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Tracing your Family Tree - Part 1: Back to 1837

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An artist's impression of a family tree.
Tracing your Family Tree
Part 1: Back to 1837 | Part 2: 1837-1538
Over the course of the millennia, all these ancestors in your tree, generation upon generation, have come down to this moment in time – to give birth to you. There has never been, nor will ever be, another like you. You have been given a tremendous responsibility. You carry the hopes and dreams of all those who have gone before. Hopes and dreams for a better world. What will you do with your time on this Earth? How will you contribute to the ongoing story of humankind?
History remembers only the celebrated, genealogy remembers them all.
– Laurence Overmire (from lecture, The Quest for Your Ancestral Home)

Have you ever wondered who those ancestors were, where they came from, how they lived and what their hopes and dreams may have been? Have you ever wondered about those half-remembered family stories your grandparents told you, or considered that your grandchildren will have no knowledge of those grandparents you were so fond of, if there is no record of their lives. With a little effort, it is possible to ensure the memory of the people you came from lives on and to resurrect the memory of your ancestors going back to the time of the Industrial Revolution and with a little luck to the Tudor period.

Tracing your family tree is a fascinating, occasionally frustrating detective story across the centuries and a journey through the history of ordinary people that will take you to unexpected places and events, touch your being as you discover the hardships and struggles your forebears overcame and uncover your family saga.

Please note this Entry only covers tracing ancestors in England, Scotland and Wales and touches on Irish records. The extent, nature and availability of records varies tremendously from country to country so it would not be possible to cover all nations in one entry.

Getting Started - Ask the Family

You'll find there is a wealth of knowledge and stories in most families and often older relatives are really happy to be asked. Don't put off asking though; they won't be there forever, memories fade and records get lost or thrown away. Sadly it often happens that when granny dies, grandad's army record, great-grandparents' marriage certificates and sepia pictures of long-forgotten relatives are in the old shoe box that gets thrown into the skip with all the other 'junk'.

Family stories are often very interesting and can be very amusing or poignant - but they are oral histories which have grown and been embellished over the years, and often are as much myth as fact. Don't be surprised if the 'lost fortune' or 'huge estates' turn out to be a modest saving account that was gambled or drunk away or a smallholding that was sold in the depression; if the 'national hero' was no more or less brave than the thousands of others that went 'over the top', or that the 'royal' or 'aristocratic' 'love child' had a rather less high born but equally ignoble father and that the story was to cover up an event that was once regarded as shameful.

While these stories are great fun and usually contain a germ of truth, if you want to take your family history beyond half-remembered tales, you'll need some hard facts and that means official records. Ask around; you'll probably be surprised how much there is tucked away in old boxes and drawers. What you should look for are birth, marriage, and death certificates, identity cards, wills, military or work records and anything else that has the three key facts you'll need to access the most important resources available for genealogists - the Census and the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths.

The three facts you need for each person you are going to research are:

  • Their year or better still date of birth; don't rely on what people tell you - older people can be a bit vague about their age and it is not unusual for female relatives to have 'lost' a year or two - go to the records.

  • Their place of birth; a city, town or county will do, but a suburb or village is better and a proper address is ideal.

  • Their real name, that is the name that appears on official documents, which is not always the name people use. The spelling of surnames can change, people can use a new name after a family break up. Immigrants often anglicised their name and people with unusual names can alter them to make them more acceptable:

    Some of my distant relatives have the surname Hogsflesh which has retained the original spelling but is now pronounced Hoeflay.

    While it is fairly unusual for family names to change, it is much more common for people to use a forename other than their given name. People will often use a middle name or adopt another forename if they think the first name they were given is dated, unfashionable or does not fit their character. If two people in a close family have the same name, one may use a middle name, pet-name or nickname to avoid confusion:

    My father's given names were Cyril John, he did not like or use his first name, so after he joined the Navy his family called him Jack (as in Jack Tar), his shipmates gave him the nickname Harry (after a celebrity of the time with the same surname) and when he met my mother he told her his name was John - which is what most people called him.

