Getting started with family history can often feel overwhelming. Although record offices, archives, local studies libraries and museums are closed due to Coronavirus, there is still plenty you can do while social distancing.
Here are some top tips for how to get started on your family history…
Section 1 – Getting Started
Write down what you already know
Although it may feel like you don’t know a lot about your family history, you may be surprised what you have picked up. Also, sometimes knowing too much information about your family history can be as overwhelming as knowing nothing! It’s good to get everything you know down into writing. This stops you from forgetting potentially important information and helps you plan how you will tackle your family history research. Always start with yourself and work backwards when researching. You will probably know more about your immediate family in your own generation so this is a good place to start. Never jump a generation when researching to make your family tree fit.
Look at what you already have
If you have old photographs around the house that you haven’t looked at for years, these could potentially hold a wealth of information. There may be photographs of weddings with dates and locations written on the back, pictures of new born babies that help you work out approximate date of births for family members, and if your family were really organised, maybe the photos will even have names on them! You may also have some official documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates that can be a big help to your research.
Speak to your family
Many people are now spending more time than ever in their homes, this is a great time to call your family and ask them what they know. You may find out someone has already researched your family, or made a start that you can build on. It is also helpful to find out what your ‘family myths’ are, so that you can either confirm or debunk them through your research! You may even come across a ‘family bible’, where family members’ details have been written inside.
You could also ask your relatives if they would be happy to be recorded talking about their life over the phone. Having a recording can be helpful to refer back to, and you don’t have to worry about missing something while making notes. You can find out more about recording oral histories on the Oral History Society website here: https://www.ohs.org.uk/
Think about what resources you want to use
There are several different family history research websites out there. Some are free, some charge subscription fees, and some have the option to ‘pay per view’ their records.
Searching on free websites like www.freebmd.org.uk can be a good starting point, but you may find that there are some records you need that you cannot access on these free sites. Pay-to-view websites like Ancestry and FindMyPast offer free trial periods, so you can see if they hold the type of resources you are looking for. However if you’ve inputted your card details and decide that website isn’t for you, don’t forget to cancel at the end of your free trial! These sites automatically start charging you monthly when the free trial ends. The BBC family history guide has some great pointers on whether to pay for research websites.
Think about what organisations may be able to help you in the future
Local archives and museums often have a wealth of resources to help family historians. As they are currently closed, they may not be able to respond to enquiries, or give as full answers as they normally would do. Make a note of any organisations you may want to get in touch with in the future and what questions you would like to ask them. For example, if you were born and raised in Doncaster, but know that your grandfather was a miner who moved from Derbyshire, you may want to contact a local archive or museum in that area to see how they can help. Some archives have online catalogues that you can search to see if they have the records, you are looking for. You may also want to look for local history societies and groups for any towns/cities that your ancestors lived in, as they may be able to provide local specific knowledge to you.
Section 2 – Births, Marriages, Deaths
The registration of births, marriages and deaths, known as Civil Registration, started on 1st July 1837 in England and Wales. In Scotland registration started in 1855 and in Ireland 1864. Parents had 42 days to register births, marriages were registered immediately and deaths had to be registered in 5 days.
N.B: The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 made it a legal requirement from 1875 to register births and deaths. In 1927, stillbirths and adoptions were included.
All English and Welsh births, marriages and deaths are registered locally with copies being sent to the General Register Office (GRO).
Civil registration indexes
There is an index to the births, marriages and deaths that are held by the GRO initially in London, now held in Southport. Every record has a GRO index reference number, including the year, volume number, page number and district in which the event was registered. From 1837 to 1984 this information is divided into quarters as follows:
• March quarter – events registered in January, February and March
• June quarter – April, May and June
• September quarter – July, August and September
• December quarter – October, November and December
As registration started on 1st July 1837, the earliest index is for the September quarter 1837.
After 1984 the indexes are organized by year only. They are arranged in year order, and entries are listed alphabetically by surname, and then by forename.
TIP: be aware that if an event took place at the end of a quarter it may be registered in the following quarter e.g. a birth on 27th June could be registered in the Sept quarter (Jul, Aug, Sept).
Birth, Marriage and Death index records
The indexes include:
• Year and quarter the event was recorded in (top of page)
• First name
• Registration district
• Volume and page number of the General Register Office index
Below are some variations for the specific records…
Birth index records
• After September 1911, birth indexes include the mother’s maiden name.
• Adoptions records – these records start from 1927, and are listed alphabetically by surname and then by forename.
Marriage index records
• To search the marriage index, you can use either the surname of the married man or maiden surname of the married woman as each husband and wife are recorded in the indexes separately.
