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Tracing your family history

Updated Tuesday 11th November 2008

These days, everyone seems to want to know about the origins of their family. Nick Barratt tells you how to start finding out.

Since the launch of BBC's hit series Who Do You Think You Are?, an already popular pastime has burst into the public consciousness, with thousands of people heading to the archives or going online to discover who their ancestors were, and what they did. Have you ever wondered about your roots? If so, you can start to build your family tree by following these basic steps.

The first thing is to write down everything you know about yourself and your immediate family, concentrating on names, dates of birth, marriage and death, and where these events took place - geography plays an important part in tracing your family tree, as people have a habit of moving around the country. Next, talk to your family, especially the older generations who should be able to remember details about their parents and grandparents, people who you may never have met.

This process is key to establishing later lines of research, so try to get as much information as possible, bearing in mind that some of what you hear may not be strictly accurate - memories can fade over time, whilst many of our relatives are referred to by 'pet' names that are not the same as the ones they were born with. You will almost certainly hear stories that may have been passed through the family for generations, and it will be your task to check their veracity as well. Take some time to see if anyone has already done some family history. Even if you do discover that you are not the first to chronicle the story of your clan, check the details that have been uncovered already; it can't hurt to ensure that the details are actually correct.

Once you’ve exhausted your family's store of knowledge - if not patience - it's time to look for other artefacts, such as personal letters, photographs, heirlooms, official documents, school reports and even old uniforms; old boxes stored in attics or basements may contain what their owners consider to be rubbish, but in the hands of a family historian the contents can reveal great detail about the past, and add colour to the lives and loves of our forebears. As always, look for dates, names and places, but you can also start to build up a picture about who they really were.

You will quickly find that the processes outlined above generate a great deal of data, and the best way to keep track of where you are is to organise it in a highly visual fashion by compiling a family tree. This is a diagram that shows how all your family members are related to one another - essentially, it's a map of your roots. Start with yourself; if you are married, place your partner's name alongside yours and connect them with the symbol '=' or 'm' to denote marriage, and put the date next to it. If you have children, they sit underneath your name on the family tree and represent the generation below you.

Similarly, your parents go above you, and their parents - your grandparents - above them. Each time you work back a generation, you double the number of direct ancestors; thus you have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. Continue adding data to the tree until you've run out of information, or are unsure about how accurate it is. Your job is to fill in some of the blanks, or eradicate any questions you might have about the 'facts' you have unearthed to date.

Once you've constructed your family tree, it is time to work out what line of research you want to follow. Most people opt to extend the tree further back in time, whilst others concentrate on specific people or stories that have been handed down from generation to generation. Either way, you should aim to verify what you have been told, and always work backwards in time from the known to the unknown. The route you choose will determine which archives and sources you'll need to use, but for most people the most useful documents are Civil Registration froms and Census Returns.

Civil registration

From July 1837 in England and Wales, every birth, marriage and death by law had to be registered with civil authorities; the system was introduced in Scotland in 1855, and in Ireland in 1864. Local registries were established, and each event generated an official certificate that recorded relevant information. For example, birth certificates contain the name of the child, the date and place of birth, the name and occupation of the father, the name and maiden name of the mother, and the address of the informant (usually one of the parents). A marriage certificate records the date and place of the wedding, plus the name, age, marital status, occupation and address of the bride and groom, along with the names of their fathers. Finally, a death certificate contains the date and place of death, the name and age of the deceased, the cause of death, and the name and address of the informant (again, often a member of the family). National indexes have been compiled over time, and you can use these to select and order duplicate certificates for the births, marriages and deaths of our ancestors.

Census returns

Ever since 1801, a census has been taken in Britain to record the number of people who lived in each household. From 1841, personal details were recorded for the first time, and by 1851 the questions had become more sophisticated to incorporate information on the relationship of each person to the head of the household, as well as their name, age, gender, marital status, occupation and place of birth. Since the records contain such sensitive personal data, they are closed to public inspection for 100 years. This means that the most recent set of returns that can be viewed are from 1901, and are available online via The National Archives website www.nationalarchives.gov.uk, which also provides online access to earlier returns from 1851-1891 via Ancestry.co.uk. Other online companies also offer access, whilst most county archives have a set of returns for the relevant county; a national set is available from the Family Records Centre, Islington.

Once you've extended your family tree through the main sources such as census records and certificates, you can start to expand your knowledge of these new additions to your family with more detailed research. If you want to go further back in time, you can use earlier records such as parish records to locate ancestors who lived even further back in history.

Alternatively you can look more closely at those you have already found; it might be worth concentrating on the end of a life, and see if your deceased ancestor left a will which often contains information about property, possessions, occupation, family and circle of friends. Indeed, occupations can be followed up in a number of ways; you can investigate a military ancestor's period of service at The National Archives, whilst professions such as coal mining or cotton factory workers can be investigated in local archives. The smallest clue can lead you on a voyage of discovery back in time.

If you get stuck, there are places where you can get help. Many people choose to join a family history society, where you'll meet like-minded people who can get you round some of the problems that you'll encounter, and most societies organise lectures, education seminars and excursions to archives. You should also consider joining the Society of Genealogists, where there is a wealth of resources as well as work done by others.

Of course, these days you can find any number of websites that offer advice, but try to stick to official sites such as www.familyrecords.gov.uk, whilst Cyndi's List has an amazing collection of resources. Alternatively, you can buy one of the many periodicals devoted to the subject, or pick up PC software that has been designed to help you to organise your data. If you are really stuck, you can contact an independent researcher who can undertake work for you, for a fee.

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For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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