    So check those records to make sure you're tracing the right person. If you can, note their middle name(s) or initial(s) as this will help you hone in on the right person.

The Census and the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths - Time to Go Online

Armed with names, dates and places of birth, you are ready to use the incredible resource provided by the records that central government has kept on all its citizens for more than 170 years. As these records can be seen or ordered online, you can trace your family back to the beginnings of Queen Victoria's reign from the comfort of your own home, without having to travel miles to dusty record centres or damp graveyards (that comes later).

Using the Census

The British Government has taken censuses in England, Scotland and Wales every ten years since 1841 (with the exception of 1941). The records are protected under the Hundred Years Rule which means that in order to protect personal data they are not made public for a century. The most recent publicly available census is that of 1911 - if your family records do not go back this far, you may want to read the next section so you can use the Register of Births and Marriages to get back to 1911. All census records from 1841 to 1911 are available online and can be viewed or downloaded online for a small fee. Most sites will find the record you are looking for if you enter the name and date and place of birth of the person you are looking for - the better the information you have, the more likely you are to get the right record rather than a selection of possible records.

All Irish censuses were taken every ten years between 1861 and 1911; unfortunately the 1861 and 1871 records were not retained and most of the 1881 and 1891 records were either pulped, or lost in a fire that occurred in the Dublin Record Office in 1922. No records were taken in 1921 because of the Irish Civil War. Separate censuses were taken in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State in 1926, but these and other later records have not yet been made public. The records for 1901 and 1911 are available on-line.

Coverage is not complete, especially in the earlier censuses - even in 2001 it is estimated 2% of the population was missed. In the earliest censuses, shift workers such as bakers and coal miners were often missed and as most people were illiterate, names were often mis-transcribed by census takers. Many women are missing from the 1911 census as the Women's Freedom League (a suffragette group) organised a boycott. Even so, the census records can give a wealth of information.

The 1841 census gives the name of each person in a household, their gender, their age (for people over 15 this is rounded down to the nearest five years), the occupation of the head of the household (although in 'households' like tenements and farms where there were several families, it is often just given for one man) and records whether people were born in that county (in some cases it also indicates if people were born in Ireland or overseas).

The 1851 census and those that followed are more useful because they also record marital status, the relationship of all the householders to the head of the house, the occupation of all householders, 'exact' age and place of birth (although at the time people could be a little vague about where and when they were born). Place of birth usually records the village or suburb rather than just a county. In the case of those born in Ireland or overseas, it is rather hit and miss as to whether the town/village, county/province, or just the country is recorded. Those people who are blind, deaf or dumb are also recorded.

The 1861 census also records people who are mentally handicapped or mentally ill using the rather crass terms 'imbecile, idiot, lunatic'.

Scottish Gaelic speakers are recorded from 1881, and Welsh speakers from 1891.

The 1901 census records the number of rooms in each household. In 1911, length of marriages, number of living children and numbers of children who have died are included (the latter can be distressingly high).

The census records are a fantastic, fascinating resource but they have two major drawbacks. Firstly the most recent available records are more than a hundred years old. Secondly the census does not give women's maiden names. In order to reach back to 1911 and to open up the maternal branches of your tree, you will need to access the other source of central records, the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths.

Using the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths

Statutory registration of births, marriages and deaths came into force in England and Wales in 1837, and in Scotland in 1855. In Ireland registration of non-Catholic marriages began in 1845 and all other records in 1864. Birth and marriage certificates are very useful resources but ordering them is costly. You need to research carefully before ordering to avoid paying for certificates that turn out to be for someone who just shared a name without being an ancestor. You may also want to restrict the certificates to those absolutely necessary to filling the gaps in your tree to keep cost down or join a genealogy site to take advantage of other people's research. Death certificates are less useful for building your tree and are harder to research, although they are of great interest if and when you research your family's social history.

