People research their family trees for all sorts of reasons. Where did I come from? (perfectly respectable to ask one’s self!).What sort of people were my forebears? what jobs did they do? Are there any ancestors or descendants abroad?
The interest may take you as far as the beginning of the statutory records (1837 in England and Wales; 1855 in Scotland); a lot of folk stop at this point because it satisfies much of their curiosity. If you are driven more by a bloodhound approach, as I am, then you’ll want to see how far back you can actually trace your names….and maybe forward and down the lines as well, to the present day.
In days of old, people had to travel all over the place to read church registers and collect names, dates, etc. by hand. Sometimes it is still necessary, since despite the massive upswing in online data available, not everything has yet been transcribed for that purpose.
I started collecting names and dates when I was ten, but shoved it all in a drawer for many years until the interest was reborn after I married. At that point in time, early 2000s, family tree websites and research portals were starting to appear online; people were transcribing records and it was beginning to take off big-time.
You don’t need specialised knowledge to do a lot of it. Perhaps you’ll need some help if you start handling stuff like old Manorial rolls, antiquated language and suchlike; but for the most part it is relatively straightforward. Bear in mind I’m not an expert, I can only tell you what I’ve done, what I’ve found and how I’ve done it….and there are always variations on a theme.
The obvious start points are your own parents and you then decide which name(s) you are going to follow back. You may have a particular family member that interests you, perhaps with military or naval connections. Perhaps some character from long past that you want to follow through. It’s entirely up to you. There are several ways of recording your findings; initially this will probably be by notebook, then at some point you might fancy a software program; but that’s for later.
Most people with half an interest will already know of the large websites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast (which started life as 1837Online.com). They do dominate the sector today, but there are other useful sites that could save you a bit of time and money, if appropriate for your needs.
Hatch Match and Dispatch
One of the easiest places I have found to use, for births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales, is a site called FreeBMD.org.uk….and it is free to use, unless you decide to offer a donation. It covers all the counties right back to the start of statutory records, which was July 1837. I believe there are still some gaps (there is a section somewhere on the site that tells you what has been transcribed and what is still in progress). I think the data extends now to 2005.
In the search-panel provided you can enter first and surnames, plus date ranges and county; select birth, death or marriage, click search and the system will present you with data organised into years and quarter-years; along with the registry entry codes. The advantage of having these codes is that you can use them to acquire a copy of birth, marriage or death certificates from the General Records Office (at a fee, of course). You don’t have to get the certificates if you don’t really need them, but sometimes you may have a family “mystery” to solve and only the certificate is likely to give you the answer (such as was Aunty Flossy really born before the marriage, or was Aunty Flossy’s dad actually the postman? I’m sure you get the idea).
FreeBMD will identify potential ancestors even if you’re not sure where they were born; simply search “all counties”; or you can select up to three at once. Some analytical juggling with the date ranges will also help. It was common for women to produce large families, sometimes over a period of twenty years or more, so to be certain you have found all the offspring you should search a wide date-range. I have one ancestor who produced children from the age of 17 right through to 45, so be generous with the search, whether it be statutory records or earlier parish ones.
Where births are concerned, the statutory records began to include the mother’s maiden name from around 1911, in the overall listings.
There is a little trick to use when it comes to marriage-hunting on this particular site. Input the first and surname of the person you already know, followed by a date range in which you think the marriage occurred.
When your “person” comes up in the search results (and let’s assume there is only one), you will see the Volume and Page Number data alongside. If you then click the Page Number, the search will take you to the transcript of that page, in which you will see (usually) four names. These are actually two couples; and one couple will be yours, but it isn’t always obvious which one is “yours”! since this will depend on what information you already have about your ancestors. If you have absolutely none at all, then you should note all the names and keep them for future reference (and elimination).
As said, FreeBMD is my preferred site for searching England/Wales statutory records; I have found it easier than FindMyPast tools. It’s entirely up to you.
Now what about Scotland? 1855 was the start-point for statutory records. I have tended to use Scotlandspeople.gov.uk for this, but it is necessary to pay to view the images, whether they be transcript or original. You can also search them at FindMyPast; you’ll get the search results free, but then you will have to select which ones to examine further; to see the transcripts there are credit-payments involved unless you happen to have a FMP subscription.
