Starting your family tree

Researching your family history is a life-enhancing experience that anyone can enjoy. Take some inspiration from a Who Do You Think You Are? genealogist and launch yourself into this fascinating hobby.

Two photographs from a photo album 1913

We’ve invited Laura Berry, the lead genealogist on the Who Do You Think You Are? television series, to share her tips on how the Who Do You Think You Are? team uncovers the celebrities’ family histories and the first steps you need to take to uncover your own.


Gathering evidence

When researching a celebrity’s family tree for the show, we start by finding out what they know already. You should do the same!

1 – Write down what you know already. Take a pencil and blank sheet of paper and write down what you know about your relatives in a family tree diagram. Write your name and date of birth at the bottom of the page, with your siblings either side and a branch up to your parents’ names, adding any significant dates. Continue back as far as you can. This way you’ll be able to see where the gaps are.

2 – Track down the family archive. Gather any family documents, letters and photographs you have lying around the house as these often provide precise dates and places for births, marriages and deaths, and can help you to start filling in some of those blanks.

3 – Make a plan. While you’re drawing up your tree start to think about what you would like to find out. This is a really important question that we ask all of the celebrities, because it will form a framework around which we can plan our research. The next step is to talk to as many relations as possible to try to fill in some of the gaps. The Who Do You Think You Are? team does this for every celebrity. Older relations are particularly helpful, since they may remember people who were alive as long as 100 years ago.

4 – Contact family members. Extended family can alert you to additional mysteries that need resolving, and have documents and photographs you’ve never seen before. Keep notes of all your conversations. As you progress in your research you might pick up on something significant in your initial notes that you didn’t think was very important at the time.

5 – Collaborate with others. See if you can collaborate with another family history addict in the family. Two pairs of eyes are often better than one. It’s also helpful if you can divide the cost of purchasing document copies and joining subscription websites. Some websites like MyHeritageGenesReunited and Ancestry allow members to save their family trees online and get in touch with other tree owners who share an ancestor. We often use this method of tracing people for Who Do You Think You Are? Remember, online and even printed family trees can contain errors, so be sure to verify the facts with as many sources as possible.

6 – Get organised! You’ll need to keep well-organised notes. Archive-quality storage boxes are useful for paper copies gathered. Regularly updated records of each step you’ve taken will save you duplicating searches. There are lots of genealogy software packages designed to input your ancestors’ details and build trees including Legacy, Family Tree Maker, Family Historian and Reunion. Many genealogy websites offer similar services. At WDYTYA? we also compile a Word report for each celebrity, giving an overview of the records found for each ancestor, with transcriptions of all the documents we’ve located.



Choosing a website

Various companies and archives have digitised so many genealogical records in the past 10 years that the number of websites can seem a bit overwhelming at first.

AncestryFindmypastGenes Reunited and TheGenealogist are four of the biggest commercial sites for tracing English and Welsh ancestors, and for accessing additional British and overseas records. They all offer the GRO birth, marriage and death indexes back to 1837 and censuses from 1841 to 1911 – the essential datasets that form the backbone of genealogical research.

Although these four sites all offer the GRO indexes and the English and Welsh census, they also hold a huge range of other sources, some of which won’t be found on any other website.

So, before paying to take out a subscription, it is worth taking a bit of time to work out which website will be most useful to you:

1 – Don’t rush. See what is available for free first, such as FreeBMD and You may not need a subscription until you’ve really got stuck into your research, and by then you may have a clearer idea of which site is best for you.

2 – Visit your library. Some local archives and libraries provide free access, usually to Ancestry Library Edition, although some now also offer access to Findmypast as well now.

3 – Go further afield. The National Archives in Kew and National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth let visitors use most genealogy websites for free on-site.

4 – Take advantage of ‘try before you buy’. Subscription websites often have 14-day free trial memberships for newcomers, but remember to cancel before the payment period kicks in if you’re not ready to commit.

5 – See whether it covers your region. Check to see which websites have agreements with which local archives. If your family mostly comes from London, Liverpool, Surrey or West Yorkshire, for example, then you may want to consider signing up to Ancestry, but if your family came from Wales, Westminster, Cheshire or Hertfordshire then Findmypast might be more suitable.

6 – Check the collections. Don’t just check regional differences, as there may be other unique collections of interest to you. For example, TheGenealogist has Tithe records, Findmypast has a vast collection of newspapers and Ancestry has the National Probate Calendar.

