First Steps in Family History
Where do I start?
Start with yourself and your immediate family and work back from there. Older relatives can provide a great deal of helpful information, including stories about earlier generations that you could not find in written sources. Nobody remembers everything accurately, so it is important to try to locate family documents and pictures and either scan or photograph them. In the case of pictures, always name your image of them in a way that makes it clear who is included and, where possible, when it was taken, e.g. “1900ish John Baxter & Ann Truman”.
Every family’s history is at least slightly unique, but many people encounter similar puzzles as their research progresses. It can be a great help to join a family history society and tap into its local knowledge, meeting fellow members who may be able to help you with questions relevant to the stage you have reached. It is well worth visiting the list of our member societies.
How should I search beyond living memory?
The answer to this question depends very much on what sort of information you have already gathered. If you are fairly sure where the people you are looking for lived at some stage in the period 1841 to 1911 (for instance, a village, a small town or a particular part of London), it is probably best to go straight to census records. However, if you do not know where your forebears were likely to have lived at that time or they had commonly used Christian/surname combinations, you may need to buy birth, marriage or death certificates in order to obtain enough information to be able to find them in census records.
We are allowed to see information about individuals that was collected in the censuses of 1911 and earlier. Few lists of households and names survive from the censuses held before 1841, but all the censuses for England, Wales and Scotland have been indexed for the period 1841 to 1911 and are available online as digitised images.
You can find detailed information about the background to the census and the information likely to be found in it for each year in the “England Census” and “Wales Census” and “Scotland Census” pages of FamilySearch Research Wiki.
Some of the major sources that include substantial periods before the census era are:
- Parish registers – many of these start in the 16th century.
- Bishops transcripts – contemporary copies of parish register entries, again often starting in the 16th century.
- Probate records – a complicated network of local and higher-level church courts operated before 1858, after which a single system has served the whole of England and Wales.
- Land Tax – the best survival period for records is 1780-1832.
- Hearth tax – lists of householders for various years 1662-1689.
- Newspapers – many survive from the late-18th century onwards. Scanned and indexed images of pages from a wide range of titles can be found at FindMyPast
Images of the original parish registers, wills and administrations are increasingly becoming available online, often with the name indexes. Unlike census records, each collection will usually be found on one website.
You can save money
The National Archives and many public libraries, family history centres and record offices provide free public access to some commercial websites. So you may be able to avoid buying a subscription and still be able to see the census and other records that appear there.