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Family Tree Research

(115 Posts)
dippingmytoeinagain Sat 10-Sep-16 11:04:06

Hello there
As the nights draw in, I'm thinking of picking up my family tree research, which I've dabbled with in the past but kept putting down as I found I got quickly overwhelmed with deciding who to research and how to record all of the information, which resources to use etc.

Is there anyone on here who does family tree research as a hobby who can offer me a few simple starting points and would be able to share what has worked/not worked for you. Organisation tips and so on.

I don't have a paid memberships yet, but will get one once I'm a bit clearer in my own mind as to where I want to go with this one.

I'm usually quite an organised person but I find that this just makes my head spin.

Thanks so much

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:22:33

Definitely buy genealogical software. There are some comparison sites to help you choose, eg

I use iFamily on a Mac and find it excellent.

Other great sources: - free access to indexes of Births /Marriages /Deaths - British Newspaper Archive is excellent. Requires subscription. - The National Archives are wonderful and material is increasingly available as a Pay Per Download, as well as alerting you to material you wish to have photocopied and sent to you (I've done this with some military files).

General genealogy sites: is good but expensive. You can usually get a free trial subscription but CANCEL IT IMMEDIATELY OR THEY WILL CHARGE YOU AT THE END OF THE MONTH. You can still use the trial subscription to the end of the trial period even after cancelling. Ancestry has excellent advanced search facilities which allow you to make the most of the information you already have. But you do have to be quite strict with it and click off options like "Show Stories & Maps" or you'll be drowned in a deluge of user-uploaded crap.

Also, REALLY don't believe any suggested results or user-uploaded content. They're fine as suggestions, but always do your own independent checking.

FindMyPast is sadly rubbish in many ways. It doesn't work properly with some browsers, and FMP's response to this is basically, "So? And no, we're not giving you your money back."

And IIRC it doesn't accept/show both place of birth AND place resident when you're searching censuses, and when you're trying to distinguish results. So you have to tediously open and check huge numbers of false positives to find the one you're looking for.

Unfortunately FMP seem to have concentrated on getting important contracts with archives, so some material like Chelsea Pension records and the 1939 Registration (wartime "census") are only available through them. Or not available at all, if you don't use their preferred browsers...angry

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:33:20

Resources also depend on what region you are researching.

FreeBMD above only covers Eng & Wales. And to see actual BMD certificates you will have to send off to the General Register Office at nearly £10 a pop. - Scotland's People covers all Scottish records and is superb. It's all Pay Per View, so can get expensive. But on the other hand you can download BMD certificates and wills in seconds, and they're much cheaper each than the tenner and wait for paper in the post from the E&W GRO. - this is an excellent boot camp by a retired BMD registrar, explaining what info is on BMD certs and how to interpret it. Yer'd be amazed what you can deduce from tiny details, or what new directions they can suggest.

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:37:44

Other regional sources include - more detailed indexes of BMDs. Free. - Lancashire Online Parish Clerks. Free.

With similar available in other regions.

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:37:55

Burial resources: - Deceased Online has burial registers; coverage varies. Subscription. - Find a Grave has photos of gravestones and inscriptions; coverage varies. Free.

dippingmytoeinagain Sat 10-Sep-16 11:44:04

Thanks so much MrFeynman for such an amazingly full response, that's so kind of you. Lots for me to read and consider, which will give me something to do on this rainy day.

Is family tree research something you do just for your own pleasure? How far back have you gone with your research? (if you don't mind me asking!)

By the way, I have the book of your username in my reading pile smile

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:44:14

WRT to recording information, I'm a methodical type and find it absolutely invaluable to fully record each source as I enter data into the software.

This means when I'm faced with a contradictory record showing someone as born in 1873 when I had them down as 1876, I can ask, "WHY did I think they were born in 1876? Which record is more reliable? Was that age really 9 or could that handwriting say 6?"

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:46:49

Happy to help another Feynman Fan!grin

HarrietVane99 Sat 10-Sep-16 11:50:01

I did most of my research before the internet, but same basic principles still apply.

Definitely, as Surely says, check the original record whenever possible. Don't rely on someone's transcription, or in some cases, pure invention.

Pick one line, say a grandparent, and follow it as far as you can or want to, before switching to another.

Keep detailed records. For example, record every search you make, even if you don't find anything; you can waste a lot of time doing the same searches over and over because you've forgotten you did them (Voice of experience.)

Record exactly where each piece of information comes from - not just 'Ancestry', but 'St Mary's Puddletown baptism register', with the local record office reference if it's available.

Unless it's a very common surname in a big city, record every instance in the town or parish, even if you can't immediately see how it fits in. It might be relevant later. Unusual Christian names can be repeated in different branches of a family over several generations and can help link them together.

Historical directories, available here:
are also useful, especially if your ancestors had a trade.
For London ancestors, Old Bailey Online.
Check your local library website to see what resources you can access at home using your library card. Many offer access to The Times digital archive.
Many local archive offices have digitised and uploaded their collections of old photos of their area. or for old maps. The British history site has other resources you might want to explore, too.
All the above are free to access. British History Online do have an additional subscription service, but it's more aimed at academics.

