Who do you think you are?

How we did it: Overview of Key Resources

Every Who Do You Think You Are? programme poses new challenges for our team, and we are constantly amazed by the discoveries made as we explore the family history of our celebrities.

However, without reference to essential resources and methods, we could not reveal such extraordinary details about the lives of our celebrities' relatives. We have identified some of the key tools used in the research and production process for this series, and hope that they may be useful as you investigate the lives and times of your own ancestors.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Archive Documents

There are literally millions of documents stored in archives all over the world. They can be official, legal or personal documents, or seemingly random memorabilia. Many of them will contain information about your ancestors.

  • Some documents may have passed directly through your ancestors' hands or even show their handwriting.
  • Tracking down relevant archives and accessing their collections can take some time, but tools such as the ARCHON directory, which contains contact details for archives in the UK and beyond, and online catalogues, such as The National Archives: Access to Archives or the Scottish Archives Network, can be very useful.
  • If you are unable to visit the relevant archive yourself, there is usually the option of hiring the archivist or an independent researcher to find the information for you.

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Army Medical Services Records

  • As with many military records, a good place to start searching for your ancestor in the Army Medical Services is The National Archives at Kew, west London.
  • The Army Medical Services Museum also holds some records for officers, together with a collection of material relating to the history of the services, which will bring colour to your ancestors' experiences and put them into context.

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Birth Certificates

Birth certificates are one of the key genealogical resources.

  • They contain the date and place of a birth; the names of the child and both parents, including the mother's maiden name; and the occupation of the father.
  • Scottish birth certificates also contain the date and place of the parents' marriage.
  • Indexes to certificates for England and Wales are available online at a number of sites, and certificates can be ordered online from the General Register Office.
  • For Scottish ancestors, both the marriage indexes and digitised copies of the certificates are available online at ScotlandsPeople.

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Burial Records

Burial records can lead you to your ancestor's final resting place, and therefore perhaps to the burial plots of other relatives or to monument inscriptions that can provide invaluable information about your family members, their dates and relationships to one another.

  • Burials were recorded at a parish level, and the records can be found in the relevant local or county archive.
  • There are also several collections online, including on the genealogical websites FindMyPast, the Origins Network and on the International Genealogy Index.

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Business Letters

If you can find surviving letters from an ancestor's business, all kinds of genealogical and personal information can be gleaned from them.

  • Whether or not your ancestor is mentioned personally, you might discover information such as working conditions, company policies, wages and how the business was doing.
  • If your ancestor was senior enough to be mentioned in the letters or even to have written them, you are likely to get an idea of how successful they were in the world of work, how they interacted with their colleagues and other personal details.
  • Business letters sometimes survive in a family, or have been deposited in a local or national archive or an archive specific to that business.
  • Many archives have their collections catalogued or listed on their websites or on national databases such as The National Archives: Access to Archives (which contains catalogues relating to England and Wales) or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Archive Network.

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Census Records

One of the corner stones of genealogical research, census returns, provide a snapshot of the population at intervals of ten years.

  • The census records information such as names, ages, occupations and places of birth of (in theory) every member of every household in the country, which helps identify family members and their relationship to each other, as well as visitors, guests, boarders, lodgers, neighbours and more.
  • The returns from 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and a growing collection from England and Wales for 1911 are available online at a number of sites.
  • Remember that your ancestors will be recorded at the location they were found on the night that the census was taken, which may not be their usual residence. They might be staying with friends, at work, at school, in prison, in hospital or on holiday. Occasionally individuals or households were accidentally missed out, or deliberately avoided having their details recorded.

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Colonial Death Records

Many of our British ancestors who lived in the former colonies registered the births, marriages and deaths of family members that took place abroad.

  • The British Library holds records of those who died in India, but the indexes to births, marriages and deaths overseas are also available online on websites such as FindMyPast and FamilyRelatives.
  • The certificates found in these indexes can be ordered from the General Register Office.

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Company Records

If your ancestor worked for a company, all kinds of records may survive to help illustrate their career.

