Some quick tips on your family history research.

Researching your Family History – First Steps

Finding out about your family history is a popular pastime, and the increasing availability of information online makes it easier and more enjoyable than ever.

Begin by writing down what you already know, with as much detail as possible. Most people know the names and dates of birth of their parents, and possibly those of their grandparents as well. It may help to draw up a simple family tree, starting with yourself at the bottom, your parents on the line above, grandparents above them, and so on.

Next, you should talk to your family and to friends of the family to find out what they know. In particular, ask if they have documents like certificates of births, marriages, and deaths, wills, newspaper cuttings and service records. Each person you speak to will have a different perspective – and sometimes a different version of events. Your cousins may have a different memory of your grandparents than you have. Looking at old photographs is a good way of prompting people’s memories, and it’s never too early to start identifying who is who in a photograph. It is worth finding out at this stage if a relative has already done some family history research. This may save you time, and it can be useful and enjoyable to collaborate and discuss what you find out.

Once you have the basic information set down, it is time to check official records and other sources to make sure what you have is correct, and to help you go further back in time. Much of this information is now available online, but the more comprehensive websites usually require a subscription. However, you may be able to access them at public libraries, record offices and archives, and at family history society research centres. If there is a computer and an internet connection at your home, then paying your own subscription makes research even easier. There are many good websites, and the most useful are listed on a separate link on the websites page. The records which are most used by family historians are the following:

Official records of births, marriages and deaths

For England and Wales these started in 1837 and continue to the present day. The official record is the certificate, but you can learn a lot by just using the various indexes that are available on free websites, as well as part of subscription sites.

The Census

The U.K. census is taken every 10 years, and published after 100 years. The returns from 1841 to 1911 are available, and have been indexed so that you can find the individuals you want. The census shows family members, together with details of where they lived, when and where they were born, and what their occupations were. A useful additional list is the 1939 Register, taken as part of the preparations for war. Some census records are available without payment, but the subscription sites offer the most comprehensive source.

Church Records

These record baptisms, marriages and burials, and were kept by the different religions in different formats. Only church records are available for the period before 1837, but they can also be very useful for the years since. The Church of England parish records make up the majority, and they have usually been deposited in local record offices and archives. Many have been indexed or transcribed and are now available online.

Burial records

By the nineteenth century, most of the urban church burial grounds were full. Private and municipal cemeteries were established to provide more space, and these were the commonest places for the dead to be buried until cremation became available. Many transcriptions of burial records have been done, together with records of the monumental inscriptions on gravestones. You should be aware that many people were buried in common graves, and not with other family members, and many graves do not have memorials. Also, many memorials have been removed or become illegible over the years.

Military Records and CWGC

Records for the Second World War are not generally available, except for those who died, and the free Commonwealth War Graves Commission website will help establish the who, where and when for both the First and Second World Wars. There are many specialist military websites, and the major subscription websites have the service and pension records for those who were discharged, although many of these are missing.

Records of occupations, apprenticeships, burgesses, professions, etc.

These can add a lot of interesting detail to records of peoples lives, and can sometimes help identify where people were born, and who their parents were.


Old newspapers can provide a lot of information about our ancestors’ lives, from reports of criminal trials, obituaries, acts of bravery, news of weddings and success at flower shows. Modern technology means that every word on the page is indexed, but although some newspaper websites can be accessed through your local library service, others require payment.

Wills, Poor Law Documents and similar records

These can enhance your understanding of the prosperity and well-being of your family, and can confirm relationships.

DNA Tests

DNA testing is very useful when you wish to find or confirm a relationship where no documentation is available. The value of testing to determine family origins is less certain.

Other countries

Most of us have family members who migrated, either to or from Britain. There are websites to help you trace them, although the available information will be different, and you may need language skills.

Useful Hints

Look at the original records, rather than rely on indexes and transcriptions. Fortunately, images of the original are increasingly becoming available online. Do not accept other people’s research uncritically. Many family historians publish what they have found, particularly on the Ancestry website. Their information should always be treated with care, and you should check sources and original records wherever possible. However, you can learn a lot by contacting other people who are researching the same ancestors as you, and you may get useful clues about migration and family events. Do not rely on one record of an event or a relationship. Alternative evidence helps to confirm what really happened.

Use resources in libraries and archives, as well as those available online. There is lots of valuable information that is not on the internet, and never will be. Bristol & Avon FHS has published a lot of data which can be downloaded from its website for a small fee. Be prepared for the unexpected. You may find your ancestors were criminals, or never married despite having a large family. There may be children who were adopted. You cannot afford to be too shocked.

Accept ambiguity. People may be given one name at birth, but then use another. Spellings of names and places can vary, especially when people were away from their home town or were not literate. Forenames are sometimes transposed, or people are known by nicknames. Keep records of sources you have used and where you have found information. As you learn more, you may want to use a specialist family history computer program to record what you have found and where.

Buy family history magazines and join a family history society. Bristol & Avon Family History Society is the local one, and there are similar societies all over the UK. Be careful. Family history can easily take over your life. However, it can also enrich your understanding of your family’s place in history, explain why you are the person you are, and introduce you to some interesting relatives.

Bob Lawrence
April 2020