Where Do I Start? A Beginner’s Guide

Start with what you know.

By which I mean yourself. Take a new notebook, and write about yourself: when and where you were born, your parents’ names, where you went to school/college/university, where you have lived, what you do for a living, names of children, names of your partner.

Then do the same for your parents – and their parents (your grandparents)  and – if you have any information –  their parents (your great-grandparents). You’re already starting to build that family tree.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much:  my father didn’t know much about his own family, but that hasn’t stopped us getting back to the seventeenth century.

Talk to all your relatives.

Ask them about their lives, about their parents and grandparents. Write down everything they tell you, even if you think it’s just a story. The strangest stories sometimes have a grain of truth…

Ask them if they have any old certificates, family photographs etc, and whether you can have a copy.  You may even be lucky enough to see a family bible!

Draw up a draft family tree.

You can do this by hand – or there are plenty of free downloads and websites.  These are a few of the sites that have downloadable templates and lots of other useful free forms besides:





Remember the convention that the male line is always shown on the left (for landscape layouts) or above (for portrait layouts).

Decide which branch of the family to trace.

It could be your mother’s side or your father’s.  The choice is yours.  An unusual name is easier to trace, but is more likely to be mispelt.

If you get stuck on one line (this is known as a ‘brick wall’) you can always swap to another.

Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates

For events which took place after 1 July 1837.

Check the GRO Indices.

See the page ‘GRO Indices’ for more information.

Obtain copies of the relevant certificates.

You can buy these direct from the GRO at Southport, or from the local Superintendant Registrar’s Office.

GRO Southport:  www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content

Addresses of Local Register Offices:  www.ukbmd.org.uk/genuki/reg/regoff.html

Please remember that when ordering certificates from GRO Southport you should give the name (names if a marriage certificate), district, year and quarter, and the volume and page number (all of which you can find on sites such as www.freebmd.org.uk )

If you are ordering certificates from a Local Register Office, you do not need to give the volume and page number (these are for GRO use only). However, you may in that case need to give a little more information (such as a father’s name) in order for the LRO to identify which certificate is the one you are looking for.

Be very careful when buying certificates from any other source than the GRO/LRO.  Some websites which offer to obtain certificates for you charge up to three times the amount that the GRO charge.  Current costs should be no more than £10.00 (plus postage)

See my page ‘Birth, Marriage, Death’ if you can’t find a certificate.

Census Returns

Check census returns for the dates closest to those you have found on certificates.  These will – hopefully – reveal other members of the family.  Then check all available census returns for each name you have found so far.  Remember to make a full note of the census reference!

See my page ‘Census Returns’ for more information about the census.

Extend Your Tree

Use the information gathered from census returns to obtain BMD certificates for other members of the family.

Parish Registers

For events that took place before 1 July 1837.  I’ll add a page about Parish Registers later.

Quite a lot of parish registers have been transcribed and the information can be viewed online for free. The following free sites are  good places to start:




Please remember that none of these sites give 100% coverage.

Remember that people continued to use churches for baptisms, marriages and burials after 1837:  but there is no central index for parish registers, so information about your ancestors will not be as easy to track down.

Use Archives

Local (and national) archives and record offices are full of information that can help you, such as trade directories or electoral and burgess rolls.

It’s always worth checking the website for the archive/record office for the area in which your family lived.  Many of them have on-line tutorials, name indices and maps.

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