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Part 1: Back to 1837 | Part 2: 1837-1538
In Part One we looked at tracing your ancestry using the records kept by central government since 1837. Prior to this, records of births, marriages and deaths – or rather baptisms, banns, marriages and burials – were kept by local parish churches. In this Entry, we look at the origins of parish records, where they can be found, and how to use them.
In 1538 King Henry VIII commanded that all parish clergy in England and Wales should keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. Take-up was slow, many parishes did not start until the 1550s, and none were kept during the brief reign of Henry's Catholic daughter Mary I (1553-8).
As early records were often kept on cheap paper which deteriorated and, as only one copy of each registry was kept, many were lost. To rectify this Queen Elizabeth I ordered that from 1598 all registers were to be written on parchment or velum in 'great decent books of parchment' – surviving earlier registers were transcribed onto these more durable media – and that a second copy of each register was to be kept by the bishop.
The high number of non-conformists and remote parishes in Wales meant that records were not kept in many areas and few Welsh records predate 1660.
Mary Queen of Scots followed the Tudor lead in 1552 and ordered that parish records should be kept. High numbers of Catholics and non-conformists, remote parishes and political turmoil meant record-keeping was very patchy in Scotland and some remote parishes in the Highlands and Islands did not start registers until the 19th Century.
In Ireland there was no legal compulsion to keep parish records, although many Catholic and all Church of Ireland parishes did. Catholic records were often in the form of a notebook kept by the parish priest. These records were generally regarded as the property of the priest rather than the parish or the Church and were often lost when a priest moved to a new parish or died. Few surviving Catholic parish records predate 1800 and most don't start until the 1820s or 1830s. Although the majority of people did not belong to the Anglican Church of Ireland, it was regarded as the established church by the British state and acted as an agent of that state. This means that many pre-1800 Church of Ireland registers also include records of Catholics and non-conformists. The Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869 and it was decided that all pre-1845 birth and marriage records and all pre-1871 death records would be lodged in the Irish General Records Office in Dublin. About two-thirds of parishes complied and almost all of those registers were lost when the Records Office burnt down in 1922 during fighting in the Irish Civil War.
As with tracing your family back to 1837 using the central records, the first step in taking your family further back using parish records is to gather all the necessary evidence on each of those ancestors you wish to research. The key pieces of information you will need for each person are their full name and year and place of birth. The main source of this data will be the birth and marriage certificates and census records that you used during your earlier research. It is worth noting that the 1851 census, which gives a fairly accurate year and place of birth for each person, is more useful than the 1841 census, where ages are rounded down to the nearest five years and place of birth is limited to whether that person was born in the census county or not, although it will be necessary to use the latter for individuals who do not appear on later records.
With the exception of Scotland, parish records are not held centrally and in order to progress it will be necessary to locate the relevant records.
Where to Find Parish Records
England and Wales
All surviving English parish records are kept in County or Metropolitan Record Centres either as transcriptions (written or printed copies of the original records) or images of the original on microfiche (postcard-size sheets of microfilm that have to be viewed on a microfiche reader).
Church of Wales records are held either at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth or in County Record Offices. Welsh non-conformist records are held in both the National Library of Wales and the National Archive at Kew.
It is possible to visit Records Centres, the National Library of Wales and the National Archive; they are all free although you may have to pay for car parking and a small amount for a locker for items like coats and bags that are not allowed in the reading rooms. In some cases you may need to take identification in order to get a reader/library card. It is a good idea to take a notebook and pencils for note-taking, pens are not allowed (in order to protect original documents). The staff are generally friendly and helpful and well used to guiding people through parish records. Check online before going to ensure the information you want is available. Check opening hours and any relevant rules and restrictions.
A few English and Welsh parish records are available free-to-view online. A lot more (but far from all) can be viewed either as transcriptions or images of the original on genealogy sites if you are a member. Records for some counties and parishes can be purchased as CD-ROMs or as transcriptions from family history societies or independent genealogists. A few record centres sell microfiche copies – you'll need access to a reader to use these so it is best to get the microfiche from distant counties or cities and read it at your local County or Metropolitan Record Centre. Many County Records Centres and Family History Societies will carry out searches for you and send you records for a fee. The Library of Wales does not have a search service but its website lists independent researchers you can contact to search for you.
The best strategy is to start with an online search to locate records. Try searching for the name of relevant parishes, towns and counties + 'parish records' and see what comes up. If you are lucky you may find free-to-view records. If not you will have to decide whether to join a genealogical site, visit record centres, pay for a search or order-in transcripts, CD-ROMs or microfiche records.