• From 1912 the spouse’s surname is recorded
Death index records
• After 1866, the age at death is listed, which helps to work out the person’s year of birth.
• Children who died under the age of one are listed as 0.
• TIP: The age shown may have been estimated by whoever reported the death, and may not have accurately known the person’s age.
• From 1969, the age at death is not on the index but the more accurate date of birth is. An age at death can then be calculated from this.
If you are looking at index records on research websites, you won’t see everything from the record, this will only be possible if you purchase a certificate for the event.
How to order a certificate
There are a number of ways to order certificates-online, by phone, postal & local registry office. Private companies also sell these certificates, but they are more expensive.
Online from the General Register Office – order a birth, marriage or death certificate from the Government’s official website.
By phone: 0300 123 1837 (Monday-Friday 8am – 8pm, Saturday 9am – 4pm)
By post: Certificate Services Section, General Register Office, PO Box 2, SOUTHPORT, PR8 2JD
For records in Scotland, contact the National Records of Scotland.
For records in Northern Ireland, contact the General Register Office for Northern Ireland.
N.B. during the Coronavirus lockdown the above services may not be available.
Full certificates will show the following details for births, marriages and deaths.
The birth certificate will tell you:
• names of the parents, including the mothers’ maiden name
• date of birth
• address of the birth
• father’s occupation
• date of registration
The marriage certificate will tell you:
• date and place of marriage
• full names, addresses and occupations of couple
• age (may say of full age)
• fathers’ names and occupations
• who performed the ceremony
The death certificate will tell you:
• their name
• date and place of death
• cause of death
• signature, description and residence of informant
• the date of registration
Section 3 – Census Records
What is a Census Return?
Census Returns are incredibly useful resources when tracing your family history as they record details of people, including children, present in every household on a specific date. They give the names, age, sex and occupation of individual members of the population for England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
Electronic images of these records can be searched online through various genealogical website, such as Find my Past and Ancestry, normally the sites are free to search at Doncaster Local Studies Library and all community libraries, but as all libraries are closed they can be accessed via the details below.
N.B. access is available via Doncaster Library service’s 24-hour online resources, during the Coronavirus lockdown.
Collecting census information started in 1801 and has taken place every ten years since. The purpose of census returns is not for family history although it is a fantastic family history resource. The census returns collect information to plan for future provision of resources and facilities, such as schools for the children recorded and care for the elderly. Census information is closed for 100 years and only statistical data is available. Due to this, the 1911 census is the last one you can see details of at present. However, there is a recently available resource that helps fill the gap and this is the 1939 Register (more information below). The last census return completed was taken in 2011.
N.B. The next census will be carried out in 2021.
Census Returns 1801-1831
The 1801, 1811, 1821, and 1831 census returns required a head count only and there was no requirement to write anything down or collect personal information. However, for some villages the enumerator* did write and keep some written information but few of these survive.
N.B. As many people were illiterate some of the census forms (known as schedules) were filled in by an enumerator, which was often the local vicar or schoolmaster. For this reason the early census returns, if they survive, are usually to be found in parish records.
1841 Census Returns onwards
From 1841, the census returns for England and Wales were compiled using the same system of registration districts and sub-districts that was used for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. This means that there is a direct link between the two most important 19th-century sources for family historians.
Each registrar’s sub-district was divided into a number of enumeration districts, each of which was the responsibility of an enumerator. The enumerator delivered a form known as a schedule to each household a few days before census night, and collected the completed schedules the day after. The schedules were then sorted, and the details copied into the census enumerators’ books. It is these books which have survived for 1841 to 1901 and which can be seen today online or on microform. The original householders’ schedules were later destroyed. The 1911 census was the first for which the schedules were kept. Special schedules were provided for vessels and institutions.
An important fact to remember with census records is that the information was taken on an exact date and was to record who was present in a house at midnight on that date. All members of the household would be recorded from young babies, to the eldest member and would include visitors, servants and lodgers. The dates for each census are listed below.
1841 — 6th June
1851— 30th March
1861 — 7th April
1871 — 2nd April
1881 — 3rd April
1891 — 5th April
1901 — 31st March
1911 — 2nd April
N.B. If family members were visiting other family households, they were sometimes recorded twice (where they normally lived or where they were visiting) or missed on both census forms assuming they were being recorded on the other household form.
