Christmas is a time for family and friends to get together and celebrate with a good meal, great company, and usually a bit of drink thrown in. Very often, during conversation, the question of what is our family history comes up, and many people endeavour to start researching straight away after Christmas when there is nothing much to do apart from watch the many repeated programmes on television. This then leads to the question, where do I start?

In this brief article we will try to guide you in getting started with your research the correct way. Over time we hope to add some far more detailed guides for particular types of record, so keep tuned for more.

A couple of points to note before we move on:- don't rely on other people's research as being accurate and be wary of any information you may find on the internet as there are many concocted family trees around based on fiction rather than fact. In addition, do not fall prey to the unscrupulous companies that want to sell you a copy of the family history of your surname, or your coat of arms; these are purely concocted from names they find by searching through records and will almost certainly not have any connection with your family whatsoever.

Warning: Genealogy (not Geneology) is highly addictive!

The starting point

Ask yourself what you want to achieve before going any further and once you have decided on this you must stick to it. It is all too easy to start off wanting to produce your family tree, and end up trying to write a full-blown family history, and achieving neither. Whichever you decide, the general approach to research is the same and will involve many days, months and potentially years of research before achieving your goal.

Researching your family history is, generally speaking, a huge piece of detective work. Once you have decided what it is that you want to achieve you should gather as much information as you can from your immediate family (father, mother, brothers and sisters) and anything from your grandparents or cousins, uncles and aunts. Every tiny piece of information should be recorded as, although it may seem insignificant now, it may be the vital missing piece of the puzzle later. Do not rely too heavily on family legends; although some may turn out to be true, the vast majority will lead you completely down the wrong path in your research and waste precious time and resources. Do not discount them completely though, as they may provide some pointers to further research. Old family photographs can also be a good source of information.

Always work backwards in time from known facts such as births, marriages, baptisms or deaths. It can be incredibly difficult to work forwards in time, for many reasons, but you would be surprised at how many people try to do so.

Getting organised

It is incredibly important to be organised when performing your research, and work in a methodical manner recording every detail of the records you find, and their sources. This can be a little arduous but there are many online tools and services now available to assist with this. Both Ancestry and Findmypast have facilities for documenting your ancestors, and connecting authentic records to them. Genes Reunited also have a powerful facility for this purpose, and in addition allows one to collaborate with other family members on the research; they also have the complete census and civil registration indexes available.

There are, of course, also many family history programs available for your computer, tablet, or even phone. If you plan to use one of these then try to ensure that it meets all of your requirements before you buy. A simple Google search for "Family History Software" will show you what is available.

The basic records

There are two sets of records which are fundamental to research in the 19th and 20th centuries. These are Civil Registration (the records of birth, marriage, and death), and the national population Census'.

Civil Registration

In England and Wales, since the implementation of General Registration on 1st July 1837, it has been a legal requirement that all Births, Marriages and Deaths be recorded. Scotland did not adopt the system until 1855. The records of Civil Registration are held by the General Register Office for England and Wales (now part of the HM Passport Office), and are not open to public scrutiny, but instead the indexes have been made available to the public. These indexes have been put online by a number of companies including Ancestry and Findmypast. Those for Scotland are held at the General Register Office for Scotland, and are available online at the scotlandspeople web site.

In the early years of Civil Registration there were some births and deaths which were not registered, through either ignorance or the belief that it was no-one else's business, but all marriages have been since 1st July 1837.

National Population Census'

Since 1801 a national population Census has been carried out every 10 years, with the exception of 1941 due to World War II. The national census' before 1841 only contained statistical information and were subsequently destroyed, although some local copies still exist in county archives. These records contain listings of all persons resident in any property on the night of the census, and the originals are held in the The National Archives at Kew, and are open to inspection. Many of these have also been microfilmed and are available at Family History Centres around the world (there are centres in most major UK towns and cities). Both Ancestry and Findmypast have fully indexed and digitised versions available online as a part of their subscription services, as do Genes Reunited. The most recent release is the 1921 census..

Parish records

Prior to, and in parallel with, the census and civil registration records are those of the church which must not be under-estimated. If successful, these can help you trace your ancestors back to the mid-16th century.

Thomas Cromwell first ordered in 1538 that in every parish, in England and Wales, a list must be kept recording all baptisms, burials and marriages. Initially, these records were kept on loose leaves but the rules were later tightened by king James I. ordering the records to be kept in parchment books. His order stated that all previous entries, back to at least the beginning of the reign of queen Elizabeth in 1558, must be transcribed into the new books. Unfortunately, many parish clerks only did as instructed and the 20 or so years previous to 1558 were lost when the originals were destroyed. Some do remain complete back to 1538 - this partly explaining the variations in the start of the earliest parish registers.

There has never been any regulation as to the amount of information which must be recorded, so the records vary greatly, although in 1754 "Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act" introduced a set of printed forms which has helped keep records fairly consistent since that time. The Act was introduced in an attempt to make all clandestine marriages, for which no publication of banns, nor a licence granted, illegal, and after 25th March 1754 were to be classed as void unless they had been performed in a church or chapel.

Findmypast have the largest collection of parish registers for England and Wales available online, and Ancestry also have a large collection. We also have many free transcriptions on our site, and these are being added to regularly. See the Parish Registers and Phillimore Marriages page for a complete listing of what we have available.


If your aim is to put a bit more meat on the family history then newspapers are an excellent source of information. They often provide great detail about social or political events which shaped the lives of our ancestors, and can help to fill gaps in other records.

The British Library has the most extensive collection of newspapers and periodicals, probably in the world, and they have teamed up with the British Newspaper Archive to digitise, index, and make this collection available online. At the time of writing this article there are currently over 9 million pages available within the project, covering almost the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, and more are added weekly. Well worth a good read!