Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to start researching your UK family history

I have learned a lot in the twenty three years I have been researching my family, and I am still learning every day.  I decided that before I put any more of my own family research into this blog, I should give you the benefit of some of the lessons I have learned.

Start with the resources you already have
You will have information about your immediate family.  Note everything you know down.  Include as much detail as possible - places, dates, occupations, any extra information you know.

Find all your elderly relatives and question them.  Many will claim to know "nothing" and then reveal an intimate knowledge of the family at a later date.  Ask them for dates and places, and even if they are vague, note everything down. Catch them before they die, or forget everything. I regret not asking more specific questions of my grandparents, even though I was interested and did ask questions.

Make good records
Start a book and allocate a double page to each individual you note down, and add any details as you go through.  You may need to number the people in order to keep track, if the family reuses names in different generations, although it is a good habit to add the birth year whenever you talk about any individual.

Note on the records any paperwork you may have - certificates, references in books, etc.  You never know when that insurance certificate may provide evidence of address or profession etc.

Start a log of searches, inquiries and research undertaken, and note down not only what you have searched but also what you are looking for.  I used to note which of the indexes I had searched at the Family History Centre or St Catherine's house, but going back later I realised that I also needed to know what I had been searching for, for this information to be useful.  It's no good knowing that you've searched the 1896-1899 indexes for Dickins, if you don't record whether it was Robert or Jim you were searching for, or whether it was births or deaths you were searching. All I can say is, you will never regret putting too much information in the log.

Take copies of certificates if they are owned by other people, and make a note of who holds the originals.  Do the same for photographs.  Try to scan in a good quality copy of any old photographs, and annotate them.

Learn to make - and read - family trees
Some people pick up the techniques necessary to make family trees quickly, other people need help.  Some people make ridiculously wide family trees which become impossible to read.  Work out what works for you and stick to it, but often making an overview family tree, and then making more detailed family trees which link to it, is both easier to do and easier to read.

Update everywhere when you find new information - and quote sources
I have a lot of scribbled pieces of information on my family files and have no idea where the information came from.  It's a huge pain to try to find a piece of information and confirm it, when you know you must have had the origin of the information at some stage.  If you don't have time to update online family trees and your files, keep a folder for genealogy filing and stick it there until you do have time.  You won't regret it!

Go backwards in time, logically
The easiest way to do family history research, once you have exhausted your own and your relative's knowledge, is to work back logically in time.  Suppose you have your parents' marriage and dates of birth.  If you don't have a birth certificate for your parents, you need to start there, which will give you the details for your grandparents.  Then go for your grandparents marriage, then their birth details.  You should always finish off your ancestors by locating their deaths, although I have never found anything on a death certificate particularly helpful for family history research.  The more modern ones will be more useful, as they give places of birth as well as details of the person's death.

Once your have got to pre-1912, use the census
The census returns for 1841, 51, 61, 71, 81, 91, 01 and 1911 are the most useful family history resource that we have.  You will find that different family history sites will give you free access to a different census, but it may well be worth setting up an account which allows you access to all of them, if you can afford it.  These vary tremendously in both price and accuracy, and so it is good to collect some information about all of them and what they offer. 

It is a little confusing when you begin to use census returns, as each census may give slightly different information, you may find that the variation in age for your ancestors is not exactly 10 years although the censuses take place every ten years, and sometimes either enumerators at the time, or transcribers since, have made mistakes about interpreting both numbers and names.

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