100 Top Tips
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Talk whenever possible to older members of the family about their memories of growing up and the relations who have passed on. They can provide information that you can't obtain from many other sources. But remember that memories can deceive.
Let everybody known you are researching your family tree. Ask to borrow family papers and heirlooms from relations. Naturally they may be unwilling to loan precious items – offer to scan, photograph or photocopy them.
Dealing with documents
Find family papers
Sort out all the family papers, photographs and heirlooms you haveand can get your hands on. Some might seem unimportant, but you never know what may provide a clue further down the line.
Take care of documents
Look after your family papers. Store them in a dry room well away from sunlight or water pipes.
Photocopy any documents you are going to refer to again and again, to prevent damage to the originals.
Don't use acidic plastics
Do not use sticky tape to repair torn documents (or cheap plastic folders to store them). Doing so will cause irreparable damage.
Label and date any photograph you take and try to do the same for older family shots you come across. This will make it easier for your descendants to identify the family.
Visit local archives
Every English county (and many in Wales) has a record office, with local parish registers, Poor Law documents, and records of local businesses, landed estates and societies (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archon or www.familyhistoryonline.net/database/index.shtml).
Share your research
Submit your family history to an online database. There are several pay-per-view databases available, but check first to see if the data they are offering is available for free somewhere else.
Choose unusual surnames
It is always easier to research people with unusual surnames.
If the trail goes cold try all the spelling variations you can think of. They may have been misspelt or your ancestor may have adopted a different variant of their name.
Be careful with indexes
Large registers often have indexes to names and subjects at the beginning or end of the volume. Remember that entries may be by initial letter only, not in strict surname order. Don't give up at the first likely entry: your ancestor may appear further on.
Vary your sources
If you are having trouble pinning down when an event took place, other sources could hold the answer. Try monumental inscriptions (MIs), cemetery records, family bibles, newspapers and service records.
Some ancestors just don't want to be found. Don't waste your time fruitlessly looking for one person, move on to another member of the family.
Share with peers
Join a family history society for regular meetings and the chance to talk through your problems with fellow enthusiasts. Many publish newsletters and indexes to records not available elsewhere (www.genuki.org.uk or www.ffhs.org.uk).
Go back to school
Sign up for a family history class run by the local adult education centre or Workers Educational Association (WEA) branch.
Ask the experts
The Society of Genealogists (SoG) holds the largest collection of parish registers and indexes. Its library also has a huge number of other resources to help family historians (www.sog.org.uk).
Buy Family History Monthly every month! The articles, reader Help and ten pages of Expert Advice every month, may provide the answer you are looking for.
Ask other researchers for help. Always send an SAE with any request for information. Overseas enquiries should be accompanied by two International Reply Coupons.
Go to The National Archives (TNA)
The National Archives (TNA), formerly the Public Record Office, is the leading archive in the country, housing millions of public records. If you have ancestors who served in the forces, were born or died overseas, were criminals or ended up transported, you'll need to visit Kew.
Check the TNA catalogue
Records housed at TNA can be found at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
Take a tour
On your first visit to an archive ask to take an orientation tour as this will explain how to make the best use of your time.
Bring a pencil
Take pencils, a notebook and any notes you may have. Pens, pencil sharpeners and erasers are frowned upon, so leave them at home.
Call in advance to make sure that they have what you are looking for.
Order in advance
If you know the references, you should be able order the documents you wish to see in advance (by phone or email) so that they will be ready when you arrive.
Don't be afraid to use microfilm
At TNA you can look at sets of Parliamentary Papers and The Times from 1785 with indexes on microfilm. TNA also has a set of registers to births, marriages and deaths on microfilm.
Ask the Mormons
Family History Centres, maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) are dotted all over the UK. At these you can order copies of any sources stored in the Family History Library in Utah. You do not have to be a church member (www.lds.org.uk).
Plan your visit
Make the most of precious time at the record centre and have a short, achievable list of specific goals – facts to check, sources to view.
Many archives produce leaflets (printed and digital) about their sources and how to use them.
Check the detailed indexes and guides to holdings in local record offices. You may uncover a reference to an ancestor or the place they lived.
Don't just look at the census
TNA have copies of non-conformist parish registers and PCC wills and some inventories.
Don't be afraid to ask
Ask the staff in the reading room for guidance if you have a query. It may be a common problem.