  • You may find wage books, accounts, letters, journals, advertisements, correspondence and a great deal more, some of which may mention your ancestor personally.
  • Some records may provide information such as working conditions, company policies, wages and how and what the business was doing.
  • You are likely to get an idea of how successful the company was, how colleagues interacted and other details.
  • If the company in question still exists, it may keep its own records. Alternatively, they may be deposited in a local or national archive or an archive relevant to their area of business.
  • Many archives have their collections catalogued or listed on their websites or on national databases such as The National Archives: Access to Archives (which contains catalogues relating to England and Wales) or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Archive Network.
  • Relevant archives can also be found through search engines.

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Crematorium Records

These records, usually still held at the individual crematorium, can provide details of your ancestor's final resting place and, if relevant, locate the position in which the ashes are buried.

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Death Certificate

Death certificates are a key genealogical resource.

  • They contain the date and place of a death, the full name and age of the deceased, his/her occupation (for women this is often 'wife of' or 'widow of'), the cause of death and the name and address of the informant.
  • Scottish death certificates additionally contain the full names of both parents of the deceased, including the mother's maiden name.
  • Indexes to certificates for England and Wales are available online at a number of sites, and certificates can be ordered online from the General Register Office.
  • For Scottish ancestors, both the death indexes and digitised copies of the certificates are available online at ScotlandsPeople.

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Eyewitness Account

Eyewitnesses can bring your ancestors' experiences to life in a direct and personal way, providing poignant and dramatic detail that is often missed by more general histories.

  • Eyewitnesses to events in your ancestors' lives might be found through local archives, museums, historical or re-enactment societies, or through the services of a local researcher.
  • Depending on your ancestors' situation, organisations such as veterans' associations or alumni societies may be able to put you in touch with those who rubbed shoulders with your ancestors at important moments in their lives.
  • Even if there are no living witnesses of your ancestors' lives, you might be able to find eyewitness accounts in family diaries or newspaper articles.

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Family Archive

Many families have collections of letters, documents, heirlooms and all kinds of information relevant to past and present generations.

  • Often one family member has gathered this material and is now the guardian of it, or it might be sitting in a box in someone's attic.
  • Such collections can be a treasure trove of information, so it is always worth asking round the family to see who has what.

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Family Members

Talking to family members and anyone connected with the family is a fundamental part of genealogical research.

  • Relatives can provide names, dates, locations and occupations for your ancestors, and can tell you about the characters of those that they remember, from attitudes and emotions to dress sense and favourite meals, loves, hates, talents, scandals - all information that will help turn your ancestor into a character.
  • Although older family members are likely to be mines of information about earlier generations, cousins and siblings can make a valuable contribution as they may have been present during a significant conversation or have heard family tales that you have not.
  • Remember to treat your relatives' memories with respect. Ideas and attitudes change over time, and a topic of mere interest to you may be an uncomfortable or painful memory for a different generation.

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Family Tree

Many families have a family tree drawn either from memory or from research undertaken by a member of the family.

  • Uncovering a family tree can save a great deal of research time and money, but it is a good idea to check the information contained in it by finding supporting documents.

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Former Family Homes

Visiting a home once occupied by your ancestors can bring the past vividly to life.

  • Photographs, maps, plans and family memory might help you to form a picture of how it looked in your ancestors' day.
  • You can establish how comfortable or otherwise their living conditions were, how much space there was and how close your ancestors were to their place of work or worship.
  • You might even speculate about the spot at which some of your ancestors were born or died.

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Industry Journal

Industry journals are a great place to find out both personal and career details of an ancestor who spent any length of time in that industry.

  • You might find information about employment, wages, conditions, technological advances, awards or dismissals, retirements and obituaries as well as gaining a flavour of what was happening in the industry at the time at which your ancestor was involved.
  • If the relevant industry has its own archive, library or museum, you are likely to find back issues of its journals there. Some will also be held in local or national libraries.
  • If the journal is still being published, you might contact the current editorial team to find out about the location of past issues.

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Livery Company

If you have an ancestor who was a member of one of the City of London Livery companies, you can uncover plenty of details about his career from the records left behind.