If you order-in material or pay for a search in the hope your family stayed in one parish over a long period of time, bear in mind that there were large movements of people in the 18th Century and that men often married outside of the parish of their birth. This means that you may have to order-in further records or pay for searches of neighbouring parishes in the hope that your family relocated or married nearby – this route can be expensive and very frustrating although it is more useful for periods prior to 1700 when people were rather more settled than during the great social changes of the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
Record Centres and genealogy sites both have the advantage that large numbers of records are in one place and if your ancestors moved to or married in a neighbouring parish those records will generally be available. Record Centres have the advantages that expert staff are on hand and there is the chance to see original records and documents, while genealogy sites offer access to other researchers and their family trees which may link into yours, and the better ones offer tools and advice to help you build your tree. Which route you choose may be dictated by time and cost – if your family have always lived in the same county or city as you and the record centre is within easy reach then that is the obvious route. If you live outside the UK or your family originated in a distant part of the country or was widely scattered, a genealogy site may be the best option. Given sufficient money and time (don't forget this is a long term project) a combination of all these resources will give the best results.
Finding Scottish records is far more straightforward as all surviving Protestant Parish Records of births, christenings, banns, marriages, deaths and burials from 1552 to 1854 (when central records began), Catholic Registers of births and baptisms from 1703 to 1854, and Wills and Testaments from 1672 to 1901 have been digitised and indexed by the Scottish Government and are available at the ScotlandsPeople website, just follow the links.
Finding Irish records is difficult as they are sparse and there is no central database. Most surviving Catholic records can be viewed on microfilm in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin; a list of the parish registers held there can be viewed at their website. Only about one third of Church of Ireland registers survive. Some are held by local parishes, others can be viewed on microfilm on the National Archives of Ireland (lists of those registers available can be seen on their website), or as transcripts at the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin (lists of those registers available can be seen on the website).
Methodist records are held by local churches – listed on the Methodist Church in Ireland website.
With the exception of the Irish Jewish Genealogical Society, none of these sources provide online access to records or search services.
The Public Records Office Northern Ireland in Belfast holds microfilm records of most of the surviving Church of Ireland, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Moravian, Congregational and Baptist parish records for Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan. These records can be viewed in the Records Office in Belfast. PRONI also offers a search service for £15.50 per specific search (for example for a single specified birth or marriage record); they do not carry out speculative searches, but list on their website approved independent genealogical researchers, operating in PRONI, who can carry out more wide ranging searches for a fee. The sources listed for Jewish records in the Irish Republic operate on an all-Ireland basis and so hold records for Northern Ireland as well.
Given the dearth of records in both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, any search for Irish ancestors must start by establishing whether the relevant records exist by visiting the websites listed above. Fortunately growing numbers of Irish records are starting to come online on genealogy sites and having established that the records you are seeking exist, this may be the best route to follow.
The IGI and Other Researchers' Trees
The International Genealogical Index (IGI) is a free-to-use searchable database of parish and other family records run by the Mormon Church (as part of a project to baptise everybody who has ever lived into that Church). It can be accessed through familysearch.org. While it is easy to use, the records are very patchy and often incorrect. Many genealogy sites can link your family trees into those of related researchers. These sources need to be treated with a great deal of caution as not all researchers, or contributors to the IGI, are as scrupulous as they should be. Any information gleaned from these sources should be used as clues requiring further confirmation and not as hard evidence.
What to Expect
Parish records are less informative and harder to interpret and to follow than census records or the Registries of Births, Marriages and Deaths; the best are those post-1812 which were written into specially printed books. During this period baptism records included the mother's maiden name and father's occupation. Marriage records included the ages of the bride and groom, their parishes of origin, pre-marital status (bachelor, spinster, widow, widower) and the signatures or marks of the bride, groom and two witnesses.
Pre-1812 registers vary greatly and rarely include as much information as later records. At best, baptism records may include one or two of the following – a date of birth (usually between a few days and a few months before the baptism, occasionally several years before), a street address, the father's occupation and the mother's forename. Marriage records may include pre-marital status (this identifies those who were previously married and widowed) and the parish of origin of bride and groom (although this is often incorrect).
Parish records were hand written and the legibility and amount of information is highly variable. As a general rule the smaller the parish and older the register, the worse the writing will be, the briefer the entry, and the greater the chance that that vital record will be illegible or lost under a tear, ink blot, patch of mould or mouse dropping.