The 1841 census was the first to ask detailed questions about individuals. The following information was recorded about each person:
• forename and surname
• age (exact age for those under 15 but rounded down to the nearest five for those aged 15 or over)
• occupation (this was often very generic)
• whether they were born in the county in which they were enumerated (Y or N)
• whether they were born in Scotland (S), Ireland (I) or Foreign Parts (F)
An address was also shown for each household, but house numbers were rarely given, and in rural areas, you will often find only the name of the village or hamlet.
In the 1851 census, the format was expanded and answers that are more precise were required. From 1851 to 1901 the format of the census returns and the range of questions asked remained largely the same. The following details can be found for each individual:
• forename, middle names (often just initials) and surname
• relationship to the head of the household (usually the oldest male)
• marital status
• age (at last birthday)
• occupation (their source of income)
• county and parish of birth (if born in England or Wales)
• country of birth (if born outside England and Wales)
• whether they suffered from certain medical disabilities
• language spoken (in Wales from 1891; on the Isle of Man from 1901)
The full address, including house number or name, is given, though in villages and rural areas this is limited to the street (no house numbers) or just the village name.
As well as the information provided in the previous censuses, the 1911 census supplies extra information and the returns completed by the householders themselves were kept for the first time. This allows researchers to see their ancestor’s handwriting as well as some extra information. The extra information/details included:
• a married woman’s ‘fertility in marriage’ – length of present marriage and children born to that marriage, the number still living and how many have died.
• detailed occupational data
Due to the 1921 Census Act this will not be released early, unlike the 1911 census. It will be released at the start of 2022.
TIP: When filling in a census form (the next will be 2021) photocopy the completed form and put with your family history documents.
The 1939 Register is a useful resource, which fills the gap caused by the loss of the 1931 census (a fire during WW2) and the lack of a 1941 census return (not taken due to the Second World War). The Register provides the most complete survey of the population between 1921-1951 in England and Wales. It was created for the purpose of war related schemes such as rationing, identity cards but was also instrumental in the early stages of the creation of the NHS.
The 1939 Register is accessible via the Find my Past website and lists 41 million lives recorded on one day, 29 September 1939. The Register records everyone but some of the entries are blocked out. Although created in 1939 the original entries were updated in 1991. This update was not to add new entries.
The original existing entries were checked and those for people born after 1915 but still alive (or their deaths not registered) in 1991 were blocked out for Data Protection reasons.
The information on the 1939 registers is as follows:
- Schedule number – household entry number
- Schedule sub number – each person in a household starting at 1
- Surname and other name (first name)
- O, V, S, P or I – Only used for institutions and refer to officer (not military), visitor, servant, patient or inmate. See example
- M or F – male or female
- Day – of birth being date and month e.g. 21 Feb
- Year – of birth e.g. 1910
- S M W or D – single, married, widowed or divorced
- Personal occupation
- ‘See instructions’ – often details of wartime role e.g. ARP warden
TIP: For more details, see The National Archives Guide to the 1939 Register
Census records (1841 to 1911)
The open census records are transcript books prepared by the enumerators after collection of household schedules from the head of every dwelling, institution and vessel. They are made available as index-linked digital images on the Scotlands People Centre and Local Family History Centres. The preliminary pages, which include a detailed description of the enumeration district, can be viewed by selecting the browse option.
The original household schedules were destroyed.
The 1901 and 1911 censuses are the only complete surviving census records for the pre-Independence period. Fragments survive for 1821 – 1851 for some counties. Both the 1901 and 1911 censuses cover the island of Ireland.
The 1901 census was taken on 31st March 1901. The 1911 census was taken on 2 April 1911. The census returns are searchable at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/
Section 4 – Military Family History
Military family history research
Many family history researchers will find some military connections in their tree. Most of the hints and tips in this article refer to researching British Army soldiers during the First World War, and is not an exhaustive list or resources. War time service will often have lots of family myths surrounding it, some of which you will find are not true, and some which are!
Ask your family members if there are any documents, photographs, or medals in the family. Things to look out for:
The Army is organised into regiments. These units are named (such as The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry or the East Yorkshire Regiment) and knowing what regiment the soldier served in is a key piece of information in a family history research journey. These may also be abbreviated on records, on the rim or back of a medal, and on the back of photographs. For example, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry is often referred to as KOYLI, Yorks LI, King’s Own YLI or Yorkshire Light Infantry.
Regimental service number
This number is an identifier for the soldier you are researching. However prior to the renumbering of the British Army after the First World War, the numbers were allocated on a regimental basis. This means that while Private Sydney Barker had the service number 10611 in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, there was also Private Bertram Arnold with the service number 10611 in the Scottish Rifles. Regimental numbers may also have prefixes of letters stating what branch of service a soldier was in, such as mechanical transport, or numbers that state what numbered battalion they were in. Within the KOYLI, lots of soldiers of the 12th battalion had their service number with a 12/ prefix.