  • You might discover how he became a freeman of the company (for example, through apprenticeship, payment of a fee or through the membership of his father), with which company he was associated and what his relationship and involvement was with the company.
  • Many of the relevant records are held at the Guildhall Library, but it is also worth approaching the individual livery company to find out more about their history.

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Local Archives

Local archives hold information about the history of the area, including parish records, historic newspapers, poor law records and all kinds of documents and resources relating to the area and the people who lived there.

  • Many have their collections catalogued or listed on their websites or on national databases such as The National Archives: Access to Archives (which contains catalogues relating to England and Wales) or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Archive Network.
  • If your ancestor lived abroad, local archives may hold documents relating to them, but you will need to be able to speak the local language or hire a local researcher to get the most out of these documents.

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Local Expert

Speaking to an expert can shed light on the particular location, period or aspect of history that you are researching, and can help to put your ancestors' experiences into context.

  • Experts can be found simply by searching online, or by making inquiries at libraries, archives, museums and historical or genealogical societies.
  • If you are searching for an expert abroad, local universities or archives or relevant family history societies, for example the Anglo-German Family History Society, are good places to start.

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Local Tourist Information

If you find your ancestors in places or countries that you know nothing about, the local tourist office may be able to help you get your bearings.

  • They will have one eye on the history of the area and may be able to help you locate the places or buildings with which your ancestors were associated.
  • They can also point you in the right direction for relevant museums or exhibitions.
  • Abroad, you may also find someone in the tourist office who speaks English and is able to answer your questions about the local area.

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Marriage Certificate

Marriage certificates are one of the key genealogical resources.

  • They contain the date and place of a marriage, the names, ages, marital status, occupations and addresses of the bride and groom as well as the names and occupations of their fathers.
  • Scottish marriage certificates also contain the names and maiden names of the mothers.
  • Indexes to certificates for England and Wales are available online at a number of sites, and certificates can be ordered online from the General Register Office.
  • For Scottish ancestors, both the marriage indexes and digitised copies of the certificates are available online at ScotlandsPeople.

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Medical Expertise

If you want to know more about the illness of an ancestor or understand the cause of death that appears on a death certificate, a medical expert may be able to help.

  • A medical friend or relative would be an ideal person to ask.
  • There are also many websites that define common and archaic medical terms uncovered by genealogists.
  • If you want to know about the history of an illness or how it might have been treated, you are likely to find online resources through standard search engines.
  • Institutions such as the Wellcome Trust or The Royal Society of Medicine may also be able to help.

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Military Service Record

  • The best place to search for military service records is The National Archives at Kew in west London.
  • There are also several collections of documents available online.
  • Service records from after the 1920s (therefore including the Second World War) are not yet available to the public, but the next of kin can apply for these documents from the Ministry of Defence.

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Newspapers

Local newspapers are a great place to search for information about your ancestor, for example in obituaries and inquest reports.

  • All you need to start your search is a date for the event.
  • Local papers should be available at the relevant local or county archive, and a national collection is held at British Library Newspapers at Colindale, London.
  • Many 19th century newspapers have also been digitised, allowing you to search by name, and the growing collection is available at the British Library and at Colindale.
  • Even if your ancestor is not mentioned personally, local papers are a great source of information about what was going on in their community, the topics of interest and activities of the day.
  • National newspapers allow you to follow stories and trace people of greater public interest. A good place to start is with The Times Archive.

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Obituary

Obituaries are an excellent way of obtaining personal, contemporary information about an ancestor.

  • They often contain not only details of family, career, the manner of death and place of burial, but also more intimate information such as their role in a local community or the affection in which they were held.
  • Particularly eminent ancestors might have had an obituary in The Times, but the major source is local newspapers, which are held in the relevant local or county archive and at the British Library Newspapers at Colindale, London..
  • A growing collection of 19th century newspapers can be searched and accessed online from Colindale or the British Library's main site at St Pancras.

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Parish Registers

Parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials go back as far as the 16th century.