Spelling can be idiosyncratic, especially in rural parishes where curates were often barely literate and struggled to understand strong regional dialects and dense rustic burrs. While it is easy to interpret misspelt forenames – such as Henery – the spelling of surnames can vary greatly and change from generation to generation. An example of this can be found in the Surrey parish records where the same family's name has been written as Wells, Walls, Wales, Wall, Waller and Wallace.
Forenames are often abbreviated, commoner ones being Wm (William), Geo (George) and Jas (James) and some forenames were interchangeable for example Anne, Anna, Hannah and Susanna, and Elizabeth, Bess, Beth and Betty. This means that some entries can be quite puzzling and take a little time to work out. For instance the shortest entry deciphered by this researcher for a family tree was 'edm s. edw' (Edmund son of Edward).
Earlier records are often Latinized – the commonest words being nat (born), fil (son), and vid (widow). Longer Latin phrases are often abbreviated and frequently misspelled and in these cases help is often on hand from more experienced researchers on the message boards of genealogy and family history society web sites. Forenames are also Latinized and the spelling can vary, so John can be written as Johan or Joh'is, James as Jacobi or Jacobus, Robert as Robertus or Robti.
How to Progress
Once you have access to the relevant parish records it is time to begin using the names, year of birth and parish of birth data gathered from the early central records. As following parish records is a long complex process it is important that you note this and any further data you gather in a clear systematic manner. You might use an A4 notebook (which you can take with you to record centres) clearly listing each generation with year and place of birth for each individual plus any other useful clues like their profession, and plenty of space under each entry for notes. It is useful to number each person to prevent confusion – so a paternal great-great-great grandfather might be 1, his wife is 2, his father 1.1, his mother 1.2 and his grandparents 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.2.1, and 1.2.2 et cetera – this may seem complicated but it makes following your family tree much easier as it grows and (hopefully) includes hundreds of individuals. Where a branch of a tree comes to an end and there is no way of taking it further, clearly mark this as a dead end so you don't return to it and waste time on unproductive research. Also note where it is not possible to progress the research without widening the search or gathering further records elsewhere. You can always return to that branch of the tree later as time and resources allow.
Go to the baptism records for the parish and year the census gives for the person you are researching and search down the list of names for your ancestor – the number of entries for each year can vary from less than ten in a small village church to more than 200 in a crowded inner-London parish. If you do not find your ancestor in that year do not despair. People were often very vague about their age so search a few years either side of their given birth year and you should find them. Unfortunately people could also be vague about their place of birth and if the family moved while they were still an infant, the place they gave is often wrong. If you do not find a baptism record in the given parish, sadly their birth and their ancestors are lost in the mists of time and you have reached the end of that branch of your tree.
Once you locate a baptism record, note the father's name, mother's married name and any other useful information given in the record. Then using those names search back a year at a time for the baptism records of any older children born to those parents and search forward for younger children. Note the names and birth years of your ancestors' siblings and include them in your family tree. This may allow you to link in with family trees of any of the descendants of your ancestors' brothers and sisters who are researching their families – some genealogical sites will do this automatically – giving you useful information and contacts for your research.
Given that children came along regularly every year or two it is possible, using the baptism year of the oldest child, to infer the marriage year of the parents – usually between a few months and two years before the baptism of that child. Using this and the parents' names begin searching the marriage records starting with that parish. Do not be surprised if you do not find the record in that register. Then, as now, weddings were the responsibility of the bride's family and took place in their parish church. Villages were usually much smaller than now and men often found their brides in neighbouring parishes or the local market town, rather than marry one of the small number of village girls they had grown up with (this may be due to evolutionary mechanisms and social conventions that developed to prevent inbreeding). In London and other large cities, parishes were tightly packed together so men often met brides from neighbouring areas. In towns served by a single central church, or small cities where records were kept centrally in the cathedral, births and marriages are more likely to be found in the same register.
If you do not find the marriage record in the parish a couple's children were baptised in then searching the registers of neighbouring parishes is often fruitful. Records centres hold maps showing the location of parishes and parish maps can be found online – try use a map dating from a similar period as the records you are searching for, as many parishes have changed, divided or even disappeared over the years. Use these maps to identify the parishes neighbouring the community your ancestors lived in and search for the marriage record in those registers. As a rule, limit the search to parishes within a 10 or 12 mile radius as people would rarely travel further than any place they could walk to, carry out their business and walk back home from during daylight hours. Even if you think you have found the record you are looking for, search all the parishes in that area to ensure you have the right wedding. If you do not find the record you are looking for then you cannot follow the female line any further, although you may be able to continue on the male line.
