also regular family history helpdesk sessions on Saturday mornings at Penketh Library. These are free, but booking is required. Ask in the library or call for details. Happy researching!
These are links to external websites, FOPL has no control over their content.