Gini99 Sat 10-Sep-16 11:53:01

Also, REALLY don't believe any suggested results or user-uploaded content.

Definitely this. Lots of people just accept any plausible record and stick it into their tree without really looking. Other people then accept that tree as being correct and import it into theirs. This means that at first glance it can look correct as you have lots of 'sources' saying the same thing but in reality they are all based on the same mistake. These are often then suggested to you on sites like ancestry so look true. Always be sceptical and look at all possible positive evidence and eliminate other possibilities.

For example, in my tree there is a John Hall who married a Sarah Simpson in the early 19th C. Lots of people see the index record for that marriage and then look in the indexes for a Sarah Simpson who was born roughly 20/25 years earlier in the same area. There is one so they assume that is correct and carry on tracing that family. I looked at all of the parish birth records for their children and in one the vicar had noted that Sarah was the 'relict of George Simpson, daughter of Thomas Thompson'. So actually she was a Sarah Thompson who had married a George Simpson and been widowed before marrying John Hall. Going back through the records confirmed this because I could find George's death, their marriage and the baptism records of children born to them. I could then trace those children in later census records and found further family connections to back this up. I also found Thomas Thompson's will leaving money to the Simpson and Hall children. I hope that makes sense (actually I have changed the names to avoid it being identifying).

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 11:56:32

Yes, I do it primarily as a hobby for friends and family.

Though I'm increasingly contributing to bigger projects, like: - Lives of the First World War - Thiepval Database Project The Scottish Military Research Group - Female War Poets

The furthest back I've got on my own line, through primary material like Birth/Marriage/Death records, is someone born about 1700.

But my cousin's line becomes Establishment fairly quickly and those people's lives are recorded everywhere from Debretts to Wikipedia. So the cousin's tree effortlessly goes back to the Norman Conquest.

RainyDayBear Sat 10-Sep-16 12:02:28

Legacy is a really good (and free) piece of software for keeping track of your family tree.

Lots of good advice above. Ancestry is the most user friendly site to start out using I think - the search on Find My Past is so clunky unless you're familiar with the records. There is also a really good book about starting out in genealogy called Ancestral Trails by Mark Herber.

And as others have said, source EVERYTHING!!

Hulababy Sat 10-Sep-16 12:09:06

Agree with not following suggestions and other peoples trees.

Some of the stuff it tries to suggest to me are so way out!! Couldn't possibly be true.

But looking at some peoples trees they obviously don't check.

I use Ancestry but share the cost with PILs which helps. And then use lots of the above sites that have been suggested.

I find it fascinating but can easily while away several hours without noticing!

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 12:10:32

Yy, everything Harriet & Gini say.

Those historical directories are marvellous. Although the new user interface is shite. I've taken to downloading PDFs of entire directories and searching them on my computer, just to avoid the interface.

Another excellent source ruined by a disastrous new interface is - the London Gazette, Edinburgh Gazette, Dublin Gazette and Belfast Gazette being official government newspapers. They contain notices about estates, bankruptcies, imprisonment for debt, business partnerships, military and Post Office job-allocation, medals, military dispatches...

Eg Here's the dispatch from Wellington after Waterloo:

But good luck to you if you can slog your way through different pages of the site to find out how to work the search. And then persuade it to spit out relevant results. And then work out which results are the relevant ones.

I no longer use it unless desperate - and even then am more likely to attack it via Google than from the Gaz own search box.

Gini99 Sat 10-Sep-16 12:16:05

On how to get started, I would very much agree with the advice that you should pick a line and follow it as far as you can first rather than a scatter gun approach to all sides. So I would pick a line and then follow the male line back as far as possible (easier as no surname changes) then when you hit a problem then follow each female line branching off as far as you can. Do it thoroughly, so I always follow up all of the children from each marriage as these will often give me further clues e.g. they will turn up as marriage witnesses or will be on census records living with their cousins, or will leave a will with extra information. As others have said, keep VERY careful records on what you have checked and which information you have dismissed as inaccurate.

On choosing a line, do you have any living grandparents/great aunts etc?
If you do then start by interviewing them and keeping a record of what they say. I was very fortunate when I started in having 3 living grandparents. My granddad's grandma (born in the 1850s) had lived with him in his childhood and told him lots of stories about her family. So I had loads of starting information on that line to take me back to early 19th C. I have to say it wasn't all accurate so e.g. a story that granddad remembered as being about his grandma's father would actually be about her grandfather, but it was very helpful.

Remember that people are not always honest, literate or accurate. So in my family I have people lying about how long they had been married (the 1911 Census asks this) to cover up the fact the first children were illegitimate. Children baptised under one surname when born to a single woman might then be listed as having her married surname when she later marries (even if her husband wasn't their father). Also women lying about being widowed when really the first husband seems to have abandoned them. There are multiple spellings of surnames for what is clearly the same family which is unsurprising as most were illiterate so presumably the person writing the record just picked a spelling. Also birth places change so a person might say they are from one village in one census but name a nearby town in another. Quite a few of them seemed to only age 5 or 6 years between censuses too! Also the 1841 Census rounded ages so you need to be cautious with those.