Once you have located the correct marriage record, note the year of the marriage, any other useful information (father's names, groom's occupation etc) and the bride's maiden name which you will need to research her branch of your tree. Armed with this information the next step is to search for the baptism records of the bride and groom. As parish records do not yield as much useful information as the census or other later centrally-held registers, it is likely you will have to infer the years and places of birth you are now searching for. It is likely a man was born in the parish his children were baptised in and a woman was born in the parish that she married in. As a general rule during the period covered in this entry, men and women married in their early- to mid-twenties, although occasionally they did marry in their late teens (usually as the result of an unexpected 'event'). So start your search in the baptism records 16 years before the wedding and search back year by year until you find the record you are looking for. In the case of marriages where one or both of the partners are older than their late twenties it is likely to be a second marriage and one or both partners are likely to be widowed and have children from an earlier marriage.
From this point you repeat the process working back through a chain of baptisms and marriages as far as you can for each branch of your tree. As you do so there are a number of pitfalls you should be aware of and guard against.
One of the most frustrating pitfalls you are likely to encounter is coming across records of two or more people who share the name you searching for. This occurs more frequently than one would expect, as prior to the 19th Century many family names were concentrated in just one area. Surprisingly this is more likely to occur with uncommon surnames as historically, common names like Smith or King were widespread, whereas more unusual names where often found in just one locale. This means some village registers will be dominated by the same four or five family names. At times during the period we are interested in, some forenames were very common and the number of commonly-used forenames was rather limited. In many families the first-born son was always given the same forename. This means that if a man had three sons he would give the eldest the family forename and if each of his sons survived, remained in the parish and had sons, each of them would give their first-born boy the family forename, resulting in three boys in the same parish in the same generation with the same name. In Scotland name giving was often formalized with the first-born son being given his paternal grandfather's forename, the second son given his maternal grandfather's name, the third son his father's name, the fourth son his father's oldest brother's name, the fifth son his mother's oldest brother's name, the first-born daughter her maternal grandmother's forename and so on. One curious consequence of this was that in families with no sons, the youngest daughters would often get feminized versions of their grandfathers' forenames and one sometimes comes across names like Thomasina and Jamesina.
It is important to check records carefully to ensure there is only one person with the name you are searching for in the relevant registers. If you think you have come across the record you are searching for do not stop, keep searching to ensure you have the right person. If you extend your search to look for a marriage record in neighbouring parishes, check them all to be sure. If and when you come across records of two or more people with the name you are searching for there is little you can do to extend that branch of your family tree, and unless there is overwhelming evidence to show which of those people is your ancestor you cannot continue on that line.
As couples started families in their early- to mid-twenties and continued to have children into their early- to mid-forties, generations often overlapped. It is therefore important to check records carefully so you do not skip a generation or confuse parents with grandparents.
Other events that can cause confusion and vexation are remarriages, separations and illegitimacy.
Premature deaths were common in a society where smallpox, tuberculosis and other deadly diseases were endemic, industrial accidents were frequent, death in childbirth was a serious risk, and lack of modern medical knowledge meant an infected cut or a bad tooth could prove fatal. When people were widowed the economics of the time meant it was not possible for a lone parent to support a family, and widows and widowers would quickly remarry as an expedient to avoid destitution, the workhouse or worse. It is important to check records carefully for remarriages to ensure you are following the family lines of your ancestor rather than the family of a step-parent; in the case of female ancestors remember the family name on a marriage record may be that of an earlier husband rather than the woman's maiden name. In records that give marital status it will be stated whether the person was a bachelor or spinster (previously unmarried) or if they were a widow (vid in Latinized records). Where the marital status is not given, look for children born well before the marriage, and always check carefully if either spouse (or both) is older than their mid-twenties.
Divorce was virtually unknown. Remember the parish records were started by a King who had to found a new Church and risk the wrath of Rome in order to divorce his first wife. As late as 1857 in England, Wales and Ireland it was only possible to get a divorce through an Act of Parliament, an option that was only open to extremely rich powerful men. Although divorce was impossible for most people, married couples did separate. Women fled abusive husbands and both men and women were deserted by their spouses. In such situations the spouse left supporting children faced the same problems as a widowed parent but did not have the option of remarrying. In order to avoid the loss of their children, such people would often form de facto marriages with common law partners who were themselves in a similar situation, or were lovers or in the case of men, unmarried mothers who otherwise could not get a partner to support their child. Some couples openly 'lived in sin' but as they would be shunned by their community and any children they had would be regarded as illegitimate, many would move to areas where they were not known and pose as a legally married couple or even marry bigamously. Given the stigma attached to such relationships people would go to great lengths to give the impression their relationship and their children were legitimate. In some cases such couples would not baptise their children until their former spouses had died and they could remarry legally, and one comes across records of all of their children being baptised at the same time several years after the children's births.