7 – Give it a test drive. When testing out different subscription sites, try looking for a range of ancestors on the census and see which search mechanism suits you best. You will probably use the census a lot and each site lets you search in a different way so it’s important to choose a site you get on with.

8 – Does it offer a family tree builder? Check out each website’s tree-building capability. Can you access your tree on mobile devices? Can other people look at your tree? What are the privacy options? Can you connect with other people who share ancestors on your family tree? While you can usually export a tree and put it elsewhere, in reality you may find that the site you start building your tree on is the site you stick with, so choose wisely!

9 – Don’t limit yourself. While you may have your tree saved in one place, don’t feel you have to stick with a single subscription site. Although you may be offered generous loyalty discounts, it can really pay to try a different site for a year and get access to a different set of records. Keep your eyes peeled for special offers.

10 – Got Scottish ancestors? If you are researching mainly Scottish ancestors you may find yourself mostly using ScotlandsPeople which operates a pay-as-you-go credit system rather than a subscription system. The ScotlandsPeople Centre in Edinburgh gives visitors unlimited access to these computerized records for £15 per day, but you can drop in for a free 2-hour introductory session at 10am or 2pm on weekdays. This doesn’t mean that the other subscription sites don’t offer anything for Scottish researchers. Both Ancestry and Findmypast have transcriptions of census data for Scotland up to 1901 and all the sites have various other datasets from newspapers to military records.


Births, marriages and deaths

In 1836, the General Register Office (GRO) was established to maintain a central record of all the births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales.

Today the GRO index to civil registration certificates forms the main building block of genealogical research. In theory all deaths and marriages from 1 July 1837 should have been registered within six weeks, but the registration of births was not compulsory until 1875, so coverage can be patchy before then.

Though the certificates are not online, the original central indexes can be searched from July 1837 to 2007 in several places, making it easy to order hard copies of certificates from the GRO.

The GRO indexes list the name under which the event was registered (which could be spelled differently to how you were expecting), the quarter and year it was registered, the district of registration and a volume and page number. Once you have this information, you can order a copy of the full certificate from for £11. It is also now possible to order PDF copies of some birth and death records for £7.

Using certificates to build your tree

Certificates are vitally important for building your family tree and proving the connections between each person.

Births registered from September quarter 1911 include the mother’s maiden name in the index, which makes it easier to pinpoint the right birth during the 20th century. Victorian census returns provide places of birth, however, which can help to identify earlier entries in the birth index. The new indexes on the GRO website however now include mother’s maiden name all the way back to 1837 and some subscription websites are starting to also add this detail.

If you’ve found a marriage certificate (which will confirm the ages of the bride and groom and names of their fathers), the next step is to look for birth certificates for the happy couple. There may be more than one likely entry in the index, particularly for common names, so you may need to purchase several certificates to establish which one is correct.

The GRO marriage index cross-references the spouses’ names from 1912 onwards, nevertheless, it is still possible to identify a marital match between two surnames prior to 1912 with a little bit of trickery online. One method is to search for a bride and groom with the same year, quarter and place of marriage and registration numbers. Alternatively, FreeBMD does the hard work for you, automatically locating those names with matching registration details.

English and Welsh death certificates are not as informative as birth and marriage certificates but can still be helpful, particularly for researching older generations born before July 1837. A death certificate confirms the deceased’s age, and from 1969 exact dates of birth are given. The informant was usually a relative and their details can be useful for confirming suspected links in your tree. Birth, marriage and death certificates also provide home addresses, which might help to locate your family in other records like electoral registers.

Scotland and Ireland

Although civil registration was not introduced to Scotland until 1st January 1855, the statutory records are more detailed than their English and Welsh counterparts. Furthermore, full scanned images can be instantly downloaded online for births in 1855–1913, marriages in 1855–1938 and deaths in 1855–1963.

In Ireland, civil registration began on 1st January 1864, though non-Catholic marriages were registered from April 1845. Recently the GRO of Northern Ireland launched an online search and order facility at for births, marriages and deaths registered in the north from 1845.

Indexes up to 1958 for the Republic of Ireland can be searched for free using FamilySearch, and are also available on and Ancestry. Order Irish certificates online from



Using the census

The next major tool for fleshing out your family tree is the census.

Census forms were completed by each household on a specific night every 10 years from 1801, however the eight returns from 1841 are the most detailed that are available to search on a national level. There is a 100-year closure ruling on the census, so the 1911 returns were most recently opened to the public.

The returns from 1841 to 1911 have been scanned and indexed by name online, providing a snapshot of the household at each property on a particular evening. The original forms were collected and transcribed by an enumerator, and bound into books, arranged geographically by district.

