Starting your Family History

Step by Step Guide – Where to look

  1. If you are just starting out the first thing is to write down all the facts you can remember, even approximate dates can help.  Names and place of residence, work and anything you can remember about them. Work backwards from yourself to parents, grandparents (usually 4 of them).  Now add in brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, etc etc
  1. Early on talk to people who may have known your relatives.  This will include your own living relations.  Try to get them talking and make notes of any interesting points.  Facts like when and where they were married (even approximate year can help), any details of birthday including year and deaths, their work and interests.  Equally important are the stories, what were they like as people, any funny or remarkable incidents.  Make a note of who tells you too.  It is surprising how much information you will get and you will not remember who said what!  
  1. Has anyone already made a start on your family tree?  This can be a real boon, though try to check out the details yourself as mistakes can be made. Even if you are not just starting out – go back and talk to your relatives, tell them what you have found out, perhaps jog some new memories!  Who knows what treasures they may have in their memory or bottom drawer!
  1. The Census is a great place to look, don’t forget to check out the neighbours too! You can follow a family across the decades to see changes: 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911, 1939. One more will become available after 100 years… 2022.
  1. Once you start collecting material, information, copies of photographs or certificates, you may want to consider how to organise things.  It is easy to get into a muddle.  It will also be more use to others if well organised.  Note – it is usual on a family tree to refer to a woman by her Maiden name. 
  1. Parish registers – baptisms, banns, marriages and burials. These are the building blocks of the family tree.  Bishop’s Transcripts (copies of the Parish registers done each year and sent to the bishop, often filed with diocesan records) may have survived when Parish registers didn’t or vice versa.  The County Archives may have other interesting documents held for safe-keeping in The Parish Chest such as pauper apprenticeship indentures.  Our poor relations may have had help through the overseers of the poor and churchwardens.  Non-Conformist’s records such as Methodists may also be available.
  1. The records of civil registration in England & Wales, relate to the birth, marriage and death (BMD) of each person since 1 July 1837.  General Register Office (you need to register for a free account) helps you find them and their free search helps you find mother’s maiden names.
  1. BMD certificates form the backbone of any family tree back to 1837.  If you can track down any certificates look carefully at the whole thing in detail.  Who registered the birth or death, who were the witnesses of a marriage and what were the stated occupations of the fathers.  Are the father’s names new information?  Select which ones you need carefully – it quickly gets expensive! (Parish registers can be a substitute for some.)
  1. Gravestones can be good photos for your write up and often add more information as family members may be  buried together. Occasionally there is a comment about the person.  Wills and probate can give names of relatives and details of wealth and occasional gems give belongings and all sorts.
  1. Newspaper Archives can be useful : Obituaries can add information, though be aware sometimes even the worst scoundrels sound like angels in their obituary!  However it can give names of relatives attending and career details for example.  Reports of court proceedings are often more colourful and give more details than court records do.  Birth, marriage and death announcements can give ‘facts’ you can follow up elsewhere.  House sales. Adverts for local businesses, though business directories may be more useful for this eg Kelly’s. 

Family history is not all about the above facts.  You may want to read around the topics raised, local and even national history.  For example my Great Grandmother was a laundress in the late 1800s.  What would that have been like? Career options have changed, what would the occupations of your ancestors have entailed? In cities, apprenticeships and Guild memberships led to records, not so many in Sticklepath though unfortunately. What does the cause of death mean, might it have been related to their work or accidents or a local epidemic? Addresses and Wills lead on to property records and much more.  

Try these videos

From Feb 2021 to Feb 2022 sign up from to Rootstech, loads of free online talks when you want to access them through family search (free site). Many libraries have a subscription to Consider subscribing to “Who Do You Think You Are?” Or Family History magazine or the Devon Family History Society (only £15 annually, great value, lots of talks and records and help).  There are also lots of blogs and websites, tweets etc related to genealogy to help you along the way. Online lectures and info through the Society of Genealogists, the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. If you want to take it further Pharos online courses are great.

Useful websites

I love to hear what you have discovered and can also try to advise further:

Good luck