In spite of the stigma attached to illegitimacy it was fairly common. In the case of unmarried mothers who were not supported by their parents, the child's father or some other man, they faced the prospect of a life of destitution, prostitution and crime, abandoning their child or giving it away to an orphanage or childless couple. In some cases childless couples who had taken on a baby, grandparents who were supporting a daughter's illegitimate offspring or men supporting a wife's child from an earlier relationship would pass the baby off as their own. Where illegitimacy was acknowledged, just the mother's name is given in the baptism record and the child's name is often followed by the term 'baseborn' or sometimes 'a bastard'. In some cases the father's name is given. This may indicate a common law relationship, a married father who is prepared to support his lover's child or it could be that a zealous clergyman coerced the man's name from the mother in an attempt to shame the father.
Remarriage, separation, common law relationships, illegitimacy and attempts to cover up 'shameful' relationships can lead to 'tangled webs' that are often difficult or even impossible for genealogists to unravel and can bring branches of their family tree to an end.
Lost in the Mists of Time
Even in the absence of confusion over names or complex relationships which frustrate your efforts, many ancestors will simply disappear and lines fade as a result of the huge social changes of the 18th and early 19th Centuries and the political turmoil of the mid 17th Century.
At the beginning of the 18th Century the population of Britain was little higher than it had been during the Roman period or prior to the Black Death (which wiped out half the population) in the 14th Century. Although feudal society had ended after the Black Death and there had been gradual improvements in agriculture from 1500 onwards, most people still worked on the land. Most families would have lived in the same area for hundreds of years and in many ways their lives had changed little. Most families would have a cottage with a smallholding and the right to graze their animals and gather fuel from the local common land. Half of all crops were still produced under the medieval open field system, with each family having their own strips in the communal fields. The cottages, small holdings, commons and open fields were the property of the local landowner and in order to pay their rent and supplement their income commoners laboured on the landowner's estate, gathered fuel and materials for local small scale industries and worked in cottage industries. The backbone of the economy and by far the most important cottage industry was the production of woollen cloth and many commoners would have a spinning wheel and a hand loom in their cottage.
From 1750 onwards there was rapid improvement in agricultural production as a result of a more scientific approach to farming, new crops, selective breeding, new crop rotation systems and the introduction of agricultural machinery. These changes fed a rapidly growing population and by 1850 the population of England had grown from 5.7 million to 16.6 million. Increased productivity meant fewer labourers were needed on the land, less productive areas could be improved, and better communications (turnpikes, canals and then railways) meant produce could be transported and sold as cash crops. Landowners responded to this by enclosing common land and open fields in order to bring them into profitable production, forcing many commoners from the land. By 1850 only just over 20% of the population still worked on the land.
A rapidly growing population, a surplus of labour, an increased ability to feed urban populations, the growth of capital and capitalism, new markets and sources of raw materials from increased international trade, and a growing Empire and technological innovation drove the Industrial Revolution. Home weavers could not compete with the mechanised wool mills of Yorkshire or the cotton mills of Derbyshire and Lancashire. As water and coal replaced wood and charcoal as sources of energy commoners lost another income stream, and as industrial production increased, small-scale local industries were replaced by the workshops of London and Birmingham and the steel mills of Sheffield. Between 1775 and 1825 the population of London quadrupled, and during the Industrial Revolution the population of Birmingham increased six fold while Manchester's population increased from 10,000 to 140,000.
The changes in the Scottish Highlands and Ireland were even more abrupt and brutal. Scottish lairds and Irish absentee landlords were keen to remove their impoverished tenants and replace them with more profitable sheep. In the Highlands the process began when lairds exploited political changes that followed the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion in the first wave of Highland Clearances. Highland crofters and Irish tenant farmers relied heavily on potatoes as a staple food and when potato blight destroyed this vital crop, starting from 1845 in Ireland and 1846 in the Highlands, there was mass starvation and disease. Many were forced from the land by hunger and landlords exploited the terrible situation by carrying out mass evictions of destitute tenants who could not pay their rents. The Scottish Highlands were depopulated and in Ireland a million people died and two million emigrated, many of them going to the industrial cities of England and lowland Scotland.
