Getting started with Family History

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Are you interested in finding out about your Family History or just your Genealogy.  A strange question you may think. There are a lot of people out there who think that success is measured by the size of your tree.  I’m a member of genesreunited and on my homepage it say’s “congratulations – you have 400 people in your tree”. It really doesn’t matter how many people are in your tree.  The question you should be asking is “How accurate is my tree?”.

To ensure accuracy the first step that the researcher must take is to speak to family and friends, the older and more lucid the better.  One of the biggest regrets of a researcher is not discussing Family History with parents, grandparents etc before they were either too frail or had died. Find out if there are any family photos and records. If you are lucky there is a family Bible with births, marriages and deaths listed inside. Useful documents and resources include certificates, funeral details such as plot numbers and ‘contents’, newspaper cuttings, Apprenticeship indentures and embroidery samplers.

Armed with this, draw up a family tree with current knowledge and look for any anomalies such as a parent being too young to have a child, then go back and check it with family. When faced with the tree you’ll be amazed what other information can flood back. Beware though of ‘pet’ names. My father-in-law was named Frank but known to his family as Ben, this wasn’t even his middle name!

Now you are ready to start navigating the Public Record Office or (more likely) online records.  The major vital records are births, marriages and deaths (bmd) registrations and census returns.  There are several other sources that I will look at in future articles.

Hopefully your primitive tree will include individuals born before 1911 (or 1930 for the US).  Sign up for a subscription to a site such as Ancestry or Findmypast that contains census returns. You can ‘pay as you go’ or some Libraries will allow free access, if money is tight. Search the 1911 census for your known relatives.  (I intend to produce an article on different websites and how to get the most of your searches.)

If your surname is relatively rare you’re in a good position. If you are a ‘Smith’ then you will need to ensure that you include advance search options such as other family members, place of birth, occupations etc. In the US the Federal censuses were also held every 10 years but on the whole tens of years, 1870, 1880 and so on. Ancestry has the 1930 US Federal census online which is more advanced than the UK.  The census in the UK is usually released after the 100 year Data Protection threshold. The 1911 census was released two years early with the infirmity column blanked out.

Once you have the information from 1911 you can ‘flesh out’ your tree. It is recommended to look at the original images which often provide more clues.  A mother-in-law’s name in the household will help you find a couples marriage and birth records. Try to find bmd records. Freebmd has transcribed bmd records for England and Wales until about the 1930’s so far.  After 1914 a birth record will include the mother’s maiden name which helps to corroborate the evidence. Certificates are a mine of information and Freebmd will provide the volume and page number that will enable them to be ordered from the Government Record Office (gro).

Repeat the procedure, reversing in time through the censuses to build your tree further.  It is conceivable that you may hit a brick wall with a census and be unable to locate your family. Try an earlier census to see if you can pick them up on the other side.  Remember that the ‘Holy Grail’ of research is to work backwards from what you know. Good Luck

Next time I’ll be discussing Parish Records.


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