The Public Records Office for Northern Ireland is www. nidirect.gov.uk . I have never used it, so have no idea how good it will be for online work; it does have a families section, so you will need to check it out for yourself.
State registration of all non-catholic marriages began in 1845. In 1864 all civil registration began for births, deaths and marriages.
www.nli.ie is the National Library for Ireland, which should help with handling Catholic parish registers.
The websites www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie and also www.irishgenealogy.ie may be helpful.
The General Records Office for Ireland is www.gov.ie/gro
The other major tool for untangling families is the Census. We now have census records online from 1841 right through to 1921; and there is an extra directory covering registrations of people in 1939, just before the start of WW2. Something to note, however, about this one and that is, it isn’t necessarily that accurate. It can be messy, names crossed out, people given the wrong sex and some families have asked for their records to be closed off. Nonetheless, it’s there for the taking. The census records can often solve issues of who married who, and will give a picture of all children in that family at that point in time, at that address…..along with surprise visitors and previously unknown relatives. I stress “ at that address” because occasionally a child has wandered off to the neighbours’ place; or, as I found, my grand-dad with his grandparents, while the remainder of the family was off farm-labouring in another county.
The major players for census records these days are Ancestry and FindMyPast; I’ve never used Ancestry except at a Records Office so can’t comment much on whether it’s good or bad. FindMyPast covers England, Wales and Scotland, however the Scottish records are only offered (as far as I can see) as transcripts (i.e not the original census image). For these originals, you’d have to go to Scotlandspeople; and, as said, they charge using a credit scheme. However, you can then download the image to store for your personal needs.
Reading around, I see that Ancestry also has the Scottish records.
Do you actually need the original images? Most transcripts are pretty accurate, but sometimes the transcriber can’t read the writing and subsequently makes a guess. Only this week I examined the original 1911 census of a related family; the transcriber had struggled with the final child entry and written “bab woks”. On looking at the original census image, I could work out that it actually said “baby, 2 weeks”…..aha, another unnamed ancestor, quickly deciphered by using FreeBMD’s website. So yes, it does pay to view the original paperwork!
There is another website called freecen.org.uk. I haven’t used it for quite a long time, since I have a FindMyPast subscription, but you might like to try it out because it’s free to use.
The site appears to have had a bit of a face-lift; there is a facility to search according to your ancestor’s birth-place; these cover all the English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish counties.
Warning: you should note that the percentage of records transcribed here so far is not high for some of the censuses; the 1861 records have had 65% copied over, but others are much lower. If you don’t find your people, it’s likely those records haven’t yet been included. The website is a work still in the making.
For Northern Ireland and Ireland records, see the links given further up.
Only census records for 1901 and 1911 remain, for Ireland. There are fragments from the other records, which were all destroyed in a fire.
Although there are some kinds of census listings before 1841, it is this date that is generally accepted as the more detailed start-point for most people searching England, Wales and Scotland. It has some peculiarities; for example, children’s ages are often round UP by as much as five years; adult ages rounded DOWN by the same amount. A true eight-year old may be thus shown as aged ten; a fifty-two year old as aged fifty. When you use this census to estimate birth-years, you need to keep this old rule in mind.
People’s places of birth were not often stated. They were either “born of the county” or not, often indicated by ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Occupations were stated, but the space was sometimes blank or completed with phrases such as “worker, poor house”, “pauper”, “independent, of own means”, and so on.
From 1851, the details were rather better; places of birth were more readily available; ages more accurate (but you still have to allow for mistakes).
Coming through to the 1911 census, the forms began to include data such as how many living children a couple had, and how many died; very helpful when trying to track down all the baptisms.
Overseas census records are rather outside my domain, but here are a few ideas:
familytree might be helpful for general global links.
The Mormon site FamilySearch has had one or two unhelpful face-lifts, but if you can fathom your way round the search engine then this one does have a lot of databases. If searching on births, marriages and deaths, keep in mind that many people have submitted their own ancestral trees to the system, which may or may not be accurate in content. You can, however, use filters to screen out/choose the results. You’ll need to create a login and password but it is a free-to-use site.
The Parish Registers
So far, we’ve dealt with the statutory records schemes. When you delve back to earlier times, ie pre-1837 and pre-1855, the searches become a little more demanding. You will be relying mainly on the church parish registers for those baptisms, marriages and burials.
In earlier times, the internet used to be awash with church records of all kinds, but many have now disappeared as the operators have either grown tired of their projects, died, or left them inactive.
Once again the “big boys” have come into play, covering numerous parish register volumes for baptisms, burials, banns and marriages, for England and Wales. Non conformist and non-parochial registers may be found via www.bmdregisters.co.uk in association with The Genealogist and National Archives. I’ve never had a need to use these, so again no experience to offer.
ScotlandsPeople cover their country’s records, and include most Scottish church denominations.
Your home area very likely has its own family history society, which can be readily located by simple search terms in the search-engine of your choice; these may well have links directly to church records online that keen volunteers have transcribed. The Devon FHS used to offer printed booklets of names lists transcribed directly from various parish registers (I don’t know whether they still do). I recently did a search for Beaminster parish records and located a whole list online, courtesy of Dorset OPC (online parish clerk). It may save you a lot of search-time.
Online Parish Clerk websites used to be numerous, sadly some have now gone; here is a list of those that seem to be still running, in some fashion:
www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/DEV/OPCproject Devon OPC projects
www.forest-of-dean.net Forest of Dean
KnightRoots seem to cover a lot of places in Hampshire
OnLine Parish Clerks for the County of Lancashire for Lancashire
MonGenes for Monmouthshire; noted that copyright is much out of date
Sussex OPC for Sussex; seems not updated since 2016.
http://www.hunimex.com/warwick/opc/opc.html Warwickshire; last updated 2020.
https://wsom-opc.org.uk West Somerset OPC (I note now inactive)
A few look a bit flakey, so gather the details while you can.
You may also find www. parishmouse.co.uk helpful for identifying parish names.
For free searching on parish records I would suggest trying www.Freereg.org.uk . Although their database isn’t complete for all counties, it’s worth a try. I have found quite a lot of links here for my purposes.
If you are near a Records Office, it is worth booking in for a day’s visit. You should find it has online access (often via Ancestry) and that might be free access for you, since many of these places pay a sub. to use the services. Again, a search online will show where your nearest one is and your local family history society will (or should!) certainly know. Have a look here:
FamilyHistory for English lists.
Also here for Scotland:
Plus the main website UK & Ireland Genealogy which covers the UK and Ireland. I haven’t checked all the links there, it was updated in 2022 so should be good.
My first visit to a records office was so long ago that I can’t remember much, other than everything was on card index and microfiche. It took me most of my allotted time to discover one of my G4 grandfathers and his birth-year. The staff used to bring out the record books that people had requested, on a trolley; I went through nine or ten church register volumes but it took ages because each one had to be requested on a paper form. Far different from today, with near instant access via computer.
Now…..how to do it? Well, everyone tackles it differently, due to personal goals; but one of the main understandings is that you should always go to original documents—wherever possible—to iron out discrepancies, problems and puzzles. Online transcriptions may not be totally complete and you might find a sliver of information on an original document that means a lot to you. For example the original marriage certificate of one of my great-grandfathers showed that he was a widower….so I had clear sight of the fact that this was not the first marriage. It also showed the bridegroom’s mother was deceased, which helped solve a long-term census puzzle.
Another suggestion is that you need to find your ancestor via birth details, then marry them off, then kill them off! Thus obtaining three sets of data. The middle one of marriage is optional, but every ancestor will experience the other two….having said that, I have one or two pre-statutory folk whose burials have remained permanent mysteries in terms of when and where they occurred.
Very important—read everything very carefully. Make note of all and any names on your records; parents, ministers, witnesses, everything. Just one previously unknown name can open up a fresh search-line.
Copies of Original certificates from the statutory registers can be acquired from the GeneralRecords Office. You will need the dates, place, Volume and page number of the person’s register entry…FreeBMD will provide you with those details, as said before (England and Wales). At the time of writing they are £11 each, so choose carefully your information and register entries before applying.
General Records Office: www.gro.gov.uk
For Scotland: www.nrscotland.gov.uk also see scotlandspeople.gov.uk)
For Northern Ireland and Ireland, already mentioned above.
