START YOUR FAMILY TREE
In part one of a new series, family historian Chris Paton shows how you can take the first steps towards uncovering your ancestral story…
Everything you need to know to begin your research today
With a new series of Who Do You Think You Are? being shown on BBC One, there is no better time to join in the fun and start looking into your own ancestral history. But where do you begin, which are the records that can help, and what should you do with everything that you discover? There is a lot to get to grips with, but once you get underway, you will be joining thousands of people who are already on the journey of several lifetimes.
At its most basic, family history is about the stories of the past that have led to us being who we are today. This involves two basic tasks – identifying who our ancestors actually were (the ‘genealogy’ bit), and then trying to work out what they got up to in their lifetimes (the ‘family history’ part). Fortunately, there are a range of online resources available that can allow us to do this, and although some require payment to access, others are completely free of charge.
There are no strict rules in family history, but there are some very useful principles that are worth bearing in mind to help you keep your research on the straight and narrow.
The first principle is a very simple one: “Assume nothing, and prove absolutely everything.” If your granny tells you that she thinks your great uncle Jim once served in the RAF, that does not necessarily mean that great uncle Jim once served in the RAF – only that your granny thinks he did! It is also worth bearing in mind another useful guideline: “Work from the known to the unknown.” In practice, this tends to mean that you should start with yourself and work back one generation at a time, confirming each relationship methodically with the relevant documents.
There are many sources to consult for your research, but the starting point should be your immediate family members, to ask them what they might know of various relatives, such as who married whom, who worked where, and so on. In the past, this often meant sitting down over a cup of tea and having a chat, but we are in the 21st century now, and technology has brought us closer together. A Skype chat to an uncle in Australia, or a FaceTime conversation with a cousin in Canada may yield as much information as might be found on your doorstep. Not every family member will be interested, but those who are can continue to be engaged, for example through a private Facebook group in which everyone can share photographs and anecdotes. You can also report the results of your research endeavours, which may well trigger further recollections.
However, another key principle to bear in mind is, “Respect the privacy of the living.” Some of your family members may not wish for you to go raking through their lives – some may even have secrets that they do not want to be made public. Always ask your relatives if they are happy to have a discussion, and if you want to publish any information that they share in any format, including an online family tree, you should really present any individuals who are alive anonymously, naming them simply as ‘Living’ and obscuring any information that might enable their identification.
Family history is essentially the history of everything that is connected
Work back a generation at a time, confirming each relationship methodically
directly to your family, and as you might imagine, it can be a large beast to tame. Once you have the oral recollections of your relatives, sketch out a rough family tree diagram based on what you have learned. This will act as a ‘ready reckoner’, which you can add to or remove items from as you go along. You can do this with a pencil and paper, but it is just as easy now to create a tree digitally (see box, right).
The next priority is to prove that what you have been told is accurate. To do this, you will need to source documentary information, starting with birth, marriage and death records, compiled in the civil registration registers by local registrars. These can be purchased for a fee from the relevant national register office, or the local registrar’s office.
One thing to bear in mind is that different countries within Britain and Ireland do things different ways, and civil registration started at different dates in each country. For your most recent relatives, this can also be the priciest part of the research process, although cheaper ways to access the records in a digitised format are continually being made available.
If you are looking for English and Welsh certificates, the best place to source these is the General Register Office (GRO) at www.gro.gov.uk/ gro/content/certificates. Indexes for all records must be first sourced elsewhere though, with FreeBMD ( freebmd.org.uk) a good starting point for records dating from 1837 to 1983. These indexes tell you when and where an event happened, and which registrar’s office recorded it. More recent indexes up to 2005/2006 are available on subscription sites such as ancestry.co.uk, findmypast.co.uk and thegenealogist.co.uk.
Once you have the relevant index entries, you can then order paper certificates from the GRO at a cost of £9.25 each, which will be posted out to you. The GRO site is also trialling a cheaper online service for some of its records, which allows you to search indexes and download associated documents, covering births from 1837 to 1916, and deaths from 1837 to 1957, as PDFs for £6 each.
If your family is Scottish, you can search the indexes for records from 1855 onwards at ScotlandsPeople ( scotlandspeople.gov.uk), and purchase recent records from the site as paper certificates for £12 each. For birth records over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years old and deaths over 50 years old, you can instead purchase digital copies of the records from the site for just £1.50 each.
Even better, within the ScotlandsPeople Centre based in Edinburgh you can pay a fee of £15 for a day’s access and view all of the records up to the present day for free; the centre is open weekdays from 9am to 4.30pm ( scotlandspeople.gov. uk/visit-us). Local Family History Centres across Scotland also provide access to this same facility, in Alloa, Glasgow, Hawick, Inverness and Kilmarnock – details are available at nrscotland.gov.uk/research/localfamily-history-centres.
