The destination for history

How to get started on researching your family tree


If you’re reading this then you’re probably already a history fan, and one of the best ways to engage with the subject is to investigate your family history. Despite what you might think, it’s not just about building a ‘tree’ full of names and dates. It’s really about uncovering the stories of real people who were part of local, national and even international history.

One of the great things about genealogy is that there’s always something new to discover. I started my research eight years ago, and I still regularly make fascinating breakthroughs. New records are emerging all of the time, and of course you can never ‘finish’ your family tree or know every detail of your family story. I’m already counting down to the release of the 1921 census – only five years to go!

It is also incredibly addictive, so it’s not a project to start when life is busy. However, it’s the perfect activity for long winter evenings and rainy Sunday afternoons, and you will undoubtedly find yourself reluctant to stop, working late into the night and even dreaming about it! That said, it’s not necessarily always easy or exciting. Sometimes you can spend days slogging through pages of names or dates, but when you find what you’re looking for, the adrenaline rush is absolutely worth it!

Getting started can be daunting, but it’s actually very simple. The first thing to do is work out what you already know, focusing on:

  • Names
  • Dates
  • Places
  • Jobs and professions
  • Religion
  • Hobbies and interests
  • Medical history
  • Family legends and anecdotes, such as connections to famous people and events.

Start by talking to family members: parents and grandparents are the obvious people, but distant cousins and even old family friends are worth asking – you’ll be surprised what they can tell you. Photographs and artefacts can be great memory prompts for this. Ask lots of questions, and write everything down, however small, seemingly insignificant or vague. What you’re looking for are clues and leads that will help you later on, so even a reasonable guess can help.

It’s best to pick one line of your family to focus on, probably starting with the one you have the most information for. Ideally you want to identify someone who was alive in 1911, so that you can try to find them in the census from that year. Censuses are usually a good place to start because you can instantly access the results and they often provide plenty of leads for further research. However, you may have to order birth, marriage or death certificates to obtain the information you need to step back a generation or identify the correct family within the census records, particularly if you are researching a common name.

At this stage it’s important that you verify the facts. It’s very easy to get carried away, but if you make assumptions then you risk barking up the wrong tree – literally! As such, documental proof, accurate record keeping and careful fact checking are all-important.

Keeping good records can be a challenge, and I tried many different methods before I found the right one for me. There are lots of different software and online solutions out there. These are useful because they are easy to navigate as your tree expands – mine currently has around 900 people in it! – and they will prompt you to add information, and even identify records that might be relevant. Personally I combine this with a ‘stream of consciousness’ style notes document that records how I came to a certain conclusion and reminds me of any loose ends or unanswered questions, but you could try spreadsheets, index cards or hand-drawn charts.

The censuses and birth, marriage and death records provide the backbones of most family histories, and you will quickly become familiar with these. But there are many other useful resources, including newspapers, parish records, and military, school and employment records. I also recommend checking the National Archives database – amazingly they held a photograph of my 4 x great-grandfather! All of these are increasingly available online, which makes research faster, easier and cheaper than it must have been in the days when you had to travel to visit archives etc. I’d also recommend reading lots around the subject to find out more about the historical background of the events through which your ancestors lived.

My final and biggest tip? Make good use of the internet search engine. With millions of other people out there researching their ancestors, there’s a good chance some of them are looking for the same people as you. There is a vast genealogical community spread across many internet forums and websites, and you should absolutely make use of their expertise. Even if they can’t give you the answer, they may be able to point you in the right direction, and of course, it’s great to be able to share your interest with others who love it too! 

By Lauren Newby. Lauren has been working on her family history since 2007 and also occasionally undertakes research for others. Her greatest family history achievement was in 2009 tracking down her late grandmother’s half-brother, who had never known his mother and her family. She is currently attempting to write up her story so far.


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