  • They are a particularly important genealogical tool before birth, marriage and death certificates appeared in the mid-19th century.
  • If you know the parish or area in which your ancestors originated, and other personal details to help identify them, searching parish records can take your family lines further back.
  • The records do not, however, contain the depth of information that appears on certificates.
  • Collections of parish records are usually deposited with the relevant local or county archive, although there are many online collections at sites such as Origins Network, Ancestry, FindMyPast, ScotlandsPeople and the International Genealogical Index.

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Passenger Lists

Passenger Lists are a great way of tracing ancestors who immigrated, emigrated or simply spent time abroad during the course of their lives.

  • The information given on such lists varies widely, but you can expect to discover who your ancestor travelled with, when and to where, and by which vessel.
  • You might also discover details about who paid their passage, where they were bound, whether they had a promise of employment, and all kinds of other details.
  • Many collections of passenger lists are available and indexed online.

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Personal Diaries

Diaries are a marvellous way of getting inside the lives and characters of your ancestors.

  • Whether they report ideas, secrets, hopes and fears or simply record day to day activities, they are a window into somebody's past and the environment in which they lived.
  • For anyone researching their genealogy, it is worth asking relatives whether anyone has inherited diaries from earlier generations.

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Personal Letters

Often half forgotten in a drawer or a trunk in the attic, letters written by or concerning your ancestors will quickly become some of your most valued genealogical documents.

  • Not only do they provide human accounts of joy, grief, achievement and a flavour of everyday life, but they also reveal crucial clues about family relations, providing: addresses, examples of handwriting, and personal details that will be invaluable in your genealogical search.
  • Personal letters can also be powerful tools in bringing our ancestors' characters and experiences to life.

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Place of Education

Many schools will have left records of their pupils, staff and administration, whether they were run by a charity, the state or anyone else.

  • Some of the records may have been deposited in the relevant local or county archive, but if the school is still open, it is likely that they will hold their own records.
  • Contact details for schools still in operation will be easily available on the web.
  • Universities often have more detailed records and alumni information, and any training establishment might have records of pupils or perhaps magazines which contain biographies, news, exam results and obituaries.

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Poor Relief Records

Poor relief was administered by the parish until 1834, and after that by the local Poor Law Union.

  • Records of those who applied for or received relief both before and after 1834, as well as those who ended up in the workhouse (or 'poorhouse' as it was called in Scotland), should be held at the relevant local or county archive.
  • Many local archives have their collections catalogued or listed on their websites or on national databases such as The National Archives: Access to Archives (which contains catalogues relating to England and Wales) or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Archive Network.

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Record Office

There are record offices and archives all over the country, some local and some national in scope.

  • Local or county record offices tend to hold material relating to their own area and the people who lived there.
  • Many also hold microfilm copies of local or national birth, marriage, death and census indexes, or have subscriptions to websites where this information is held.
  • Many have their collections catalogued or listed on their websites or on national databases such as The National Archives: Access to Archives (which contains catalogues relating to England and Wales) or its Scottish equivalent, the Scottish Archive Network.

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Regimental Museums

If you are investigating your ancestor's military history, the relevant regimental museum is a good place to find information about his or her life and experiences in the military, and also to find memorabilia and experts in the history of the regiment.

  • Lists of regimental museums are available online.
  • National organisations such as the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum may also hold more information.

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Specialist Expert

If your ancestors were involved in particular occupations or hobbies and you want to find out more, it can be helpful to speak to someone who can explain exactly what they did, and what was happening in that field at the time your ancestor was involved.

  • Often there will be information on the web, but it is worth contacting relevant museums, societies, historical societies or regulatory bodies for your field of interest, for example the Royal Photographic Society.
  • Often such organisations have a magazine, library or archive which may hold relevant material, and be able to recommend experts in their field.

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Specialist Records

It may take some time to trace specialist sets of records, i.e. those used infrequently by researchers, which are therefore less easy to access.

  • Searching online and approaching organisations associated with the records that you want are good ways to start.
  • You may find that there are hurdles to jump before you can view some of these records. For example, some personal documents may not be viewed unless you can prove that you are the next of kin and that the subject of the records is dead.

