How to start a family tree

Who Do You Think You Are? family history expert Laura Berry shares her tips on how to start a family tree

How to start a family tree

Do you want to start your family tree? We’ve invited Laura Berry, the lead genealogist on the Who Do You Think You Are? TV 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.


How to start a family tree: First steps

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 old 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 family history websites 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 family history software packages designed to input your ancestors’ details and build trees including Legacy, Family Tree Maker and Family Historian. Many family history websites offer similar services. At Who Do You Think You Are? 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.

How to start a family tree: Birth, marriage and death certificates

Once you’ve started a family tree with the family members you know, you can search for their birth, marriage and death records via the General Register Office (GRO) website for England and Wales and the ScotlandsPeople website for Scotland.

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. The new indexes on the GRO website however now include mother’s maiden name all the way back to 1837 and some subscription websites, such as Findmypast, 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. Full certificates for England and Wales cost £11 each, although you can order some birth (1837-1920) and death (1837-1957) records in a PDF format for just £7 each. Scottish records can be ordered digitally using credits on ScotlandsPeople.

How to find birth records
Birth, marriage and death certificates for England and Wales can be ordered via the GRO website

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. Death certificates will also detail the cause of death which might be of interest.

Birth, marriage and death certificates also provide home addresses, which might help to locate your family in other records like electoral registers.

Civil birth, marriage and death records for Scotland are available from ScotlandsPeople and are generally more informative than those for England and Wales. If you are researching family from Scotland, then take a look at our guide to Scottish records. Records for Northern Ireland are available from the General Register Office (Northern Ireland) and in some cases on Irish Genealogy.

How to start a family tree: Census records

Scottish ancestry A 1901 Scottish census record from ScotlandsPeople
A 1901 Scottish census record from ScotlandsPeople

The next major tool for starting a family tree is census records. A census of the UK’s population is carried out every ten years and census records from 1841 to 1911 are available online from all the major genealogy websites as well as FamilySearch (although Scottish census records with images are only available from the ScotlandsPeople website). They are an essential tool for family historians because they record families at home, giving details of both relationships and occupations. Often the census is the only record that will tell you how your ancestors earned their keep.

Once you know when and where your ancestor was born, you can search for people with a matching name and date and place of birth to see where they were living every ten years. Alternatively, you can try to build backwards from census records to find your ancestor’s birth record. You can discover more about the best places to search for your family on the census as well as what information was provided in each decade in our guide to census records.

How to start a family tree: Next steps

Once you’ve got started on your family tree, don’t miss our guides to more advanced records you can use to find out more about your ancestors’ lives: