Getting started in Family History Research

I have often been asked where you start in family history research. This is a brief guide to the way that I have used some of the resources available.  It may not be the best way but it has worked for me.  I have also provided an example of a question posted on the Balshaw e-group and the way I have use the information available on this site to suggest documents that could lead to a further two generations.  See Barrow in Furness Balshaws.

As you may have read in books on the subject the best starting point is at home. Start to collect information from all your living relatives, look for old books that have been passed down from earlier generations (including family bibles etc.). If your family doesn’t have a family bible it is possible that your cousins or your parents cousins might have it. It could be invaluable as a starting point.  Look out for items presented to your ancestors, with inscriptions giving useful information.

Then the leg work begins and the best starting point seems to be the St Catherine’s House records. In England most births marriages and deaths have had to be registered since 1 July 1837 (although in the early years perhaps 10 or 15% were not registered). These events have been indexed alphabetically in four quarters every year, and the indexes are held at St Catherine’s House in London. However, for those of us who cannot easily get to London, the whole set has been microfiched and the sets of microfiche are available in some libraries, Mormon Family History Centres (see below) etc. Unfortunately very little of this is available on the www.

Start from the earliest death that you know about

If you can find the date of death of one of your ancestors you can look up their death certificate in the index. Knowing the year of the death you will only have to look at four indexes at most. If you are lucky enough to be researching an unusual name you should find only one possible entry in the index that could have been your ancestor. If you are less lucky you will find several possible entries and then have to look for evidence elsewhere to confirm which one is appropriate.

Having found the right entry in the indexes you could obtain a copy if you want, but in later years the index gives (an estimate of) their age. (Note that this is not entirely reliable, since the person reporting the death may not have first hand knowledge of the deceased’s early life, so they might have guessed.) At worst it gives you a good starting point to look for a birth certificate. If you know where they died you might get additional information from the local newspapers, if an obituary was printed a the time. Again beware of the reliability of the information but at least it is likely to give a list of those who attended the funeral and you might find out who they were later on.

The next generation back from the birth certificate

If you know the year of birth you only have to look at four birth indexes to find their birth certificate. Often you end up looking at the indexes for a year or two either side of the target year, and it is reasonable to do this anyway just to make sure that you find the only possible entry for that person. An unusual christian name that is common in your family could help you to decide that you have found the right one.

At this stage (if the birth was before 1891) you might decide to look at the information available free on the following census.  See later for details.

Otherwise you have to order a copy of the birth certificate. There are several possible approaches. If you can get to St Catherine’s House it is possible to order a copy there (for about £6 last time I went there). However, if you have to order by post from St Catherine’s House they charge substantially more (unfairly discriminating against non-Londoners?) - about £15.50 I think. In this case it can be cheaper to go direct to the relevant registration district and order a copy from them. They will not find the details from the St Catherine’s House indexes any use at all, so you just have to give them as much information as possible.

When you get the birth certificate you will find the full name and occupation of the father (usually), the christian name and maiden name of the mother, and the place, date and time of the birth. This is the starting point for the next phase of your research.

Marriage certificates?

You might then be able to trace the marriage of these parents by searching from the year of birth backwards. Remember that there are two entries for a marriage - one under each surname. However, if this was their tenth child you could find yourself searching over 20 years. In any case, it is best to search for the more unusual of the two names (and you will soon establish which one it is). When you find a likely entry, look for an equivalent entry in the index for the same name during the same quarter of the same year. If you find a match you can decide how likely it is that it is really the right marriage, depending on the number of times that you have seen these names (e.g. John Smith might have appeared several times in the index for every quarter, so trying to find his marriage you could find several false leads. If you know that he married Ann Jones I wish you luck!).

Order the certificate. It might give useful genealogical information. e.g. the name of the father might be given, or the witnesses might be brothers or sisters of the bride and groom. You sometimes find out later that the witnesses at a wedding appear subsequently to have married each other - it was not uncommon for brothers to marry sisters from another family etc. If you are lucky the certificate will give the age of the bride or groom. However, this is unusual, because if they were over the age of consent their age would be given as “Full”. Even if the ages are given they might not be true. Women often altered their ages to be more acceptable to their new husbands.

In this case it is more difficult to establish with any certainty when the bride and groom were born. Again it helps to have an unusual name. In desperation you can trawl through the indexes for year after year until you find likely entries. But fortunately for most people, by this time they have reached the late 1800s and there is another valuable source of genealogical information - the census.

The census

Every ten years there is a nation-wide census and a huge amount of useful information is available to the family historian. This information is generally not released for 100 years to protect the privacy of the people living at that time. The 1891 census is now available but it is not easy to find a copy and it is not yet well indexed. However, the 1881 census is easily available in many places and it is very thoroughly indexed. You can search county by county for your family by surname, place of birth, place where they were living at the time. This is made easier if you know where they were living from other sources, but the indexes are so thorough that you might be able to narrow the family down to a single possible entry if you know the name of the parents and at least one child.

Once you have found the reference information for this family you look in the information “as enumerated” (i.e. as recorded) and get a lot of information about the age, place of birth, marital status and relationship to the head of house for each person staying at that address on the night of the census (even if they normally lived elsewhere). All this information can lead you quickly to the date of birth of each person and a quick look in the St Catherine’s House indexes can often reveal the information that you need to obtain the next layer of certificates.

The information from earlier editions of the census is less well indexed. Local indexes are sometimes available but it is difficult to find them and then even more difficult to gain access to them unless you live there. I understand that the Mormon FHC’s can get copies on microfilm if you order them. If you know which area your ancestors lived in you can often find useful information from local Family History Societies. You can usually trace these through the local library.

So you have reached pre-1837 - now what?

If you are researching an unusual name you will probably find that within a year of starting your research you have reached the beginning of civil registration - and then the fun really starts. But that is another installment.

Other sources of information

In the meantime, the more information you can collect about the generations that you know about the better. In addition to the sources mentioned above, this list gives other possible sources of information. It may not be exhaustive, but it is a starting point:

There are also many useful sources on the internet (see my page of links).  Some of these are more useful than others, but if you are lucky enough to find someone with the same research interests you can help each other. Don’t expect to find information specific to your own ancestors - if you do its a bonus. Even if you live abroad you can find a huge amount of information to help with your research:

Written by Nick Balshaw,

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