Given that the census and other central records began at the end of more than a century of huge social change and shifts of population during which millions of families, some of whom had lived in the same village for the best part of a thousand years, were uprooted and forced onto the open road to look for work, it is hardly surprising that many branches of your family tree are likely to end during this period.
The scientific, agrarian, and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th Centuries were preceded, and to a certain extent brought about, by political revolutions during the 17th Century. While the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is of huge political importance, it is not of great concern for genealogists, however the English Revolution of the 1640s created a decade-long gap in parish records and the loss of many earlier records.
Charles I's unwavering belief that he was appointed by God and ruled by divine right caused great religious and political tension throughout his kingdoms. By dictating how people should worship he caused civil wars in Scotland and Ireland and great concern amongst English Protestants. His belief that he was only answerable to God meant he treated Parliament in an offhand manner, dissolving it when it displeased him (on one occasion for 11 years) and recalling it when he needed money. The tension between King and Parliament reached an impasse in January 1642 when he entered the chamber of the House of Commons with 400 armed soldiers in an attempt to arrest five members of Parliament he had accused of treason. The MPs had been warned and had fled. When Charles demanded to know where they were, Speaker William Lenthall replied: May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here. Following this act of defiance neither side was prepared to back down and the country was split between supporters of the King and supporters of Parliament. In August 1642 Charles raised his standard. The first skirmishes occurred in September and the first pitched battle in October when the King tried to enter London and the Trained Bands (city militia) turned his army back at Turnham Green. What followed was a series of bloody civil wars which engulfed England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and culminated with the trial and execution of Charles I and the creation of a republic – the Commonwealth.
During the Commonwealth (1650-60) churches in England, Scotland and Wales were disestablished (independent of the state) and record-keeping ceased. In areas that were disputed or under puritan control, record-keeping often ceased during the Civil Wars 1642-9. In many parishes, pre-Commonwealth registers were lost or destroyed and existing records start in 1660. Even where pre-1650 records still exist, if one of your ancestors was baptised or married during the 'Commonwealth Gap' there will be no record of the event and the chain of births and weddings you have followed back will break and end that branch of your tree.
End of the Line
As your search progresses you will reach the end of each line in your family tree and eventually you will reach a point where you cannot go any further and your family tree will be complete. Of course most genealogists hope to take each line back as far as the Tudor period or beyond, and it can be thrilling to see a spidery entry in an ancient parish registry that records the birth of an ancestor who had to choose whether they stood for Parliament or the King, or who saw the beacons lit as the Armada approached. In reality most lines will end in the 18th Century, others will stop at the Commonwealth Gap and you will do well if you trace any back to the reign of Good Queen Bess. It can be disappointing when lines end and tempting to take shortcuts or make assumptions based on wishful thinking in order to push them further back, however it is important to be true to yourself and your ancestors. Your family tree is a legacy for your family and if your descendants discover you have been less than scrupulous it will invalidate all your work. So when you come across the name you are searching for, keep looking to make sure you have the right person and if you come across two or more people with that name or a tangled web of messy relationships you cannot decipher, accept you have done your best and cannot go any further. If you cannot find the records for an ancestor in the parish you are searching or its neighbours, resist the temptation to keep searching beyond the distance your ancestor could realistically reach in one day on foot – it is unlikely that someone living two or three hundred years ago would be baptised in Cornwall to parents from North Wales and Kent, marry someone from Warwick (who happens to be descended from William the Conqueror) in London and then settle down and have a family in Aberdeen. That may seem absurd but one often comes across such family trees that have been compiled by someone who has fallen into the 'IGI trap'.
Remember genealogy is not a competition and even if your family tree just reaches back to the Industrial Revolution and is inhabited entirely by decent hard-working farm and factory labourers, reaching back 200 or more years into the past and bringing you forebears back into the light and the memory of your family is quite an achievement.
When you finally reach the end of your search and can go no further back it can seem like an anticlimax. When you look at your completed family tree it may seem rather sparse, in many places just a list of names and dates. Like others, you will have wondered about the lives of your ancestors, about how and where they lived, what they aspired to and the world they inhabited. If so it will be time to begin exploring the lives and times of your forebears and populate your tree with real lives.
In Part Three we will explore researching your family's social history.