Getting Started - An introduction to researching your English and Welsh ancestry
Many people have asked me how they should go about starting to research their own pedigree and until now I have resisted the temptation of putting this information online. This is primarily due to the fact that there are no consistent records available for every country, but also due to my feeling that there are already many other sites with the relevant content and mine would only be a potential duplication. The requests are now getting so numerous that I have decided to try and provide the information you require.
The first place to start is with yourself. 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 pedigree, 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.
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 pedigrees around based on fiction rather than fact.
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.
Always work backwards in time from known facts such as births, marriages, baptisms or deaths. It is incredibly difficult to work forwards in time, for many reasons, but you would be surprised at how many people try to do so.
Assuming that you have no details at all then the best place to start is with your Birth. If you don't already have one get a copy of your Birth certificate. 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 and are not open to public scrutiny, but instead the indexes to Birth, Marriage and Death records have been made available to the public. These indexes have been put online by a number of companies. Those for Scotland are held at the General Register Office for Scotland.
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. In addition, there are also some records of English or Welsh nationals living abroad at the time of the event.
To obtain your Birth certificate (or to be precise, a certified copy of the entry) you will in most cases need to visit the web site of one of the companies providing the online indexes. Some records may also be obtainable from the local registration district office depending on the time elapsed (look in your Telephone Directory for the contact details). You can also find details on the town and parish pages on this website).
Once you have a copy of your Birth certificate it will detail your name, sex, birth date, birth place, registration district and entry number. If you have a full certificate it will also detail your father's name, occupation, mother's name and maiden surname, and their place of residence at the time of your Birth. For family history purposes you should always apply for a full certificate as it records the most information. A point to note is that certificates are not available on the same day so you will either have to return to collect them or have them posted to your home address.
There is a project called FreeBMD which has been running for a number of years with the aim of transcribing and putting all of the indexes for Births, Marriages, and Deaths from 1837 to 1900 online. This is a significant resource as it allows you to search for people and will give the GRO reference details, allowing you to order certificates from overseas. The database can be found on the Ancestry.co.uk website at which you can also search and view the indexes and images of them right up to 1984.
With your Birth certificate we now have enough information to start compiling your pedigree. As we progress, it will become quickly apparent that we need a method for storing all of the information in an easy to grasp format. There are many different ways of doing this, from paper based systems to specialist computer software. For the purposes of this brief tutorial we will use a basic paper based system using a template and examples which you can download from this site. The Person Sheet is where we will record the details of an individual together with links to parents, spouses and children. Each person will have their own sheet with a reference number, for which we will need to maintain a Master Index. It is a good idea to start using the person sheet and master index right from the start so that you do not get confused as the records build up. Starting with your Birth certificate, transcribe the information into the relevant fields on a new blank person sheet. You will also need to create a new person sheet for each of your father and mother (use her maiden surname), and create the first three entries in the master index (for the reference numbers). Make sure that you add yourself as a child on both of your parents' person sheets and the reference numbers of your parents onto your person sheet - doing this links you all together and avoids confusion with other people with the same name.
The next thing you need to do is find your parents' marriage certificate. Again, these records are available on Ancestry.co.uk. It helps with the search if you know the approximate date of birth of their eldest child (it may even be you). This helps as you have a starting date for your search. Bear in mind that children are not necessarily born just after marriage and that it could be as much as 20 or 30 years later! If you are not the eldest child (or don't know) then start your search of the Marriage indexes from that date. The indexes are organised by surname and contain both those of the husband and the wife, so you can search for either. You will need to find both entries to be sure that you have found the correct entry (look for the matching references). This is especially important if you have a common surname as there could be many entries for that particular surname and the cost of obtaining the certificates will escalate quite rapidly unless you narrow down the search.
All being well you should be able to find the Marriage certificate. This will show their names and ages at marriage, their fathers names, and the parish in which they resided at the time of marriage, occupations of both parties and their fathers, and names of witnesses to the marriage. As before we now have more information and this should be added to your person sheets (and new sheets for their fathers created). The Marriage certificate may not show your parents' exact ages and may say "over 21", "of full age", "minor" or "21 years" etc. and an allowance should be made for this when searching again for their Birth certificates using the process already mentioned above. You can carry on like this (not forgetting to obtain certificates for both sets of parents!) until you get back to the period around 1837. By this time you should be able to trace your "tree" back at least three to four generations (great grandparents).
If you are fortunate enough to have got this far without any hickups then you should know where your ancestors lived around the time of General Registration. To go back further than this requires the use of Census returns and/or Parish registers.
Since 1801 a 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, but those for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, and 1901 contain listings of all persons resident in any house on the night of the Census. These census returns are held in the The National Archives 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). Ancestry.co.uk also now have the 1901, 1891, 1881, 1871, and 1861 census returns available online through their subscription service
It is important to know where your ancestors were living at the time as there is no name index to the Census returns; rather they are indexed by Parish, and house by house following the route taken by the enumerator. There is an excellent online guide to using the Census records at the Public Record Office on their website. A major benefit to using the Census returns is that they, as already stated, contain listing of all members of a household, so including siblings or children of your ancestor. They also include the age and place of birth.
If you have been lucky enough to trace your pedigree back to an ancestor whose place of residence is known, and the date is just after 1837 then you may not need to refer to the Census returns at all. If this is the case then you will be able to identify which Parish Registers are needed to continue back in time.
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 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 explaining the variations in the start of 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 illegal all clandestine marriages for which no publication of banns, or a licence had been granted, and after 25th March 1754 were to be classed as void unless they had been performed in a church or chapel.
Most registers are still in the hands of the Clergy but some have been deposited with the County or Diocesan Record Offices (a complete listing is available on the GENUKI website). Many have been transcribed by antiquarians and published in book form; most notably the Phillimore Marriages series, but others have also been transcribed and published by Family History or Records Societies in both book form and on microfilm (fiche), and more commonly now CD-ROM. The Society of Genealogists in London holds a vast collection of register transcripts which are available to be researched (free to members), and their website provides a listing of their holdings.
As you may already have noticed I also have many register transcripts and scans available on this website - which I intend adding to over time.