Although the rank could have changed through a soldier’s service, many soldiers remained the same rank throughout their time with the army, particularly in war time.
If you have a photograph of a family member in a training camp in a particular location, eg ‘In training in Gainsborough, February 1915’, this can help you to create a timeline of their war time service. Always make a note of any relevant information.
Searching for records of wartime casualties
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website is a good first stop for searching for wartime casualties for the First and Second World War. There are over 1.5 million records on the CWGC website, so you need to make use of their search function. As well as basic searches by name and surname, you can also search by service number, regiment, date of death, and by ‘additional information’, which may include next of kin information.
TOP TIP: Some soldiers have no known grave, so they will be listed as being commemorated on a memorial. For soldiers with a known grave, there will be details of what cemetery they are buried in. Always make sure to check the headstone and grave registration records at the bottom of the CWGC record. These can sometimes hold really interesting information. For example, this CWGC document shows that Private Sydney Barker of the 2nd battalion KOYLI was previously unidentified, and how he was later identified.
Full service records do not exist for all soldiers. During the Second World War, an incendiary bomb hit the repository in which the First World War records were stored. As a result, only around 40% of full service records exist. These records often hold information about when and where a soldier served, medical history and personal information such as next of kin names, marriage details and names and dates of births of children.
Pension records can sometimes offer another angle to research. In 2012, the Western Front Association (WFA) stepped in to save a large collection of Pension Cards and Ledgers from being destroyed. These are available to members of the WFA through Ancestry’s Fold3 platform. These cards were ‘finding aids’ for staff of the Ministry of Pensions to access pension records. There is a limited run of full pension records within the National Archives collection, and are available to search on Ancestry. These represent around 2% of the records and were chosen to represent different types of disability pensions awarded. While the index cards are not as full as the pension records would have been, they still offer a good insight into what was awarded to soldiers and their families. Most importantly, the pension records hold both regimental information and personal information, so they can sometimes be the only place you can tie together your prior knowledge of a soldier such as his address or next of kin names, with a regimental number and other records such as medal records.
Image credit: Western Front Association
First World War Medal Index Cards and their corresponding Medal and Award Rolls are a really useful tool for research. As well as showing what medals a soldier was entitled to, medal records can sometimes hold other information. As well as basic information such as name, rank, service number, regiment and details of previous regiments, some Medal Index Cards show additional information like dates that soldiers joined the army, dates of death, and any issues with the medals. You can see from some medal index cards that medals were issued with spelling errors and later had to be replaced!
Prisoner of War records
The International Committee of the Red Cross have digitised their Prisoner of War index cards from the First World War and made these available free online here: www.grandeguerre.icrc.org/ These records include prisoners’ names, records of capture, transfers between camps and deaths in detention. PoW’s often have multiple records, so make sure you search every reference number on their main record.
War diaries, regimental histories
War diaries offer an interesting insight of the day to day activities of a battalion. Although the word diary suggests they are personal, they aren’t about particular people. They do sometimes contain references to individual people who have been killed in action, wounded, awarded a gallantry medal, or undertaken particular tasks. Generally however, this will only be for officers, and not for other ranks. Sometimes at the end of a month of the war diary, there will be special reports attached going into extra detail about particular events or actions that occurred in that month. How detailed the war diaries are depend entirely on the soldier responsible for writing them (the adjutant). War diaries can be downloaded from the National Archives website for a fee, accessed through Ancestry with certain subscriptions, or directly from some regimental museums.
There are lots of published histories for regiments, and sometimes specific units within them. For the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the whole history of the regiment is covered by multiple volumes of a regimental history, with a singular volume dedicated to the First World War. Some soldiers or their families later published personal recollections that can provide additional information to what is in official histories. They however may be biased by the author’s personal views.
Local libraries often have copies of historic newspapers within their collections. These could be physical copies of the papers, microfilmed copies to be viewed on specific microfilm machines, or digitised versions available through websites like BritishNewspaperArchive.com. These newspapers can provide biographical information that is missing from official records. For example, if a soldier was wounded and this was reported in the local press, the article may include information both about their wounding, and also about their life pre-war. Details can include what school they went to, where they worked and information about their family members. For some, there may also be photographs of the soldier printed with their story.
Military information can sometimes feature in local records. Church magazines sometimes reported on the fates of their congregation. Employment records sometimes list workers who signed up to the army and whether they returned to work at the end of their service. Thinking outside of the box can sometimes lead you to a rich source of information.