What You Get for Your Money

Birth certificates include the following information:

  • Year of registration
  • Sub-district (the local registry office)
  • District (wider registration area)
  • County
  • When and where born: this gives the date of birth which is most useful for future research, can give the time, and gives the address which is also useful as prior to the Second World War most births occurred at home
  • Name: this is the child's given name(s). If not given at the time of registration, there is a space for adding it later. However, if the child was not named at the time of registration, only the surname and either boy or girl will appear as in the index of births
  • Sex
  • Name and surname of father
  • Name, surname and maiden surname of mother: this is most useful as it gives you access to the maternal line and makes finding marriage certificates easier
  • Occupation of father
  • Signature, description and residence of informant: this is usually the father but may be the mother, a friend or some other relative. If it is in the mother or father's hand, it is often rather moving to see this, although in the case of earlier certificates it is often just an X
  • When registered and the signature of the registrar

Marriage certificates include the following information:

  • Year of Wedding
  • Church and Parish
  • County
  • Names of Groom and Bride
  • Ages of Groom and Bride: very useful when searching for census records or birth certificates
  • Condition of Groom and Bride: this states whether they are a bachelor or widower, or a spinster or widow, or very rarely, divorced. This is important if theirs is a remarriage, which was quite common given that many people died young and raising a family took two people - if you are not careful you may end up following the family tree of a 'step-ancestor'
  • Rank or profession: Lets you know what they did for a living and very useful if you research your family's social history
  • Residence: where each of them was living immediately prior to the wedding. This was often their parental homes unless they were in service or working away from home
  • Fathers' names: This gives you the names of both the groom's and bride's fathers and takes you back a whole generation...
  • Fathers' professions: ... and tells you what they did
  • Signatures of Groom and Bride: this in itself makes getting a certificate worth while
  • Signatures of two witnesses: usually siblings, parents, or friends

How to Get Birth and Marriage Certificates

The information you need to get a certificate, how you get that information and how you order a certificate is different for England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland.

England and Wales

Indexes of the registries of births, marriages and deaths can be searched online for a small fee. You'll need the name, year/date of birth and place of birth for birth certificates. For marriage certificates you will need the groom's name and/or the bride's name - if you don't have the bride's maiden name, or date and place of marriage you may need to do some detective work or make some educated guesses. Children's birth certificates give the mother's maiden name. You can estimate a wedding year from the age of the oldest child bearing in mind there may have been an older brother or sister who did not survive and '6-month pregnancies' were surprisingly common in the case of first children. Most people didn't move far so there is a good chance they married in the area the first child was registered in.

Prior to 1984 the registers are broken down into quarters: Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec. If you have a date for the event, you can go straight to the right year and quarter; if not, you may have to search several quarters. Bear in mind births were not always registered straight away.

For each register for each quarter, the names of all people registered - child in the case of births, groom and bride separately in the case of marriages - are listed in alphabetical order, surname first followed by first name and middle name(s) or initial(s). In the case of the marriage index, this is followed by the surname of the spouse. In both the birth and the marriages indexes, names are followed by District - where the event was registered rather than where the event occurred. In the case of rural areas, this is likely to be the nearest market town; most towns, boroughs and urban districts have a registry office. Next come two vital pieces of information: Volume number and Page number. These indicate the page and volume of certificates for the district the certificate is stored in.

Before you proceed, you need to write down the following information: Year, Quarter, Surname, First name, Middle name or initials, District, Volume, Page number. Armed with this, all you need do is visit the General Register Office website, follow the links using the information you've gathered and order the certificate. At the time of writing, certificates cost £9.25 each including postage.


