In part one of a new se­ries, fam­ily his­to­rian Chris Paton shows how you can take the first steps to­wards un­cov­er­ing your an­ces­tral story…

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

Re­spect pri­vacy

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.

Na­tional dif­fer­ences

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 gro/con­tent/cer­tifi­cates. In­dexes for all records must be first sourced else­where though, with FreeBMD ( 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 ances­, find­my­ and the­ge­neal­o­

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 ( scot­land­speo­, 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 ( scot­land­speo­ 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 nrscot­­search/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. ni­di­ 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 (­di­

ap­point­ments) or the Pub­lic Record Of­fice of North­ern Ire­land (PRONI –

ni­di­, 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 irish­ge­neal­

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 – ances­, find­my­past., my­her­ and the ge­neal­o­ 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 (

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. na­tion­

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 ( fam­i­, Find­my­past, My­Her­itage ( my­her­ 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., 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, while the North of Ire­land Fam­ily His­tory So­ci­ety’s web­site is at There are also help­ful on­line fo­rums such as and our own www.whodoy­ou­think­rum.

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?

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