How to start your family tree: 6 quick and easy tips

By Guest, 21 August 2019 - 1:13pm

You might not appear on Who Do You Think You Are?, but you can still research your family history at home with these simple steps for beginners

Family history black and white
Get a helping hand on your family history research with our tips (Credit: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The world of family history always sees a flurry of activity when a new series of Who Do You Think You Are? comes to our screens.

The sight of celebrities uncovering fascinating stories about their families encourages a lot of people to think, “I wonder if I can do that too?”

And for most of us, the answer is a resounding “Absolutely!”

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Although there’s lots to learn about tracking down records and understanding what they can tell you, most family historians just pick things up as they go along (although a subscription to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine will help to keep you on track).

The important thing to know is that even a complete novice can make real and rewarding progress by following these first steps.

So don’t be put off by technical terms, and don’t be daunted by too much information. Just follow these simple tips to start your own journey into your family history.


1. Interview older relatives

Credit: Getty Images

Spend time talking to your older relations.

Even at the early stages of your research, it’s important to capture what they know.

Photographs or set questions can help inspire useful responses.

Ask if you can record a conversation (most mobile phones will have an option to record audio) rather than take notes, so that you can concentrate on listening and asking questions, following any new leads that they give you.

2. Start building your family tree

Ancestry tree

Although you can draw a family tree by hand, most people now go for digital options.

Almost all digital family trees can be saved as a GEDCOM file, a special file format that means you can move your work to other sites or software at a later stage if you want.

The main commercial genealogy websites, such as Ancestry and Findmypast, let you set up a free account so that you can start filling in your family tree facts into a simple template.

These are particularly useful if you later want to take out a subscription to one of these sites, as they will suggest records as well as connections to other users’ trees.

Make sure you work from facts, not assumptions, and only add details that you are confident are correct.

Ancestry has recently added ‘Tags’ that let you flag up facts in your tree that you haven’t yet verified, but question marks can also be used.

3. Use free family history websites

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

As with most hobbies, there are costs associated with exploring your family history.

So it’s worth investigating the free resources at libraries and archives.

Most will have free access to the Library Edition of Ancestry, and many will have other resources including digital newspapers.

There are also lots of very helpful free resources on the web.

For example, FamilySearch is the biggest free online resource for family historians.

Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has a growing collection of records from around the world, all available for free to registered users.

The site also runs a communal, universal family tree that you can add to or search for forebears.

Both Findmypast and Ancestry have some records that are free to search and view as long as you are registered with them (as opposed to a paid membership).

Also, keep an eye out for free-access weekends. Ancestry, for example, is offering free access to all its British and Irish records this Bank Holiday weekend.

Other major free websites include FreeBMD (for searching the Civil Registration Index for England and Wales of births, marriages and deaths, often abbreviated to ‘BMDs’) and Genuki, but there are also dozens of specialist ones such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as well as the National Library of Wales and the National Archives of Ireland.

4. Check out the census online


Now it’s time to get stuck in with some historical documents.

One of the key records for genealogists is the census.

Taken every 10 years, records are online for the vast majority of the population from 1841 up to 1911.

They are a great way to piece together family relationships and track someone’s progress through life, as well as uncovering occupations and discovering disabilities.

The 1911 census is the only one available where you can see the original householder’s schedule, usually filled in by the head of the household.

Earlier records show the enumerator’s list compiled using a combination of schedules filled in by households and a certain amount of door-to-door canvassing.

You can view the censuses for England and Wales via subscription sites Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist, and ScotlandsPeople for Scotland.

Transcriptions of the censuses can be searched for free via FamilySearch.

Remember that the census records the population on a particular day and may not reflect someone’s usual address, for example they could be visiting relatives.

It’s also important to bear in mind that a couple could both have and lose a child within the 10 years between censuses.

Censuses do not tell the whole story.

5. When to buy birth, marriage and death certificates

Birth, marriage and death certificates

BMDs have had to be registered in England and Wales since 1837 (1855 for Scotland), and this provides a rich resource.

However, these vital records come with a price: £11 in England and Wales, although PDFs for death or birth records are £7.

It’s cheaper in Scotland where you can order digital copies of civil records via ScotlandsPeople.

Birth records will give you date of birth and name of parents including the maiden name of the mother.

However, new GRO indexes give the maiden name.

Also, if you have an account on Findmypast or Ancestry, you may find an ancestor’s date of birth in the 1939 Register.

It’s also worth checking church records on subscription websites, because a church marriage record will have exactly the same details as on a certificate.

6. Join our forum and subscribe to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

Who Do You Think You Are Magazine subscription

A subscription to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine will help build your family history skills and keep you up to date with new data releases.

It will also give you a monthly dose of inspiration and, if you get stuck, the experienced members of our friendly forum will give you a helping hand.



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