In Northern Ireland a similar setup is available for records from 1845 onwards for some marriages, and 1864 onwards for births and deaths, at the website of the General Register Office (Northern Ireland), or GRONI: geni. nidirect.gov.uk. These records cost £2.50 each, and again provide access to births over 100 years ago, marriages over 75 years ago and deaths over 50 years ago. Certificates of more recent records can be ordered from the same site at a cost of £15 each, but
if you are in Belfast you can also visit either GRONI ( geni.nidirect.gov.uk/
appointments) or the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI –
nidirect.gov.uk/proni), and see these records in a digitised format for £2.50 each – although they cannot be printed off. Before 3 May 1921 Northern Ireland and the Republic were simply one country, Ireland, and many of the historic records for the whole island are also being made available free of charge in digitised format via the Irish government’s website Irish Genealogy at irishgenealogy.ie.
Variations in information
For most of Britain and Ireland, the genealogical information presented in each record varies depending on the event. A birth record, for example, will normally name the child and usually both parents, the date and place of the event, and when it was registered. A marriage record will name the fathers of the marrying spouses, and witnesses. Most historic death records, by contrast, do not provide any genealogical information concerning the deceased, unless a relative was the informant. Scotland is the exception, however, in that all birth, marriage and death records usually name both parents of the subject, with additional bonuses such as the date of marriage for a couple on their child’s birth record.
Birth, marriage and death records are the building-blocks of a family tree, but another useful resource that can help to show how people are related to each other is the census. This has been recorded every 10 years in Britain from 1801 (except in 1941, because of the war), although it is only from 1841 that the records name individuals and show who was in a particular household on a respective census night. However, for reasons of data protection there is a 100-year privacy rule covering censuses, meaning that the most recent records that can be viewed are from 1911. Census records (including original images) from 1841 to 1911 for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are available on four commercial genealogy websites requiring a subscription to access – ancestry.co.uk, findmypast. co.uk, myheritage.com and the genealogist.co.uk. For Scotland, partial transcriptions for records from 1841 to 1901 are on Ancestry and Findmypast, but the digitised images for the records can only be accessed on ScotlandsPeople.
Some records for Britain dating from between 1841 and 1891 are also freely available in a transcribed form via a volunteer-based website called FreeCEN ( freecen.org.uk).
For Ireland, the situation is more complicated. Only the censuses from 1901 and 1911 are available in their entirety. Most returns from 1821 to 1891 have sadly been destroyed, with nothing at all surviving from 1861 to 1891, and there are only fragments for parts of the country from 1821 to 1851. The good news is that all of the surviving records, including the complete 1901 and 1911 censuses, are free to access at genealogy. nationalarchives.ie.
Start with the head
The census records will state who the ‘head of the household’ was, and then note who else was in the property, and how they were related to the head. Each individual will have information about their age, their occupation and their birthplace, which can be a very useful clue for locating their birth records. Unfortunately the 1841 record is slightly more primitive, in that ages over 15 are rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5, and the relationship to the head of the house is not given.
The Irish version of the census records also provides information about a person’s religion, although the place of birth will normally note the county or city of origin, rather than the parish. The 1911 census for Britain and Ireland includes some
useful answers from married women, who were required to state how many years they had been married, how many children they had given birth to, and how many of their children were still alive on census night – which can often yield a few surprises.
The ‘vital’ records – those relating to births, marriages and deaths – and the censuses will help you to construct the basic family tree. They will give you not only an insight into relevant genealogical data, ie who was related to whom, but will provide additional details such as the jobs of your ancestors and where they lived. This information is what will begin to transform your family tree into a family history.
To help flesh out the details there are a range of websites that can provide access to further records, stories and even other people’s compiled trees. I will look at some of them next month, including Ancestry, FamilySearch ( familysearch.org), Findmypast, MyHeritage ( myheritage.com) and TheGenealogist.
My final piece of advice this month is, “Remember you are not alone.” As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are other family historians out there – and most of them will be delighted to share the benefit of their experience. You should consider joining a family history society in your area, which can offer support, advice, resources and even allow you to contact relatives. The umbrella organisation for such groups in England and Wales is the Federation of Family History Societies ( ffhs.
org.uk), which will provide the relevant contact information for your nearest group. You can find the website of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies at safhs.org.uk, while the North of Ireland Family History Society’s website is at nifhs.org. There are also helpful online forums such as rootschat.com and our own www.whodoyouthink youaremagazine.com/forum.
The 1911 census for Britain and Ireland asked married women how long they had been married
Thanks to the countless records that are available online, it’s never been easier to investigate your ancestors
Your relatives should be your first port of call when researching family history
Who Do You Think You Are?