Check the 'strays' index
If an ancestor disappears, try looking for them in a 'strays' index. A 'stray' is an event (such as a baptism or an entry in the census) that takes place outside the county or area where the person usually lived or was born. Many family history societies have compiled such indexes.
Don't forget some identification, including something that shows your home address. You may need this to obtain a reader's ticket.
If you can't visit...
Ask for help - 'look ups' are often offered by some record offices and family history societies. However they will need a minimum amount of information for an individual – name, approximate birth date, etc.
Read old newspapers
Local studies libraries often have collections of indexed newspaper clippings, which can be a good place to start.
Bring plenty of change for the photocopier and for cups of tea!
Get out there!
A computer is a useful tool, but it is still perfectly possible to compile your family tree without one. Nothing beats handling original documents!
Make a full record
Note down as much as possible – there's nothing more annoying than realising you had the answer in your hands but failed to realise its importance.
Watch your handwriting – it's easy to let slip when making lots of notes and you'll find you can't read them when you get home.
Record the unique reference of each archival item. It is important to take down this information in case you need to see the document again.
When using books...
Note down the title, author, publisher, page number, publication date and, if the book is borrowed, where it came from.
Keep paper notes
Print out website information or write down the URL, date, and if applicable, contact names and email addresses.
Find civil registration indexes
After 1837 it was a legal requirement in England and Wales to register births, marriages and deaths. They are indexed alphabetically for each quarter of each year from 1837 to date. Microfilm copies of the registers are widely available at large reference libraries. They can also be found at www.findmypast.com or www.freebmd.org.uk.
Order all certificates
When you know the relevant reference numbers (from indexes), order the certificates direct from the GRO in Southport. Certificates contain lots of information that you won't find anywhere else.
Use Bishop's Transcripts
Look out for bishop's transcripts (BTs) – duplicates of parish registers, which may survive even if the original register has been destroyed.
Know what parish registers are available
Many family history societies have transcribed and indexed local parish records, while others are available at record offices and the Society of Genealogists. To find out what is available consult The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers.
Check the LDS records
The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) has transcribed many parish records in the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and the more recent British Isles Vital Records Index. The IGI is available free online, or on CD Rom and microfiche. These indexes are very useful, but riddled with errors (www.familysearch.org).
Read the census
A census has been taken every 10 years since 1801. They are available between 1841 and 1901. Earlier ones have largely been destroyed, while more recent censuses have yet to be released for public record.
Take care with the census
The 1841 census is less informative than later ones and harder to read. From 1851 extra information is given – relationship to head of household, whether married or single, actual age and place and county of birth. About 10 per cent of the 1861 census is missing.
Go to the cemeteries in which your relatives are buried. Inscriptions on graves can sometimes hold information not recorded elsewhere.
Use parish registers
A birthplace in the census should lead you to a parish register.
Follow the female line
It's much easier to find out about male ancestors, particularly heads of households, than their wives and daughters. Get back issue 148 (October 2007) for more information on tracing your distaff (female lines).
Use wills and probate documents
Until the Second World War only about 10 per cent of people left a will. Where one exists it can provide a unique insight into an individual's possessions and how he saw his family and friends. Before the 1880s very few women made a will as their possessions passed automatically to the husband on marriage.
Find underused sources
Never underestimate the value of lesser-used sources. There are many different types of records and indexes. Articles in Family History Monthly, books or websites can provide clues about where to look. Try our article ‘Buried Treasure’ in issue 135. Or read Steve Thomas' column 'What's up Doc?' on using obscure sources every month.
Go back before civil registration
Before 1837, you will need to look at parish registers. These can be found in local record offices and they officially started in 1538 but few survive before 1604.
My ancestor was...?
An Agricultural Labourer
Before the 20th century most men were employed as labourers of one kind or another, while women were servants or farm workers. As few records were kept, it is difficult to find out much about their working lives as individuals so try and find out more general information from books about the period of their working lives
Trade and street directories can be found in most local archives. They should mention heads of households and their occupations and can be useful for tracking down where people lived.
A working man
You may be able to discover more about ancestors' occupations from records at The National Archives and elsewhere, and many occupational indexes (both printed and online) do exist.
In the armed services
Before researching a military career you need to know which service, whether he was a rating/other rank or officer, approximate dates of service and his unit or ship.
In the army or navy
Army and Navy service records for both the Army and Navy (up to about 1920) are held at The National Archives. TNA also has other records that will flesh out a man's military career even if his service record is still closed.