Original census records images are online at FindMyPast I don’t know anywhere else that can provide these. Scotlandspeople.gov.uk has the census record images for Scotland.
When it comes to the old pre-statutory stuff, you’ll find again that the major websites have got transcriptions; but not always original images. FindMyPast doesn’t seem to have any for most parish registers I’ve looked at; I can’t speak for Ancestry; but Scotlandspeople certainly does have originals (pay-per-view); I have some marriage entries for the late 1700’s.
Interesting Search Guides
a) Although not often considered for family-tree work, reading old Trade Directories will provide names and addresses for family members who ran businesses. Many are searchable online. Large town/city libraries should hold the actual books.
The above are also available via the Ancestry website.
https://digital.nls.uk/directories/ is the National Library of Scotland, which has hundreds of directories covering 1773 to 1911.
FindMyPast has trade directories in its databases, including directories for Scotland, Ulster and Ireland.
b) An extract from an old email in my box, concerning the naming of children; this in answer to a query I put on a Scottish forum many years ago:
Naming Traditions (southwest Scotland)
1st son = father’s father
2nd son = mother’s father
3rd son = father
4th son = father’s 2nd oldest brother or mother’s oldest brother
1st daughter = mother’s mother
2nd daughter = father’s mother
3rd daughter = mother
4th daughter = mother’s oldest sister
5th daughter = mother’s 2nd oldest sister or father’s oldest sister
I applied this to one of my “old” families and it actually worked quite well.
c) In Scotland, really old records of deaths are called Bills of Mortality. The statutory death certificates give a lot more information than the English ones; e.g it shows the names of the deceased’s parents plus the mother’s maiden surname…a real gem when trying to move further back in time. This information was supplied by the person who registered the death; they could sometimes be wrong, if memory played tricks under stress, so keep that in mind. All of mine, however, seemed to work out ok.
d) Victorian families tended to have many children, so when searching births and baptisms, be sure to stretch out at least twenty years from the marriage date. The baptism of a child was usually done in its early months of life, but not always. A child baptised in 1801 might have been born in 1798, for example.
e) Pitfalls are numerous. The spelling of a surname in particular. Many search facilities will offer you the option of ‘phonetic’, (or similar), meaning it will sniff out anything that sounds like your surname. It is especially useful as you push further back in time, as surnames acquired (or lost) extra letters, or just became One that I worked on for years had seven different variants, some of it I suspect caused by heavy northern or Irish accents when the name was spoken. It will test your wits.
f) Many volunteers are indexing old gravestones at their local churches. I haven’t spent much time with this sector but it’s a worthy cause and bound to add to the research knowledge-banks.
g) Emigration, again, is rather outside my sphere of experience but both the major genealogy websites have lists to search.
The mental challenges are many and on occasions you need to take a break from it. Early periods were, as an example, full of Johns, Marys, Williams, Anns, and they all start to look the same after a while. A surname that is common in a village or town will also test the patience of a saint, in the unravelling.
You will encounter blockages, dead ends, missing people, missing records and mis-spelt names. People can vanish from census records, even though you are sure they were still alive at the time. Husbands and wives can die and their survivors may take a new partner….all totally unknown by you. Visitors on a census turn out to be relatives you never knew about. Half-brothers and half-sisters make unexpected appearances. People also emigrate, never to be heard of again. A few turn out to be rebels, in jail, deported, banished from villages, adding to the excitement of an otherwise hum-drum family tree. Occasionally you‘ll find a wealthy one, then spend your time wondering why you didn’t inherit anything.
There is no guarantee as to how far back in time you’ll get, but I imagine the early 1700s is feasible for most people and probably earlier. My furthest point for a name is now 1590. I have collated not quite one thousand individuals into various trees; some of these, however, are thanks to contacts made over the years via web-places like Rootschat. There are some clever folk there who are very adept at untangling puzzles or giving guidance.
I hope this is of some use, it’s been written up in just over a couple of weeks; checked a few times to make sure I haven’t put my foot in it somewhere or made a contradiction.
Even if you don’t make it back to the Domesday Book, you might discover a new interest in some of your ancestors’ towns or villages. We need to have a sense of our past because there are plenty enough people determined to obliterate it….as you know.
© C A Dark 2023