The Scottish Registry Office (now the National Records of Scotland) operates a one-stop service - visit ScotlandsPeople and follow the links. You can view birth records over 100 years old, marriage records over 75 years old and death records over 50 years old online. To get more recent records, you have to order an Official Extract (equivalent to a certificate) which costs £12.00. ScotlandsPeople also has a search service: for £7.00 they will search for a specific record over a five-year period - for example, the birth record of Angus McTavish born in Perth between 1870 and 1875.

Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

There are no online indexes for Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Unless you intend to go to Belfast or Dublin, you'll need to order a search. Go to GRONI or GRO Ireland. The Northern Ireland GRO charges £6.00 for a search for a specific record over a five-year period and £8.00 for a certificate. The Dublin office charges €2 for a specific search for a five-year period, €20 for a general search, and €10 for a certificate. Given that the office in the Republic is rather cheaper for searches, it is worth noting they hold records for all of Ireland prior to 1911. Irish records are far from complete and at least 15% of the population was missed in the 19th Century.

Family History Groups, Genealogy Sites and the IGI

All this may seem very daunting and potentially very time consuming and expensive, but in the words of the greatest book to come out of the publishing corporations of Ursa Minor - DON'T PANIC.

Firstly, this is a marathon not a sprint, an act of love to leave your family's story for future generations. So take your time and just do what your time and budget allows; there is no need to do this in a great rush. It is the work of a lifetime and the more time you take, the fewer mistakes you'll make.

Secondly, there is help at hand and others who share your interest. Family history groups and societies are run by local genealogists, usually on a voluntary basis, and they are generally based on a single county or city. If you live in or near the area your ancestors came from, it may be worthwhile approaching or even joining your local family history society. Other FHSs can be contacted online. They vary a lot; some have friendly, lively message boards and lots of useful free information like the splendid Sheffield Family History Society, while others are run on a more commercial basis or are less sophisticated. Some groups operate search services and will research local records for you for a fee, and most have online shops where you can order transcripts and CD-ROMs of local records, and books on the history and places in the area your ancestors lived in.

There are some excellent commercial genealogy sites that you can join - they are not cheap but give you free access to census records, birth marriage and death indexes, many (but far from all) parish records, military and works records and a vast array of other records and archives. They also have tools to allow you to build an online family tree and to order customised printed versions. The main advantage you gain from joining one of these sites is that they put you in touch with others researching branches of your family and automatically share information others have made public on their family trees that relate to your family:

On the site I use, I have found a photograph of my paternal grandfather as a child with his parents, his brother in his navy uniform and his 15 sisters - all in their Edwardian Sunday best; Great-uncle George's Navy record showing he served on the last British broadside battleship, then HMS Dreadnought, and was chief cook's mate on the royal yacht; Great Uncle Walter's First World War pension record which moved me to tears; records going back to the Tudor period and much useful information to expand my tree and find out about my ancestors' lives.

The International Genealogical Index is a free global family records search site run by the Mormon Church (who also run the Ancestry site) as part of a project to create a database of everybody who has ever lived and to baptise them! It can be useful but is notorious for some of the inaccuracies and absolute howlers it contains.

So a word of warning. Treat the data from IGI and hints you get on genealogy sites as clues that need to be researched and not as hard facts. Not all family history researchers are as meticulous, careful and scrupulous as they should be. For example:

One of my ancestors married a woman called Sara Bagshaw in a Derbyshire village in 1673; there are no local records for her birth which probably happened during the Civil Wars or Commonwealth period when no records were kept. Search for her on IGI and you get Maud Sarah Bagshaw who was born in Kent in 1869 - 200 miles away and 196 years after she got married! In spite of this obvious error, many people have transcribed it onto their trees. On the Ancestry site, there are eleven family trees which include my ancestor and Sara Bagshaw, including my own. Of these, nine include the Kentish time traveller - presumably she was one of Doctor Who's assistants.

If you've followed the steps so far, with a little luck you should have taken your family tree back to the early 19th Century, but that is not the end of the line. With a lot of luck and persistence you may be able to take some branches of your tree back through the Industrial Revolution and maybe as far as the Tudor period.

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