First Steps in Family History Research

Published: 31 July 2013
Surname on Farm Wagon Where Do You Come From?

A new series of Who Do You Think You Are? on television always starts people wondering about where their family came from. Perhaps this programme has sparked you into thinking about your past, or maybe you have been sorting out family possessions and come across some tantalizing old documents that has given you the urge to discover more.

In this article we hope to offer some guidance to those of you who are starting out on what will be a fantastic voyage of discovery. It is fascinating to think of how the decisions our ancestors made many years ago, or the circumstances in which they found themselves, has shaped the people we are now. Sadly, we will not all have remarkable ancestors like those featured in WDYTYA – after all they select the most interesting family histories to feature, with two thirds of the celebrities researched never making it to filming the programme. Nevertheless, your own family history research will uncover facts about your family that are sure to surprise, sadden or fascinate you. When embarking on research you must be prepared to accept that not everything will be rosy.

Who Are You?

The first step in researching your family history is to write down everyone you know about your immediate family and how they relate to you. Draw up a simple tree. Look at your birth certificate. If you have the full certificate, it should contain the names of both your parents and you will find out your mother’s maiden name. If you have a certificate that does not show your parents details, you have a ‘short’ birth certificate and it might be advisable to obtain a full one from the General Register Office. Normally when people have the ‘short’ birth certificate, it is because it was issued free of charge and the ‘full’ one had to be paid for. However, it has been known for people to obtain their ‘full’ birth certificate, only to discover that the father who brought them up, wasn’t named on their birth certificate, which may suggest he was not their biological father.

Monumental Inscription in Graveyard Memorial Inscriptions can be useful

Ask Your Relatives

Before rushing back through the generations, take time to look at what you and your relatives already know. Not only will this save you time and money, but sadly these people may not always be around. Ask parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents if they have any stories about members of the family and whether they have any old family documents. You might be surprised at what is lurking in Granny’s attic! Amongst the sort of things that will be of interest are:

  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Photographs, videos or cine films
  • Photographs or cine films
  • Family Bibles
  • Identity cards
  • Medals, badges and other items connected with service in the armed forces
  • Old passports
  • Wills
  • Diaries
  • Newspaper cuttings, especially birth, marriage, death announcements
  • Accounts, receipts
  • Correspondence

Record Your Findings

Make a copy of everything that you discover, even if it does not seem relevant at this stage. Write down everything your relatives tell you, see if they can identify people on photographs, if so write the names down. However, always bear in mind that what they tell you might not be entirely accurate! Carefully record where you obtained the information from, in case you need to ask further questions later! Try and ask another person the same questions and see if you get the same answers! So many times you hear people say "I wish I could remember where I got that information from!" Please record your sources - you will be so glad you did!

Which Side of the Family Should I Research?

This is a popular question posed by beginners! It is easy to become overwhelmed with the amount of information you acquire when you get involved in family history research. Remember that each generation you go back you will double the number of your director ancestors each time. You have 2 parents, 4 grand parents, 8 great grandparents, 16 2xgreat grand parents, 32 3xgreat grandparents, and so on. By the time you get back to your great, great, great, great grandparents, you could be looking for 64 direct ancestors, plus their siblings!

It is, therefore, advisable for beginners to concentrate on just one branch of the family to start with. But which one? Most people opt for their family surname – that is their father’s surname – simply because it is the one they are more familiar with. However, if it is a common surname you might be setting yourself too much of a challenge to begin with. Think about your mother’s maiden name, is it less common? If so, that might be a better place to start. After all half your genes come from her side of the family!

Effigy in Parish Church You May Find a Famous Ancestor

Verify Your Family Tree

Once you have found out what you can from your relatives, you can set about verifying the information using birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns, parish registers and wills.

In order to prove your family relationships you will need to obtain a birth certificate for each direct ancestor and a marriage certificate for each couple. Sometimes you will want to obtain a death certificate, but these are not always necessary to prove relationships. At nearly £10 for each certificate you can see that the family history research is not cheap!

This is why people turn to popular ancestral websites which offer family trees in return for a membership fee. However, please be very wary about family trees you discover online, they are submitted by other members who may, or may not, have done the research themselves. The information, therefore, may not be accurate. We have seen many instances of on-line trees that are incorrect, with people just adding the information to their trees and perpetuating the inaccuracies. Once you get back pre civil registration, family history research becomes less exact, simply because the records are sketchy, ambiguous or missing altogether. Sometimes even experienced researchers will make an assumption that is just that, when another person could make a different interpretation of the same information. We are not saying ‘don’t use these online websites’ just be prepared to check the information with the original sources. After all, the thrill of family history research is the journey of discovery.

Open Church Door Let the Journey Begin!

Here are links to some of the most useful family history websites to help you track down your ancestors:

Free BMD

A free index of births, marriages and deaths registered in England and Wales since 1 July 1837. Please note it is an index, so there may be missing or some inaccuracies. You can use this index to obtain a certificate which will give you the details of your ancestor.

Gloucestershire BMD Indexes

Another free index of civil registration births, marriages and deaths that took place in the county of Gloucestershire.

The International Genealogical Index (IGI)

A free index of parish registers transcribed by the LDS church. It is far from complete, but nonetheless a valuable resource. By wary of the information submitted by the LDS members as this can be inaccurate.


This is a pay to view website. This site offers census information from 1841 to 1911, transcripts of parish records, military records, immigration records, probate records and user-submitted family trees. Offers a 14 day free trail.

Find My Past

Another pay to view website. You can see census records take in England, Wales and Scotland 1841-1911, birth, marriage and death records, transcripts of parish records, travel and migration, British newspapers, military records and family trees. Offers a 14 day free trial.

We hope this article has been helpful and whetted your appetite to begin your family history research. Good luck and enjoy the journey of discovery!

© The Gloucestershire Oracle July 2013