Family history: How to begin your family search

Family photographs Family photographs

Are you curious about your family history? Understanding your background can help you make sense of who you are today. Researching your ancestors may feel like a daunting task but follow these simple first steps and you can make a start.

1. Write down everything you know

Jot down everything you can remember about your family, particularly the dates and places of marriages, births and deaths. Geography will play an important part in your future research.

You can probably already sketch out a small section of your family tree. This will remind you of what you know, and reveal the gaps.

2. Speak to your family

Living family members can be a wealth of knowledge. Start with parents, aunts and uncles, and then work back a generation if you can.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Sarah Millican, Lesley Sharp, Gary Lineker, Minnie Driver, Nick Hewer, John Simson, Nigel Havers, Una Stubbs, Nitin Ganatra, Marianne Faithfull

"If your grandparents can tell you about their grandparents then you will have access to a hundred years or more of family history", says Sara Khan the genealogist of the current series of Who Do You Think You Are? "Minnie Driver had never met her grandparents on her fathers' side. But she spoke to her half-cousin Jean who knew them well and could tell her more about them."

Record the interview if your relatives don't mind. It will be useful for your future research as well as an heirloom that can be passed to future generations. Just make sure you label them meaningfully so that you or others can get back to it easily.

However, there may be areas of your relatives' lives that they do not want talk about, so respect any boundaries. As an alternative, they may want to consider writing down their memories so that they can be read in the future.

Watch out for pet names. 'Uncle Jack' may have been born 'Michael John Smith'. Different family members might refer to the same relative differently. And non-relatives may be awarded 'aunt' or 'uncle' status in family conversations.

Similarly, ask about any names that may have more than one spelling or version.

Compare different versions of an event. Look out for rumours or hazy recollections. Where tales overlap, there is likely to be a grain of truth.

3. Look for physical clues

You'll be amazed how much you can uncover by looking through drawers and boxes.

Obvious documents such as certificates, wills and military service papers can provide the 'building blocks' of your family tree.

Keep an eye out for other family heirlooms. For example, bibles can often have entire family trees inscribed inside the cover.

Photographs can be another important find. Talk to relatives and see if they can identify the people in them. Jot the names in pencil on the back, or scan the photos and label them. Sara Khan explains, "Una Stubbs had never seen a photograph of her paternal grandparents and visited the house of her cousin who showed her a photo."

Letters can be another valuable source of personal information.

You may want to ask your relatives for any of the above but, again, respect their right to privacy.

4. Organise your family tree
Family Tree In this series of 'Who Do you Think You Are?' Sarah Millican makes her family tree

Your family tree is a map of how all your ancestors are related to one-another. "It can be time consuming, so you must be diligent and resourceful to get results", explains Sara Khan.

Take an A3 sheet of paper and start with your name near the bottom, allowing space at the top for previous generations. You can also use a word processor.

If you are married, your husband or wife sits alongside you, linked with an 'm' or an '='. Add any children beneath you, including a 'b.' followed by their date of birth.

Above you go your parents, and above them your grandparents, along with their birth dates. As you go back in time you double the number of your direct ancestors - four grand-parents, eight great-grandparents - and so on. Include the date of their death as well as their birth, similarly the date of their marriage.

You may know very little about some of them. The whole point of a family tree is to work out the gaps in your knowledge, and help you develop a research plan.

Keep an accurate master copy of your tree, which you update after every piece of research. Keep older versions, so that if you make a mistake you can rectify it.

Birth, marriage and death certificates

  • Since 1837, every birth, marriage and death in England and Wales had to be registered
  • Certificates began in Scotland in 1855, and most of Ireland in 1864
  • However, it took several decades for compliance to reach 100%
  • Parish registers in local archives have records of births, marriages and deaths before 1837

In a separate document or folder, keep notes and copies of any documents where the information came from in chronological order.

5. Develop a research strategy

"Memories may become blurred over the years, so verification is very important," according to Sara Khan.

It's always a good idea to check names and dates against official records. Many indexes of birth, marriage and death certificates are now online. You can also find indexes at a county archive or a local study centre.

Census records can also be a way of checking data, or discovering previously unknown relatives. A census has been taken every ten years since 1801 with the exception of 1941. There are other ways to proceed. This may mean a trip to a more specialist archive or institution.

6. If you need help

"Sooner or later you are going to hit a brick wall in your research, so it's good to think laterally," Sara Khan advises, "often reaching the earliest census return and the start of civil registration (1837) can mean a dead end in terms of pushing back further using centralised sources. However, with Nick Hewer we were able to go back to the Civil War by using parish records and other sources held locally."

Find out more

Old family photographs

Get started with your family history

As well as local sources, online resources, books, magazines and journals can offer practical help.

You might want to consider joining a family history society - either near where you live, or near where your family are from.

They organise local talks and provide a support group of other users who have caught the same family history bug. You may even discover that someone has done research on a branch of your family.

7. Get started

To find out more about researching your family history, go to the family history section of the BBC History website.

This article has been adapted from a guide by Dr Nick Barrett, who worked at the National Archives (formally the Public Record Office) from 1996-2000 and as a specialist researcher on Who Do You Think You Are? with contributions from Sara Khan, genealogist in the 2013 series

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