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Synagogue Records

  • Many synagogue records are still held with the synagogue concerned, and others have been deposited in the relevant local archives (particularly if the synagogue in question has been destroyed or is no longer in use).
  • Search engines are a good way to track down these establishments.
  • Other collections of Jewish records are available online, for example at the JewishGen website.
  • Jewish ancestors are likely to have left records of the major events in their lives in the synagogue, and there might also be lists of those who attended the synagogue and much more.

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Trade Directories

If you know where in the country your ancestor practiced his trade or business, local trade directories are a great way to find out more.

  • Trade directories were usually published annually, and list the names and business addresses of local traders. The earliest examples go back as far as the 17th century.
  • You can use trade directories to trace your ancestor's situation year by year, their business premises, business partners and how much competition they had locally.
  • There are several collections of trade directories online. Copies will also be held at the relevant local or county archive, and there is a good national collection at the Guildhall Library in London.

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US Census

The US census, a snapshot of the whole population,is a major resource for those tracing ancestors in the US.

  • The census was taken every 10 years, and the returns from 1790 to 1930 are available online (although not all are complete).
  • They tend to include more information than their British counterparts, with increasing amounts of detail each time.
  • By 1930, people were asked not only about their names, ages, occupations, family relationships and birthplaces, but also such details as their domestic situation, education, literacy, parents' births, race, citizenship and military service.

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Visiting Locations

Paying a visit to places in which your ancestors lived or worked can bring the information on your family tree to life.

  • Exploring your ancestors' world, their houses, the mine or mill in which they worked, how close they were to their work, church, relatives or local landmarks, and all kinds of other details - can help you develop a vivid picture of their lives.
  • There might be local museums or archives with documents and photographs which can help to build a picture of how everything looked in your ancestors' day.
  • You might also meet locals who remember your ancestors or find local experts who can help you with the historical context.
  • Visiting locations can also help highlight the contrast if your ancestors moved, for example from a rural village to an industrial town.

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Vital Records

'Vital records' is a term used by genealogists to denote the central genealogical resources of birth, marriage and death certificates, and before these documents appeared, records of baptism, marriage and burial.

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Will

Wills can be a fabulous source of information about your ancestors and their lives.

  • Not only do they often give key genealogical details such as family members (including in-laws), friends, servants, occupations and locations, but you can glean a great deal of information from the bequests themselves.
  • You should be able to ascertain how much property or money your ancestor had, which were their most valued possessions, who was in or out of favour in the will and who was trusted enough to be an executor.
  • Codicils (later amendments) may reveal family politics or arguments, and you may see your ancestor's signature at the bottom of the will.
  • Wills proved after 1858 were administered centrally and copies are available to order.
  • Wills proved before 1858 are largely divided between those that were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (which are available online), those proved at the Prerogative Court of York (which are available from the Borthwick Institute) and those deposited in local or county archives.
  • Some collections are available online, for example at the genealogy sites Origins Network and ScotlandsPeople.

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War Diaries

If you know the unit in which your ancestor served, a war diary is a fantastic way of finding out what he was doing on a day-to-day basis.

  • You might find details of locations, combat, weather conditions, losses and all kinds of other information that will help you piece together your ancestor's experiences
  • It is rare to find individuals mentioned by name in the diaries
  • The best place to start searching for war diaries is at The National Archives at Kew in West London, although some of their collections for the First World War are available online. The relevant regimental museum may also hold copies.

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Related links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external web sites.

Archive Documents

Army Medical Services Records

Birth Certificates: England & Wales

Birth Certificates: Scotland

Burial Records

Business Letters

Census Records

Colonial Death Records

Company Records

Death Certificates: England & Wales

Death Certificates: Scotland

Eyewitness Account

Family Archive

Industry Journal

Livery Company

Local Archives

Local Expert

Marriage Certificate: England & Wales

Marriage Certificate: Scotland

Medical Expertise

Military Service Record

Newspapers

Obituary

Parish Registers

Passenger Lists

Place of Education

Poor Relief Records

Record Office

Regimental Museums

Specialist Expert: Museums & archives

Synagogue Records

Trade Directories

US Census

Will

War Diaries

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