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Starting your family history with family records

It can be a bit daunting knowing where to start your family history research and there seems to be a lot of information out there but how do you make use of it? This blog post gives you some hints on where to start.  And it begins with what you (or your close relatives) already know.

What do you know already?

What do you know about your family and its history?  Chances are more than you think.  Start by writing down what you know about your parents and then your grandparents.  If you don’t know the exact date or place put an approximate date or place or a question mark.  If you think you heard that your grandmother was a baby in the First World War put her birth date down as 1913 – 1918.  You’ll be able to find a more precise date once you get going.  If you’ve heard some places mentioned by older family members even if you’re not quite sure where they are, write them down as they may be useful later on.  Same with the names of your great uncles and aunts: you’ll be able to find out more about great aunt Minnie later on, don’t forget to make a note of her.

How do you write it all down?  Just a pen and piece of paper are fine, you don’t need anything more complicated than that. For my students I encourage them to use an ancestor chart.  A3 is better than A4 but don’t worry if you don’t have it, A4 is fine, you may just need to write smaller!  This is a sample of an ancestor chart.  I try to include space for great great grandparents though I don’t expect people to fill in the top line to begin with.  This chart is ideal for direct ancestors but doesn’t include siblings so you’ll need to record those separately or you could create a more standard family tree at this stage if you prefer though it’s harder to slot in new information as you find it.

Family records

Memorial card of Julia Simpson d. 1913

Next, try and find any family records you have hidden in drawers and cupboards. These include letters, photographs, diaries, certificates, memorial cards, anything that names your ancestors and gives a clue about their lives.  Overlooking these records can mean a lot of wasted effort as I found to my cost when I first started my genealogy journey many years ago.  I spent a long time tracing my great-great- grandmother’s emigration to Massachusetts and her death in 1913.  Some months later I discovered a memorial card telling me when and where she died and I could have saved myself quite a bit of time and effort!

Talk to older relatives

Armed with this information, if you have older relatives your next task is to talk to them.  Show them your notes, photographs and family records and see if they can add to the information. They may even be able to add another generation to your chart. Again, if they’re not sure add a question mark as you record the information as a prompt to check later.  Ask if you can record what they say so you don’t need to make copious notes and can enjoy chatting with them. 

Once you’ve done some more research you could take what you’ve discovered to share with them and that may prompt further memories and they may appreciate that you’ve taken time to share it with them.  Be wary of pushing them too far: there may be secrets they don’t want to broach, at least not yet.

By this time you may have sketched out quite a few names, dates and places on your chart or you may have just a few.  Pick an individual whose approximate birth date you know, for example, you might know that your grandmother Maggie was about 80 when she died in 1985 which would make her birth around 1905.  You’re ready to start looking for her birth in the birth indexes.

Looking for a birth

The General Register Office birth indexes are available to search for free on the GRO website.  These are the best indexes to use as they have recently been re-indexed from the original certificates and hold more information than the original indexes which are available on other websites.  You need to set up a free account and then you’re ready to start searching.  Put in your grandmother’s maiden name, her first name and then her year of birth.  If you’re not sure of the exact year, select +/- 2 years so you’ll be searching between the years 1903 and 1907 if you think she was born around 1905.  Leave the place blank as this is the registration district which may be different from the town she was born in: for example, Hebden Bridge is in Todmorden Registration District so Hebden Bridge wouldn’t be recognised in a search.

Hopefully you’ll find your grandmother on the list of matches and you can then opt to order a certificate (paper certificate through the post for £11 or a downloadable PDF for £7).  If you don’t find her immediately, it might be worth trying different years if you’re not sure of the year or a different spelling of the first name: perhaps her name was Margaret rather than Maggie.

What next?

When you get the certificate back, what you’ll find are the names of Maggie’s parents including her mother’s maiden name as well as the date and place of Maggie’s birth. 

Using FreeBMD you can then search for a marriage for Maggie’s parents, searching a few years before her birth, especially if you know she had older brothers and sisters.  You can’t order a certificate directly through FreeBMD but if you note the exact name of the bride and groom, the registration district, the quarter e.g. Jan-Mar 1890 and the reference e.g. vol. 9c page 32  you can use this information to order the certificate on the GRO website (under ‘Place an order’ on the right-hand menu).   When you receive the marriage certificate you’ll have the ages, residences and occupations for the bride and groom as well as the names of their fathers and you can begin the process all over again, looking for their births.

It really is important to get the certificates.  It’s worth the cost as it provides information you can’t get elsewhere such as the names of parents and exact dates and places. One mistake early on can mean pursuing the wrong family altogether.

Good luck in your quest for information!  One word of warning though: family history is highly addictive!

This is the first in a series of regular blogs on getting started on family history with lots of hints and tips on how to make those first steps. Next I’ll be looking at census records.

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