When I started researching my family tree back in 1979, when my son was born, I needed to work out exactly what I already knew – what I remembered of my parents, grandparents, and wider family.
I simply took a pencil and blank sheet of paper and wrote down what I knew about my relatives in a family tree diagram. I soon started to see where the gaps in my knowledge started to appear.
Starting by putting my name and date of birth at the bottom of the page, with my siblings either side of me and a branch up to my parents’ names, adding their dates of birth and marriage. Next I added my aunts’ and uncles’ names next to my parents, and a branch up to my grandparents’ vital details.
I didn’t know too much about my great-grandparents apart from their names, so I added what I had to a fourth generation to the top of my tree, above my grandparent’s names.
Next I found some old family documents, letters and photographs I had lying around the house as these often provided precise dates and places for births, marriages and deaths, and helped me to start filling in some blanks. Few people know anything further back than their great-grandparents, and some will struggle to write down anything at all above their parents’ names.
While drawing up my tree I started to think about what I would like to find out. This was a really important question to ask myself, because it will form a focal point for the initial investigation and a framework around which I can plan my research.
Filling in the gaps
Once I’d got a clearer idea of what I did and didn’t know, and what I wanted to achieve, the next step is to talk to as many relations as possible to try to fill in some more of the gaps.
Older relations are particularly helpful, since they may remember people who were alive as long as 100 years ago. Extended family can alert me to additional mysteries that need resolving, and some relatives will undoubtedly have documents and photographs I’d never seen before.
Raiding the family archive is a great cost-cutting step because it saved me from ordering duplicate copies of records from the archives. For example, paper copies of birth, marriage and death certificates cost £11 (11/02/2021) and are sent 4 days after I applied for them from the General Register Office (GRO) for England and Wales, you can get a PDF copy for £7.50 and it is delivered electronically within the hour. Copies of wills are £1.50 in PDF format from the Probate Registry. Even more crucially, I found unique original documents and photos within the family that would never be found in a record office.
Once I’d started my research I picked up on something significant in my initial notes that I didn’t think was very important at the time of writing them, and this lead me to find other useful records.
When I let my relations know I planned to research the family tree you can always find someone wants to give you a hand. It’s a very addictive hobby and can be even more rewarding when you’ve got someone to share discoveries with. Two pairs of eyes are often better than one, especially when it comes to searching for ancestors with common surnames.
It’s also helpful if you can divide the cost of purchasing document copies and joining subscription websites.
Various companies and archives have digitised so many genealogical records in the last 30 years that the number of websites can seem a bit overwhelming at first. Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist are three of the biggest commercial websites for tracing English and Welsh ancestors, and for accessing additional British and overseas records. They all contain the two essential datasets that form the backbone of genealogical research – centralised birth, marriage and death indexes back to 1837 and decennial censuses from 1841 to 1911.
Each of these three big genealogy players also offers a huge range of other sources, some of which won’t be found on any other website. It will take a while to familiarise myself with the offerings on each site and work out which websites will be most useful to me, so before paying to sign up it’s worth trying them out for free first. The National Archives in Kew and the local Library computer systems let visitors use most genealogy websites for free on-site.
Some local archives and libraries also provide free access to some family history subscription websites, as well as a range of digitised newspaper collections, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Who Was Who databases.
You can also take advantage of ‘try before me buy’ offers at home.
Findmypast, Ancestry, for example, offers a 14-day free trial membership for newcomers, which gave me plenty of time to decide which was the right site for me. If you have Scottish ancestry you’ll probably want to save your pennies for ScotlandsPeople, which operates a pay-as-me-go credit system for home users.
Maybe a relative has already started to research the family tree, and would be willing to share their findings with you.
Some websites like Genes Reunited and Ancestry allow members to save their family trees online and for other users to search publicly accessible pedigrees for common ancestors. You can usually get in touch with tree owners via the site, which is a fantastic way to reach distant relatives.
I often use this method of tracing people, particularly if there’s an intriguing family story on one branch, because it’s interesting to find out whether the same story has been passed down through the generations of a parallel branch. Distant relatives may also have inherited old photographs of shared ancestors, which is what everyone hopes to find!
If you do discover that someone has already researched part of your family tree you should still double-check their findings using original documentation wherever possible.
Online and even printed family trees can contain errors, so be sure to verify the facts with as many sources as possible. You don’t want to realise later down the line that you’ve wasted time and money following an unrelated branch! Like I did. However, I kept all that research and eventually along came a line which looked familiar, I’d come across a member of a distant branch which joined up with my section, so using that information managed to clear up a few gaps.
I have over the 40 years managed to travel back in time to 1424 to find my Paternal 15th Great grandfather, Thomas, who with his own income, became a church warden in Hawkhurst, Kent and owned a large Manorial house. My maternal 2nd Great Grandfather, Robert, owned brickworks in Ballingdon, Essex and Sudbury, Suffolk, the bricks from these were used to build St. Pancras Station and The Royal Albert Hall, oh and his pub in Sudbury, Suffolk
It is amazing what you can find out!! The Family Tree is now a Family History!!
I retired in 2015, and I continue to research my family now that I have a bit more time. This lead onto a side hustle. I love old films and pictures so built up a little copying hobby which expanded to the local area <cascademediaconversion.co.uk> Here I copy video, cine, old pictures for people in the village and nearby. To be continued….