Family History Research – “Where do I start?”
“Where do I start?” This is probably the most common question to pass through the mind of anyone embarking on a journey of family history discovery. It is a journey that is fascinating and rewarding, but it can also be deeply frustrating.
FamilyHistory.co.uk aims to help you on your journey. It has pages and links relating to births, marriages and deaths records, census records, parish records and many other resources to help you in your family history research. It tries to put these into historical context so you have a wider understanding of the world in which your ancestors lived.
Visit our ‘Getting Started’ page for hints and tips.
Our biggest tip? Treat this as a fun project – it’s a great chance to catch up with family members who you may have lost contact with. Grandparents and other relatives are a great source of information and may hold a lot of information that they’ve never shared in the past.
Although many family history resources are now available online, we hope you will take the opportunity to travel and visit new places; archives and museums (local and national), churches, museums – you can have many fun days out. You will find many of the people you meet along the way to be as enthusiastic as you are.
Remember that however daunting your task, and however many obstacles you encounter along the way, it has never been easier to reach back in time and explore the world of your ancestors.
Family history records – “What can I find?”
Pre-Middle Ages – not a lot!
Since earliest times, men of all cultures and nationalities have striven to record their family history and traditions. However, they were usually committed to memory and communicated orally.
In more advanced societies, genealogical records were written down but these were limited to chieftains, monarchs, aristocrats and other men of consequence or means. The main aim was to prove lineage, status and, very often, the right to rule. In Europe, from the 12th Century onwards, genealogy was closely linked to Heraldry, where the rank and pedigree of a nobleman was displayed on his Coats of Arms.
16th Century – the state gets involved
During the 16th Century, maintaining written family records was hardly a priority for the common man; literacy was low and life was short. However, it was during this period that successive governments started to show interest in the general population.
In the 1500s, churches in England, Wales and (a little later) Scotland were required to keep parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials. In the 1700s, marriages were formalised. The 1800s saw the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths and the introduction of decennial census returns which became increasingly detailed.
All these measures faced resistance to what was considered state interference. However, family historians are now reaping the considerable benefits of these measures.
In 1838, the Public Record Office (PRO) was established to ‘keep safely the public records’ (The Public Record Office Act 1838). Now called The National Archives, it is an invaluable source of records for all family historians. There are also National Archives in Scotland (Edinburgh), Northern Ireland (Belfast) and the Republic of Ireland (which includes all Ireland before 1922).
Family history records – “What records do we have?”
Researchers of British ancestry are particularly fortunate in the variety and volume of family history records that are accessible, often at the click of a mouse. Take a look at some of the most commonly searched records and visit our dedicated pages for more information:
Births, marriages and deaths records
The civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began on 1 July 1837. From this date, the General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO) has held copies of all birth, death and marriage certificates issued in England and Wales. This was a hugely significant development and explains why family historians are able to trace English and Welsh ancestry back to 1837 with comparative ease.
Scotland’s General Registry Office was established in 1855 whilst Ireland’s General Registry Office wasn’t established until 1864 (non-Catholic marriages from 1845).Parish records may be available for those family historians wishing to go further back than 1837 (or 1855 in Scotland).
During the 16th Century, Churches in England, Wales and Scotland were required to maintain parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials. Please note that these were Church records and many events went unrecorded (particularly in Scotland where the keeping of parish registers was particularly unpopular).
Census Records – from 1841
Censuses have been carried out in the UK every ten years since 1801, apart from in 1941. From 1841 onwards, all UK Censuses have recorded personal information and are an invaluable source of information to family historians.
Not all census records survive. During World War II, the 1931 census returns for England and Wales were destroyed in a fire. In 1922, the majority of Irish Census records were also destroyed in a fire.
The 1939 National Register
Although the 1931 census was destroyed, and the 1941 census never took place, a 1939 register was taken of 41 million people. This register was taken to enable the distribution of identity cards, ration books etc. As no existing censuses now exist between 1921 and 1951, this register is of great historical value.
The Principal Probate Registry was established in 1858. It keeps copies of wills and letters of administration in England and Wales. Quite apart from being of great interest, wills provide the same details as a death certificate.
These are only some of the most popular types of records available to family historians. However, there are many, many more; electoral rolls, newspaper archives, court records – the list is endless. Often, the records that you research will only apply to a relatively small section of the population, such as passenger lists or even employment records.
Family history – “Why is it so popular?”
So you have caught the family history bug. Congratulations! – you are in good company. Within the last 50 years, there has been an explosion of interest in genealogy. So why is it so popular? Ask ten individual genealogists and you will be given ten different reasons why they are hooked. However, its popularity can at least be partly attributed to the perfect ‘marriage’ of Interest (in family history) and Opportunity (to research it).
Growth of interest in our past
There seems to be an increased desire to learn about social history. The history of wars and governments is dominated by the great and good, whereas, social history is something that all our ancestors had a stake in. Humble origins are now a source of pride rather than dismay (although everyone loves to find a family link to a long lost aristocrat!).
Increased mobility has also played a role. As families move around the world more freely, there is often an increased yearning to discover lost family roots.
Growth of opportunity to research our past
“Property, continuity, name and record”
The genealogist, Anthony Wagner, put down four markers: “property, continuity, name and record”. These factors would influence our ability to research our family history. His reasoning was: property ownership produces paperwork; continuity (of location or occupation) is more traceable; a rare name is also easier to track down.
With regard to ‘record’, there is an abundance of records now generally available – particularly for those of English and Welsh descent. Many people can make a reasonable attempt at researching their family history or consider pursuing a career as a Genealogist.
Many (and it’s increasing all the time) of these records are now available online for a modest (sometimes no) fee. There has never been a greater opportunity to research your family history…
 Anthony Wagner, English Genealogy 1972 ed., p. 411