Add a generation
As part of a campaign by Who Do You Think You Are? Live to teach people how to take their family history back beyond their grandparents, Sarah Williams has put together a simple guide to help beginners uncover their great grandparents
The Who Do You Think You Are? Live team recently carried out a survey that revealed that almost three-quarters of those questioned (71 per cent) can only name two or fewer of their great grandparents, and only 11 per cent could name all eight of them. When wee think of the affectionate memories many of uss have of our grandparents, it seems amazing that so few of us can name their parents.
Of course, most of our regular readers would have no trouble naming all eight of their great grandparents (records allowing) but this month, we are offering essential advice to readers starting out in family history who would like to uncover details of those eight people and add a generation to their family tree. In fact, we’re going to make it our mission to encourage the nation to uncover the names of their great grandparents and, in the spirit of branded campaigns, #addageneration.
A family Christmas and New Year is a great time to embark on a project like this. However, although it’s tempting to hop online and start Googling your surname straightaway, that really isn’t a good way to kick off your research and you could end up wasting a lot of time. It’s best to start with a targeted approach: write down what you know already and get in touch with family members to see what gaps they can fill in. If you are visiting relatives over the Christmas break, ask them what they know about your family’s past.
Old photos can be great for prompting memories. If they aren’t labelled already, it’s worth getting a soft pencil and writing names on the back of them while you are talking to someone who knows who’s in them. When listening to elderly relatives, take notes and type up the ‘interview’, recording the date and who gave you the information. Your notes, or any recording of the interview will become a ‘primary source’ as important and valuable as the records you will find in an archive. It’s also worth sending an email to fam mily members to tell them yo ou are carrying out some research.r If you’re lucky youy may find someone else who has already done some of the leg-work and is willing tot share their research withw you, or you may prompt someone else in the family y to join you in your quest and d help share costs.
Make a plan
It’s at this early stage that you need to start thinking about what you want to achieve. Researching your family history is actually a hobby rather than a project as it has no defined end. There is always more to discover, especially as many records are becoming more accessible. However, the nice thing about setting yourself a specific goal is that it can give you more focus and a greater sense of achievement. In this feature, the objective is to uncover the names of your great grandparents, but don’t worry if you get sidetracked. Following chance leads that take you down a completely different path is one of the joys of family history!
Record your findings
Although it’s fine to sketch out a rough family tree on paper, most people nowadays find it easier to keep track of their research on their computer, smartphone or tablet. There’s some great family tree software you can buy, but if you are just starting out in family history the free online tree builders offered by the main genealogy websites are a good way to dip your toe in the genealogy water instantly without having to fork out any money.
To build your tree, you will need to register with the site you want to use, but you do not need to take out a subscription to use the tree builder. If you change your mind later and want to use a different site, or start using software on your computer, then you can export the family tree that you have built up and import it into a different online family tree builder. It’s important to know though that this process may not move photos or attached documents, so it’s worth putting a bit of thought into which tree builder suits you best before you start.
The three main UK genealogy subscription websites ( ancestry.co.uk, findmypast.co.uk and thegenealogist. co.uk) all offer free family tree builders, and Ancestry and TheGenealogist both have accompanying apps for greater flexibility.
Once you’ve chosen an online family tree builder, it’s time to get stuck in. Start with your own details and then add those of your parents and grandparents. Include any middle names if you know them. Add as much information as you can about your family history – including any dates of birth, marriage and death you know – and you will soon get a feel for what you are missing and what you would like to uncover.
Let’s suppose you’ve managed to fill something in for both of your parents and your four grandparents but you are stuck on great grandparents. Where would you find this information? To answer this depends on what you know already but it is always worth going back and asking your family. Remember that your parents’ cousins or their children will share the same great grandparents and may already have the information you require.
If this is not possible (perhaps your parents or grandparents are deceased), then you have a number of options depending on what information you have.
Filling in the gaps
If you know the full names of your grandparents (ie your grandmothers’ maiden names) and preferably where and when they wwere born, then you can order their birth certificates. Crucially, these will name their parents (your great grandparents).
See page 31 for our step-by-step guide on how to order a certificate. This will cost you £ 9.25 but it is the most reliable option and should give you full names of both parents of an individual (unless they were illegitimate). You can find out more about birth certificates here: whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/ popup- page/birth- certificate- 0.
If you don’t know one or both of your grandmothers’ maiden names then you will need to order your parent’s (her child’s)
Using these key tips you should be able to find details of your great grandparents
birth certificate. Again you can follow our step-by-step guide to do this. This certificate will show her her maiden name, and you can then order her own birth certificate using the same process as above.
If you don’t know which year your grandparents were born, but they died before 1991, it might be worth trying to find them on the 1939 Register ( findmypast.
co.uk/1939register). This will cost you £ 6.95 but will give the exact date of birth and may place your grandparents with other family members you can identify (and add to your tree) so you can be sure they are your ancestors and not just someone who shares their name. You could alternatively order a copy of their death certificate, which will tell you their age at death but will cost you £ 9.25 and isn’t as accurate as a birth certificate.
You may also find your great grandparents on the 1911 census. We’ve all had to fill in a census form before, and so did our ancestors! If you can find your grandparents on the 1911 census, then you will probably find them living with their parents. If there are too many possibilities then it will help to have your grandparents’ birth certificates so that you can be sure you have found the right family. TheGenealogist, Findmypast and Ancestry all offer complete access to the English and Welsh census for 1841-1911, with images of the original pages. Ancestry and Findmypast offer transcriptions of the Scottish census up to 1901 – you will need to visit pay-as-yougo site scotlandspeople.gov.uk to search the 1911 Scotland census. All three of the main subscription sites also offer a free two-week trial period and most libraries offer free access to Ancestry Library Edition.
Using these tips you should be able to find details of your great grandparents.
The next step is to track down your great grandparents’ marriage in the civil registration indexes on freebmd.org.uk. The certificate will name two of your great great grandfathers. Using this you can then set about trying to uncover your great grandparents’ birth certificates with their fathers’ names as a check. These will give you the names of your great great grandmothers, too. You can now order their marriage records and go back even further.
Using the census records available on the subscription websites in tandem with the BMD records, you should be able to find their families and keep adding names to your tree all the way back (if you are lucky) to 1841 – the earliest census available.
Of course, it’s not always that simple. Transcription errors, name changes and common names are among the many difficulties that can throw a spanner in the works. This magazine frequently includes tips for overcoming these ‘ brick walls’, and you can visit our forum (whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/forum) where experienced family historians are happy to point new members in the right direction. Civil registration ( birth, marriage and death certificates), the census and parish records are the mainstays of family history research. Once you’ve got the hang of these key documents, you should quickly be able to trace further generations of your family back to the middle of the 19th century.
However, family history isn’t just about adding names to your tree. Your ancestors’ real stories are often found in other documents, from military service records to newspapers and wills. In the pages of this magazine and on our website we offer advice on where to look to find these amazing resources. Many have been digitised and put online, but most are still in the archives. As you get more confident in your research and decide to go deeper into the lives of your ancestors, you will need to visit archives (see our next issue), but for starting out, there’s plenty that can be achieved online.
Once you’ve added a generation to your family tree, you may have caught the family history bug and be itching to find out more. We’d love to hear what you uncover! Share your discoveries with us by email or on Twitter using #addageneration and come along to Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC in Birmingham this April. There’s plenty more to discover but another generation is a very good start!
Using our tips you can soon add another generation to your family tree and go back even further
Old photographs like these can help you add context to the names and dates you find in records
Birth certificates are perfect for going back a generation as they show the person’s parents
You might find your great grandparents on the 1911 census house schedules