Perhaps your family will prove more respectable than mine but I would treat everything with scepticism!

dippingmytoeinagain Sat 10-Sep-16 12:36:28

This is all totally fantastic, thank you all so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to provide such full responses.

Sadly no living grandparents, but going back to my previous forays I do have some information that they wrote/I captured from when they were alive. I think I am going to start with my mother's father's line (maternal grandfather I think). They lived in a small rural Somerset/Devon village and I know from a visit to the church many years ago that there are many gravestones in the churchyard with the family names on it. There are also earlier links to Plymouth dockyards. I'm fascinated as to how the family (or my bit of it) ended up in the landlocked midlands, but I hold them responsible (in the nicest possible way) for my yearning to be by the sea...

Thank you all again flowers

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 12:42:21

Yy to recording people with the same name whom you can't place. You build little dynasties, then hitch them together when you suddenly find the link.

Also, beware the family name! Fairfax Zebedee Thwackbottom may be an unusual name... but it's that family's name, and there are three cousins born in the same village within 2 years who all rejoice in it. This is another reason for recording all instances, to assign events to the correct person.

HarrietVane99 Sat 10-Sep-16 12:54:02

Those historical directories are marvellous. Although the new user interface is shite. I've taken to downloading PDFs of entire directories and searching them on my computer, just to avoid the interface.

Oh God, yes, isn't it dreadful. I've done the same, downloaded entire directories rather than struggle.

The indexing/transcribing of censuses, 1939 register and similar records is riddled with errors. Every household I've looked at on the 1939 register has had errors. You ideally need to do a name search and an address search if you can, and cross reference, with a large helping of lateral thinking.

RTKangaMummy Sat 10-Sep-16 13:17:14

Have you guys found a way to search records with mother maiden name?

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 13:41:12

What sort of records, RTKanga?

FreeBMD invites you to search with maiden name, and Scotland's People seems to treat those two imposters just the same (ie offer results for all the possible surnames you enter).

Ancestry search can be quite clever, so it's worth entering mother's name in the additional boxes in advanced search. (I think they do it by assessing records' links to other records, through user-trees or user-behaviour.)

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 13:47:18

That sounds extremely promising, dipping.

The gravestone inscriptions will be invaluable.

Naval dockyards are exactly the sort of places to keep employee records. Have a furtle in the National Archives (online or by visiting Kew). Local archives may be even more useful.

You may also find apprenticeship records for your area.

specialsubject Sat 10-Sep-16 13:52:28

Findmypast allows search with.maiden name , after q3 1911 when it appears in the indexes.

To add to lots of very useful stuff above - keep the tree off the internet, and be very careful with data about living people.

ivykaty44 Sat 10-Sep-16 14:09:58

Please as other people state check the original record, looking at a marriage record will give you clues rather than a transcription and as noted above people married more than once so never assume a previous name was a maiden name and never assume a couple with unusual names will be the only couple living in the area with those same unusual names.

Look carefully at census records for all info given, people often skim over and don't use the info given.

Army records give religiousness and you may find that a catholic you have been searching for in church of England records is far easier to find in catholic records.

Bastard children were often baptised, sometimes there middle name is a clue to who there father was. Church warden accounts are often great places to search for clues if father's, as accounts were kept for parish handing out money, why and who from.

SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman Sat 10-Sep-16 14:15:03

Yes, that's exactly the search FreeBMD offers (free).

Mother's maiden name began to be recorded in the indexes of birth registers from Q3 1911. Prior to that it was on the cert but not in the national index.

HOWEVER. Some of the local register office indexes record mother's maiden name before that. It's according to the whim of the local registrar.

The E&W system is (was?) that local registrars fill in their own registers, index them for local use, and issue original certificates into the hands of people who've come to register births. Similarly marriages/deaths.

The local registrars then send returns to the General Register Office (previously at Somerset House in London, much beloved destination of Poirot and Lord Peter for the denouement that the victim was in fact the daughter of Lord Blenkinsop by his secret third marriage).

The GRO fill out their own registers and index them. These GRO indexes are what appear on FreeBMD, FMP and Ancestry. And if you order certs from the GRO, you get copies of the GRO registers.

If you order certs from the individual local register offices (or their local archive), you get a copy of the original register. In which sometimes the original registrar has habitually recorded additional information. is superb on all this stuff.

yeOldeTrout Sat 10-Sep-16 14:45:58

What about siblings of your grandparents, or their first cousins. Try to find extended elders in the family to ask what records or photos or memories they have.

Family history isn't just about born X date married Y date died Z date.
It's about the journey they went thru. The family stories (true or not) that people passed down and thought were true can be fascinating to chase up... all the better if the story has no truth in it.

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