The WDYTYA? 12-Week Family History Challenge: Week 3 – Search Online

By Jon Bauckham, 5 December 2016 - 11:45am

There are millions of records on the web waiting to be explored. In part three of our 12-Week Family History Challenge, WDYTYA? TV series genealogist Laura Berry offers her top tips for getting the most out of your online searches

  • Missed last week's guide? Click here to go back to Week 2: Birth Records
  • Download a free family tree chart to print and keep by clicking here

You’ll want to explore a range of genealogy websites over the coming weeks to make sure that no stone is left unturned. This week we’ll get to grips with the big players, both free and commercial.

Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist all contain civil registration indexes, census returns and a selection of church records for paid subscribers, in addition to a variety of biographical, electoral, criminal, military, travel, education, occupation and land-related records, some of which are unique to one site.

All three websites offer a free 14-day trial, which is your chance to play around with their collections to see which website is most suitable for your needs. Remember to cancel the subscription on the 14th day if you do not wish to pay for a full subscription.

Most of the digital records originated from public archives, and some regional record offices have signed deals to allow particular websites to digitise their family history holdings. For example, the London Metropolitan Archives has a deal with Ancestry and the National Library of Wales is in partnership with Findmypast.

All three websites contain records from The National Archives. Visitors can access commercial digital collections for free on site at Kew, and it has additional scanned and indexed material like the Durham Home Guard records on its online Discovery catalogue.

This catalogue also acts as a portal to hundreds of original documents that have been indexed by name and are held in county archives across the country.

Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist are three of the major UK subscription websites

Outside England and Wales

ScotlandsPeople is the go-to site for people with Scottish roots, run in partnership with National Records of Scotland. Its collections are supplemented by documents available on the National Library of Scotland website, including 700 digital Post Office directories from 1773-1911.

The National Library of Ireland website has a guide to researching Irish roots, containing lots of links to free digital records including the civil and parish registers now freely available at Click here to get started.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland website contains lots of additional free material online, including will calendars, land records (known as Valuation Revision Books), street directories and freeholders records.

FamilySearch is the largest free resource for finding people from all over the world. In addition to transcribed and scanned archive documents it also has family trees uploaded by registered members.

A similar service is provided on Ancestry and these trees can act as a shortcut, but be warned that they could contain errors so all the names and dates should be checked against original documents.

The commercial website MyHeritage also has a growing collection of family trees plus records from the UK as well as many more for other countries.  

Useful online resources






Week 3 tasks

  • Sign up for free trial periods to test out subscription websites at home.
  • Find out which databases your local library or archive can give you access to for free.
  • Start with general searches of all records, then hone into specific document collections.
  • Search for family trees uploaded to websites by other users (these will need fact-checking).
  • Google unusual names in your family tree to see what comes up.


Next week...

In next week’s guide (Monday 12 December), we’ll be showing you how to find your family in census records, giving you a detailed snapshot of your ancestors once every ten years

WDYTYA? episode summary: Amanda Holden
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WDYTYA? key documents: Amanda Holden's episode
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WDYTYA? episode summary: Amanda Holden
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WDYTYA? key documents: Amanda Holden's episode
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