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Getting Started

A lot of people want to start their family history but are intimidated by the thought of having to search lots of records, or just don't know where to begin with their research. Here are a few tips to show you that it really isn't that complicated or troublesome, in fact, it can be very simple and good fun!

Click on a category below to expand.

Absolute beginnings

    • Start with yourself – write down when and where you were born and married and details about your children. Do the same for your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, until you can go no further back from memory.
    • Ask all your relatives. Older people will generally have a better idea than you of family connections. Unfortunately their memories and stories may not be entirely accurate so make sure you check the ‘facts’ they give you against records.
    • Gather all your old letters, documents, photographs and heirlooms to see what they can tell you about your family’s history.
    • Once you've exhausted the resources at home, draw up a simple family tree to record what information you have already discovered. It doesn't have to be perfect or comprehensive, but it's a start.

Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMDs)

    • Begin researching one ancestor or side of the family. Ideally choose somebody who lived an interesting life or about whom you already know something.
    • Set about finding out, or confirming, the date of birth of your chosen ancestor. If you know an approximate date, find their name in the birth registers. The website,, has links to sites offering transcriptions of UK BMDs and censuses. If they do not appear, move forwards and backwards five years through the indexes until you find them. Once you have a reference, you can order a certificate.
    •  A certificate should be able to tell you the exact dates and location of births, marriages and deaths and other details, such as occupations, ages and name of parents.


    • These are a detailed record of almost everybody in the country on census night and they will tell you who was at home on the night; their ages, occupations, marital status and place of birth.
    • They first census for which records survive is the one taken in 1841. They have been taken every ten years since and the latest available is 1901.
    • You can search the censuses online at various websites (the most popular is You can search the 1881 census for free at and parts of the others for free at
    • Many family history societies have produced indexes to their areas that can be accessed through searching or


Parish registers

    • These are registers of baptisms (christenings), marriages and burials at local parish churches. These can date back to 1538, but few survive from before 1600 and many are missing or incomplete. A duplicate set of records was also kept – these are known as Bishops’ Transcripts and are worth checking if the originals don’t exist.
    • They can tell you the date when an event took place, plus information such as ages, parents’ surnames, addresses. 
    • If you’re not sure of your ancestor’s local parish, the International Genealogical Index (lGl) has details of baptisms/christenings and some marriages (but no burials) from all over the British Isles (online at The National Burial Index (NBI) is available on the Federation of Family History Societies’ website ( CD Rom only. Neither is complete and there are errors — so you must always check the register itself

Top tips for starting out

    • The further you go back the more difficult it becomes, as the records either no longer exist or are harder to read.
    • Websites and indexes can be full of mistakes — all data taken from these sources must be checked with the original records whenever possible.
    • As you proceed with your research you will build up an incredible amount of paperwork You need to have some system which allows you to find what you want quickly and accurately, It doesn’t have to be a computer program, having a paper-based system may do just as well.
    • Divide up your research into manageable chunks. In general, simply decide which question you wish to answer, then work out the records that you will need to solve the problem.
    • Always work from known facts and move backwards. Never assume anything or make links without the appropriate evidence.
    • Records sometimes don't survive or become increasingly difficult to use. However, with a bit of luck you should be able to trace several lines back 250 years.
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Discover the genealogical goldmine that is the British Newspaper Archive ( with an online subscription. This recently launched digitisation project has four million pages of searchable family notices, advertisements, obituaries, letters and illustrations from over 200 historic local and national newspapers.

We have a one-year subscription (worth £79.95) to give away as well as two 30-day subscriptions (worth £29.95 each) and four 2-day subscriptions (worth £6.95 each). To be in with a chance of winning one, simply answer the following question. Send answers to or write to the usual address on page three, by the 15th March.

Q: Who invented the printing press in the Holy Roman Empire in 1440?