The arrangement reflects the route the enumerator took as he did his rounds collecting completed forms. In theory, even if your ancestors were prisoners, asylum inmates or fairground workers living in a caravan, they should have been included.

1801 – 1831

The first census taken on 10 March 1801 during the Napoleonic Wars was intended to gather statistical information to manage increasing demand for food and gauge how many men were of military age. Censuses between 1801 and 1831 were not very detailed and only fragments of enumerators’ notes about individual households survive, like the 1801 and 1821 censuses of Dartford that can be searched on Findmypast.


The 1841 census was the first to systematically list the names of everyone in the country and is the earliest nationwide collection that remains largely intact.

For the first time in 1841 the forms recorded the names of everybody at each address, including children. Householders were asked to describe the occupations of people staying at their property. This could include servants, commonly noted in the profession column as M.S. or F.S. for male or female servant, so you could find your ancestor residing with an employer rather than their family.

Ages are also listed, but rounded down to the nearest five years for people over the age of 15. A note was made of whether or not each person was born in the county in which they resided, though precise places of birth were not requested until the next census in 1851.

1851 – 1901

The censuses gradually became more detailed with every decade that passed. Marital statuses were given from 1851, as well as the relationship between each person and the head of the household. Your ancestor may have been boarding at an address temporarily or have had lots of visitors staying on 30 March 1851. Ages also became more accurate.

Increasingly intrusive enquiries were made, asking in 1851 and 1861 if people were ‘blind or deaf-and-dumb’ and from 1871 whether anyone was deemed to be a ‘lunatic, imbecile or idiot’, by Victorian standards of course! Additional questions were asked about employment status from 1891, defining whether a person was self-employed ‘on their own account’, an employer, or employed by someone else.


The 1911 census is the most detailed of them all, and is really where your search should begin so that you can work gradually back through the earlier records. On the 1911 census we discover how long our ancestors have been married, how many children they have had and whether any have died. This can be used alongside the marriage, birth and death records to paint a vivid picture of our Edwardian ancestors’ lives.

For the first time in 1911 we see the original forms completed in the householder’s own handwriting, rather than a transcribed copy from the enumerator’s book. John Underwood, a 47-year-old butcher from Hastings, admitted in the health conditions column that he was ‘bad-tempered’, his wife was ‘long-tongued’ and their five children were ‘quarrelsome’, ‘stubborn’, ‘greedy’, ‘vain’ and ‘noisy’! Notes like this may have been jokingly scribbled on earlier censuses but unfortunately the original forms no longer survive.

Searching for people on the census

The digitisation of the censuses makes it so much easier to find people, since we can search by name, age, place of birth and residence, and cross-reference with the names of relatives who should be in the same house. Every now and then a family seems to just disappear though, and you have to work hard to find them. This happens for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the census officials who collected the pre-1911 forms and transferred the information into the census books may have misread your ancestor’s handwriting. Then there’s the added risk that the online indexers struggled to read the enumerator’s handwriting and the digital index is not accurate. So, you have to think creatively about how the name could have been interpreted.

Your ancestor’s name may even have changed between census years. This commonly happened when a woman’s husband died, she re-married and her children temporarily adopted their stepfather’s surname. If any of your predecessors were in a prison, workhouse or other institution, they may have only been listed by their initials, which could make finding them impossible.

Some people deliberately fudged the form to evade the authorities, while the Suffragettes encouraged supporters to boycott the 1911 census altogether. If you really can’t find your family on a UK census return, though, it might just be possible they were abroad. In most cases you should be able to find your ancestors on the census without too much trouble, but where there are gaps, other records may help.


Other useful records

Whether you want to trace your family history back to the Tudors or find out all you can about your 20th-century ancestors, there is a wealth of other records that will assist you alongside censuses and civil registration certificates.

Parish registers

We use parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials to find people who lived before the Victorian period. They were first introduced in England and Wales following the split with Rome in 1538, though few churches maintained a complete set of records.

Unfortunately there isn’t a single nationwide index to the surviving registers, and they’re not as detailed as later GRO certificates, which can make it difficult to be sure you’ve found the right people. However, more and more parish registers are being scanned and put online by the various websites we’ve already looked at.

A Google search should help you find out if there’s an online collection for your ancestors’ county. Ancestry has a huge collection for Warwickshire for example and FindMyPast is in partnership with Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. The geographical GENUKI reference guide at is great for finding out about free online parish transcriptions too. Those that aren’t online will be found on microfilm in local archives.


Wills are worth their weight in gold for proving connections between people in your family tree. Your ancestors didn’t have to be rich to leave wills though. The National Archives even has an online collection written by 18th-century seamen. All wills proved in England and Wales since 1858 can be found using the National Probate Calendar, on Ancestry up to 1966, and copies of those wills can be ordered by post using the form at Ecclesiastical courts oversaw probate before 1858, and most of those records are in local archives. The National Archives has links to some early wills online at


If a family member did leave a will, then chances are that the local newspaper published an obituary for them too. County archives and regional libraries hold microfilmed collections of historical newspapers, but millions of pages are being put online at so they can be searched quickly by name and place. This often leads us to the unexpected discovery of fascinating reports about ancestors who were criminals, or the victims of crime, and families who suffered an unfair share of misfortune.

Though newspaper reports give unparalleled descriptive accounts of criminal activities, you may find out even more from the original court books. Calendars of Prisoners usually confirm the person’s age and place of birth, so you can be sure you’ve found your ancestor, and depositions contain statements presented to court. Less serious crimes heard by Courts of Quarter Sessions are generally documented at the county archive, whilst more grievous crimes were tried at the Assize Courts with records at The National Archives. FindMyPast and Ancestry have digitised some criminal records and lots of useful links are found by clicking here.

Military records

Military records are another fruitful source for adding more than just names and dates to your tree. Most families have at least one person that fought in the First or Second World War. Service records post-1922 are still with the Ministry of Defence but can be requested by next of kin. Only around 40% of First World War army service records survived destruction during the Blitz, but those that did can be seen on Ancestry. Findmypast has scanned pension and attestation papers of men who fought before 1913 and saw service during the Anglo-Boer and Crimean wars. If your ancestors served at sea or in the air then check The National Archives’ online records, which include many Air Force, Navy and Marine papers.

Armed forces service records invariably include a medical history, but if you want to find medical records for civilian ancestors you’ll probably need to check hospital files at the local county archive. Search the Hospital Records Database at to find out where the original registers are kept, but bear in mind that most are closed for 100 years. The Historic Hospital Admission Records Project at has put some children’s records online, which are particularly valuable given the high rate of child mortality in the 19th century. So, from cradle to grave, there’s lots out there for you to discover about your ancestors.



Best free websites

1. FamilySearch
Access the International Genealogical Index and thousands of parish registers, plus indexes to workhouse records, land tax assessments, school registers, court books, manorial documents and international records.

2. Access to Archives
This catalogue describing archives held in hundreds of records offices is great for discovering names attached to deeds, insurance records, bastardy orders and more.

3. The National Archives
Download a selection of TNA’s online records for free, including Women’s Royal Naval Service officers’ WW1 appointment registers, Coastguard records and Ministry of Health files about workhouse inmates and staff in series MH 12.

4. National Library of Wales
Search 7.6 million articles from newspapers printed in English and Welsh between 1804 and 1919, find pre-1858 wills, gaol files for the Court of Great Sessions and applications for marriage licences.

5. National Library of Scotland
Browse British military lists and old maps, search Scottish Post Office directories by name and access genealogies of ancient Scottish families from the NLS Digital Gallery.

6. National Archives of Ireland
Find surviving Irish censuses, probate calendars up to 1922, First World War soldiers’ wills and the Tithe applotment books of 1823–1837.

7. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
Search Northern Irish will calendars, Valuation Revision Books, street directories, freeholders’ records, war memorials, names on the Ulster Covenant and photographs.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database locates graves and memorials dedicated to service personnel and civilians who died in both world wars.

9. The Gazette
The official journal of record has been scanned from 1665 to the present day, containing published lists of bankrupts, military personnel mentioned in despatches and probate notices.


10. Connected Histories
Hunt for ancestors who were clergymen, Londoners, transported convicts, witnesses at the Old Bailey and learn more about where they lived with the Victoria County History, Survey of London and Charles Booth Archive.

Five golden rules of family history

  1. Begin with known facts and work backwards – checking the validity of each new piece of information against an original record.
  2. Document your sources at each stage, whether that’s a person, or a piece of paper.
  3. Always keep a record, even if an avenue of research proves to be fruitless – it will stop you making the same mistake again at a later stage.
  4. Do your own research. Don’t assume that information supplied to you by another party is accurate, and always check the authenticity of information you find online.
  5. Take advantage of others’ expertise. When you hit a brick wall, solicit the help of professional organisations, family history societies, specialist publications such as Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, and forums like our own.