Beginners guide to Developing Your Family Tree

For the absolute beginner the task of researching a family tree can seem a huge task which is best left to some ill defined time in the future. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you have the interest and a little time available, start now.

The process can be divided into four main phases.

Perhaps the most important part of any attempt to construct a family tree is the information locked in the heads of your eldest relatives. This is the reason why an early start to your quest is so critical. If you can, record any discussions you have with your family for later review. If this is not possible try to make a comprehensive set of notes. Be prepared for anything. In my own case, my mother described her mothers background in such a way that illegitimacy seemed likely although my mother was not aware of the details. It was only after my mother's death when my searches started in earnest that I found the detail. The opportunity to show my parents what I found is unfortunately no longer available to me. Perhaps you will be more fortunate.

Some of the details you need to note are shown in the Family Questionnaire Form which you may print to assist your researches. While a completely filled form will be the most satisfying, you may find that this is not possible. Take what you can. You may be able to find further details when talking to another relative, or even the same person on a second attempt. Usually you will find your elderly relatives more than willing to talk about the past.

As a final comment: Any suggestions regarding links to famous people from the past should be noted but not directly acted upon. It is critical that you develop your tree working backwards in time if you are to have any hope of finding a connection. It may be appropriate to do a search of the families of brothers of your direct ancestors when you have traced your family back to the correct period and have found the appropriate family name. In my wife's family their is a view that a connection exists to General Gordon of Khartoum. To date we have not found the connection but we remain optimistic.

Obtaining official records

Your discussions with family members should have led you back in time at least to your Grandparents with some detail of your Great Grandparents if you are really lucky. Fortunately the path back to the first half of the nineteenth century is not to difficult although cost can be a problem particularly if you wish to trace all branches of the family.

Although it should be possible to go back to 1837, my own investigations lead me to the conclusion that people's knowledge of the legal requirement, or their willingness to take any notice took some time to take effect. You may find it impossible to find the information you want as a result of this problem.

Fortunately, if appropriate registration did take place, marriages occur etc., finding the relevant information may not be too difficult. Unsurprisingly the less common the name the easier it is. All Births , Marriages and Deaths which were registered in England are indexed, the indexes being held at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4AD. These are available for public scrutiny without the need to make an appointment. Microfiche copies of these indexes are held at other places in the country.

The information contained in the indexes is strictly limited but given a name, an approximate period and the probable place of registration identification of your ancestor should be possible. The names are indexed in alphabetical order, each index covering a three month period with a code to identify the place of registration and a reference to the particular certificate. Obviously uncommon names help because it is likely that there will only be one match to the name you seek. Once a match is found you can order a certified copy by completing the relevant application form. These forms are usually available where you view the indexes. Copies of certificates can be obtained by post although the associated cost is higher than if an application is made in person. Personal applications cost £9.00 for each certificate at the present time.

Birth Certificate

Birth certificates provide information on date and place of birth, full name of father, full name of mother as well as the mothers maiden name. Knowledge of the mothers maiden name enables a search of the marriage indexes to be performed with greater certainty of obtaining a match, even with more common names.

Marriage Certificates

As stated above it is relatively easy to be certain regarding a marriage certificate because the two names will be indexed in the same three month period, the same registration district and most important the same reference to the certificate. Only a pair with the correct names and the same reference can be correct.

Marriage certificates enable you to find the ages of both parties, thus pointing to a date when a registration of birth took place, Condition e.g. spinster, plus the names of the two fathers. Unfortunately the mothers name is not recorded.

Death certificate

Death certificates are less useful in respect of the information they provide although an ancestors record is not complete until you know the details of the death. The certificate provides details of when the death occurred, occupation of the deceased, cause of death, age at death and details of the person registering the death. Age is often only approximate so allow a reasonable latitude when searching for birth registrations based on an age quoted at death.

Church Records

When all opportunities have been exhausted in respect of birth, marriage and death registrations it is necessary to move into the area of church records. As with the civil registrations this is usually less difficult than you first may think, and generally cheaper. The Mormon Church has collected considerable data relating to baptisms, marriages and burials across a wide range of churches within the United Kingdom. These records are known as the International Genealogical Index or I.G.I. for short. Unfortunately they are far from complete because they rely on the goodwill of the individual churches to allow their records to be indexed in this way. Nethertheless they represent a good way to start your search and at the very least will give you an appreciation of the spread of your family name across the country. If you are successful your search will be eased.

More usually it is necessary to know the parish within which the event took place. There is no index which collates the data from the various parishes although work by the various Family History Societies will have an effect in the longer term. The majority of old church records are archived by the counties, often at a specialist centre or centres. In Kent for example three centres exist one in Canterbury, one in Rochester-upon-Medway and one in Maidstone. These records may be viewed by the general public although a readers ticket will be required and it will almost certainly be necessary to make an appointment. To preserve the records you will find that they have been microfilmed and it is the microfilm copies that you search for the information you require. Although I stated that it is necessary to know the parish where the event took place, it is possible to search surrounding parishes until you are successful.

Census Records

Censuses have taken place in every ten years since 1801 although they are of little practical use until 1841. Because of a law which prohibits their publication for 100 years the latest census currently available to view is 1891. Why they should be bared from view for 100 years is beyond me but there it is. As with church records these are usually available on microfilm and can be viewed at the same time.

The advantage of the census data is that whole families can be identified. From 1851 on, the inclusion of the place of birth enables searches of parish records to proceed more quickly. Although the 1841 census data is more limited, from 1851 age and relationship to the head of household along with birthplace makes the census a very useful tool for the family historian.

Talking to relatives

Since 1837 it has been a legal requirement that all births, marriages and deaths be recorded by the local registrar. This requirement was executed with standard forms providing a variety of details dependent on the registration performed. Church of England marriages are registered by the officiating clergyman in a register which is sent to the Registrar when full.

Updated 28th April 2014

First created 2001

Copyright X 2001-2014 B M Smart

Talking to relatives
Obtaining Birth, Marriage and Death certificates
Searching Church Records
Reviewing census Records

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Limited list of places holding Indexes

Family Questionnaire Form