For a fee of £25 the Ministry of Defence will search more recent service records. Write to MOD CS(RM)2, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1RF.
A medal winner
If your ancestor received any kind of medal, it should be recorded in the medal rolls at TNA.
Poll books and electoral rolls contain lists of who could vote in elections. They are often found in large libraries and record offices, but remember that before 1928 not everybody could vote.
Use library computers
If you don't have your own computer you can still use the internet for research. Most towns have a local studies library with collections of newspapers and photographs and other material about the area. They almost all provide computer terminals with access to the internet which can be used free or for a nominal amount (www.familia.org.uk).
Check catalogues online
Many archive's catalogues are available online that can help you plan your trip (www.a2a.org.uk).
Search the census online
Online versions of census records are gradually appearing. At present between 1901 and 1841 are available on the net (www.ancestry.co.uk, www.findmypast.com, www.familysearch.org, www.1901census.nationalarchives.gov.uk, www.thegenealogist.co.uk).
Recognise the limitations of online sources. Even established online indexes may contain errors. Use them as a guide and always check the original.
Use our top website
Check our list of the 150 top websites - one of them will help you to move futher on with your research!
Start your Scottish research
Three major sources are available for Scots research: civil registration from 1855, censuses between 1841 and 1901, and old parish registers that begin in the 16th century.
Use Scottish indexes
Indexes to Scottish events are available at the General Register Office for Scotland. A fully searchable and comprehensive index of Scottish records from the 16th century is online (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk).
Early Scottish research
Wills, deeds, valuation rolls and pre-1855 baptismal records of churches other than the Church of Scotland are with the National Archives of Scotland (www.nas.gov.uk).
Start Irish research
Irish research can be tricky because so much was destroyed in a disastrous fire in 1922. In addition there are few parish records before the 19th century.
Look at Irish censuses
The 1901 and 1911 censuses for all of Ireland (and much more beside) are available at the National Archives in Dublin (www.nationalarchives.ie). The Six Counties are covered by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast (www.proni.gov.uk).
Irish civil registration
Civil registration in Ireland began in 1864 (with Protestant marriages in 1845). For details visit www.groireland.ie and for the north (from 1922) www.groni.gov.uk/index.htm
Irish web advice
The Irish Origins website includes searchable databases of census data, Griffith's Valuation, ships' passenger lists and convict records www.irishorigins.com.
Use a glossary
Learn common abbreviations
Ag Lab Agricultural Labourer
BL British Library
BT Bishop's Transcript
CEB Census Enumerators' Books (in which census data was recorded)
CRO County Record Office
FFHS Federation of Family History Societies
FHS Family History Society
FHM Family History Monthly
FWK Frame Work Knitter
GOONS Guild of One-Name Studies
GRO General Register Office
GROS General Register Office of Scotland
IGI International Genealogical Index
IHGS Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies
IWM Imperial War Museum
Kew The National Archives
MI Monumental Inscriptions
NAI National Archives of Ireland
NAS National Archives of Scotland
ONS Office for National Statistics
PCC Prerogative Court of Canterbury
PRO Public Record Office
PRONI Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
SOG Society of Genealogists
TNA The National Archives
ADM Admiralty (ie Royal Navy)
AIR Air Ministry (ie Royal Air Force)
BT Board of Trade (including merchant seamen and emigrants)
CO Colonial Office
FO Foreign Office
HO Home Office (including much about crime)
RG Registrar General (including census and pre-1837 non-conformist registers)
WO War Office (ie army records)
Using books and CD Roms
Our favourite books
Get hold of a copy of these essential reference guides:
Dictionary of National Biography, which lists of thousands of famous and not so famous Britons
Phillimore's Atlas and Index of Parish Registers - a comprehensive guide to parish registers and their location
Burke's or Debrett's Peerage - listing the aristocracy and their antecedents
Directories to the professions, such as Crockford's Clerical Directory, The Imperial Calendar and the Army and Navy Lists
And any books of old photographs.
Useful CD Roms
These are very useful:
Who Was Who, 1897–1980 (also available in book form)
Palmer's Index to the Times,1790–1905;1906–1980
Soldiers Died in the Great War
Army Roll of Honour 1939–1945
Passenger and immigration lists to North America and the Caribbean, 1607–c1800
Win British Newspaper Archive Subscriptions
Discover the genealogical goldmine that is the British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) 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 email@example.com 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?