Suggestions on tracing your Family History


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Where to start?

When my father, bless him, died, in September 1985, I decided it was time I did something about researching and recording my family history. I must admit that I'd taken very little interest in such things until this. I suppose I'd just left all the "family stories" to others, busying myself with the (then) more important things in life.

It occured to me that I could probably sketch a rough Family Tree from what I already knew. This didn't need to be an elaborate affair, but just something which could be worked upon when more information came to hand. I planned to ask other members of the family to help me fill in some of the gaps.

A very important factor, in my opinion, is to concentrate on getting as much detail as possible from elderly family members, while they are still alive. I find that the elderly are usually more than willing to tell you what they know, but this information should be treated with a degree of caution, as it is possible that it may not be completely accurate. Always try to substantiate their stories from independent sources where possible. It is all too easy, in your initial enthusiasm, to go down the wrong path! A good example of this might be to assume that the man and woman living at the same address are man and wife, whereas they may be brother and sister!

There will be plenty of time to research the earlier family roots after you have gleaned as much information as possible from those still living. The older records will be efficiently archived, so there is not the same urgency as there may be with quizzing living relatives. It is a good idea to make a questionaire which can be passed to others in the family, (or close friends), listing the required information. Leave space also for details such as family legends or anecdotes.

There is no standard way to record all the information you gather, but it will pay to be very meticulous in the way you choose to do this. Using a loose-leafed file is one good way, it is then easy to add pages where necessary. A note of your various sources, dates etc may come in handy at some later stage.

You may, in addition, choose to use one of the many computer programmes which are now available. More on this subject later.

Family Photographs

One of the best ways of finding out about the family, is to ask relations to find family photos. Asking questions at this stage can yield some very useful information to boost your research.Unfortunately, as nowadays, people seldom wrote notes, or dates, on the backs of family photographs. Every now and then, a date may be encountered. This comes as a breath of fresh air to the fervent FH researcher!

Although I have had little success with the following, it was quite common for individuals to record important family events inside the cover of the family Bible. If you ever manage to get access to such a volume, it's certainly worth a look inside to see what may be there. Good luck!

Births, Marriages & Deaths

In 1837 came the system of Civil Registration in England and Wales. (1885 for Scotland & 1864 for Ireland). This demanded that all births, marriages and deaths be officially recorded. Birth, marriage & death certificates often yield some very useful information. ie: if you find someone's birth certificate, you will be certain to find their parents names too.

You will at some stage need to obtain at least some of the above Certificates. Once you know the area from which the family originates, it is a good idea to go along to the District Registry where the certificates are kept. If you are not sure of the place of birth of a particular person, you may need to go along to the General Register Office (GRO) at St Catherine's House, London. Here you will be able to search in the vast number of indexes available. Make sure you are armed with as much information as possible to help in your search. The indexes are published in quarter years, so you may well need to consult more than one volume for a given year.

It is not possible to obtain a certificate immediately, they are usually sent on by post a few working days later. If you cannot go along to the GRO in person, you may be able to hire a professional researcher to do the work on your behalf. This may turn out to be an expensive route to follow however.

Census Records

Another very useful source of local information is to be found in the Census records for the place of interest. These are now held, mostly on microfilm, at the local County Hall. Copies may also be found in some larger libraries.

The Census is taken for each area every ten years. Records of all occupants of every household are made. The records do not become publicly available for one hundred years after collection, the latest release, therefore, is for the Census of 1891. Detailed information of date of birth, and occupation are to be found. Even lodgers are recorded. It is quite easy to trace a family within a given location, provided you can get access to a series of census records for successive decades.

Parish Registers

Having gathered as much detail as possible from the above sources, probably the next place to research will be the Parish Registers. These were kept by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time, and can date back a good deal further than the Civil Registry records. The earliest dates for the Parish Registers are 1538 for England & Wales, 1558 for Scotland, and 1634 for Ireland. If your ancesters belonged to the Church of England, there will be a good chance of finding their information here.

It should be remembered that the Parish Registers actually recorded Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, these being functions of the church. Records vary quite a lot from parish to parish, depending on the local priest for their quality and content. Of course, you would expect Baptisms to follow Births, and Burials to follow Deaths, the time differential my vary though. It is rare to find a complete record for a given county or district in any case. This being due to various mishaps such as fire, or indeed other interuptions such as periods of political turmoil!

I think I am right in saying that Parish Registers for the most part have now been 'centralised'. ie are now under the control and safekeeping of the local County Records Office. I believe that there should be further copies of the records at the local church. It may therefore be a good idea to approach the vicar for the area concerned, he may even be interested in such matters if you are lucky, and may prove to be of valuable assistance. If possible it is always best to make a personal visit to view these records. If you have to rely on the local vicar to make a search on your behalf, you must expect to pay him for his services, or you may like to make a contribution to his church if no fee is requested. In searching, you will undoubtedly come across other information about folk closely connected to your own ancestors. This can be almost as exciting as looking for your own family in many cases.

Computer Software

In latter years, much use has been made of personal computers to store FH records. The variety of software for such purposes is as broad as the imagination. ie there's plenty of different programmes from which to choose. I have had experience of just two such programmes, and provided a programme does what you want it to do, there's not much to be gained from constant swapping around.

The programme which I have currently in use is called Family Tree Maker and is published by Broderbund. It is a very versatile piece of software, and caters for over two million entries, more than enough to satisfy the average FH researcher! It allows you to print out several different formats of Family Tree, Heritage Charts, and reports. It also has a useful Scrapbook type of entry, which may include a number of scanned-in photographs, relevant stories and all sorts of other information about each individual.

In order to Import and Export files, FTM supports the standard Gedcom and Paf file formats. This makes it compatible with many other programmes of this nature.

The programme also has the ability to do reseach via the Internet, which has its uses, although I've not ventured in this direction to date. Bundled with the software are four CD ROMs which are packed with records suitable for further research. These are mostly American in origin so may be of limited use to us on this side of the Atlantic.

If you have access to the Internet, FTM has a Web-site.     The URL is:-

It may be useful to browse this site for further information. I'm sure they can put it much better than I.

As there are many FH programmes, so are there a large number of suppliers of such software. The one I tend to use at present is:- S&N Genealogy Supplies. Greenacres, Salisbury Rd, Chilmark, Salisbury. SP3 5AH and Tel. 01722 716121.     They too are on the Web at:-

Please do not think that I have any connection with either Broderbund or S&N - I do not, but like to give credit where it's due!

Finally, may I wish you all the best if you enter into the world of Family History research. It is fascinating, but should carry a Government Health Warning in my opinion!...... Good luck.

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