How to be a genealogist

Don’t get me wrong, I love “Who Do You Think You Are?”. It has done a huge amount to promote genealogy as a hobby which, in turn, has generated the market for sites such as Ancestry and FindMyPast to make a wealth of historical records online. It has shown millions that genealogy doesn’t have to be about lines of lineage stretching back hundreds of years but can be about what our fathers or grandfathers did in the wars – where and how they lived and what made them who they were.

I just want to check, though… hands up who thinks it’s as easy as it is on WDYTYA?

Anyone? Good.

I’m sure that, if you had the BBC’s resources and budget, you too could arrange for the curators of guilds and museums to greet you with open arms and to just happen to have a stack of records just waiting for you to “discover” them.

No, the reality is much harder, but getting easier all the time.

Genealogy is now one of the world’s most popular, and fastest growing past-times. Consequently, things are changing very fast with more and more books, magazines, TV programmes, websites etc dedicated to the subject, so please bear in mind that what follows may get out of date very quickly.

In the last ten years, the Internet, much as in everyday life, has become the primary tool and source of information for the genealogist… or should that be family historian? Is there a difference? If there is, I’d suggest that a genealogist is concerned with finding names, dates and places going back as far as possible – essentially, generating a pedigree. Meanwhile, the family historian is less concerned with going back a long way than they are concerned with finding out about their ancestors’ lives – where they lived and worked, war records, school days etc. Ultimately though, there is no difference. Most researchers start looking for names and dates and only begin to “flesh out” their stories as it gets harder to find anyone new.

There are three phases in the family history process, and I will describe each in turn. But first, a handy hint: record every search, positive or negative and document every scrap of information and every source. One thing about this hobby is that nothing happens in a hurry. If an ancestor is dead, he will still be dead in six months and scraps of information can take years to grow into a coherent story.

Phase 1 – Memories and shoe-boxes
The single most valuable sources of information are the memories of relatives and they should be exploited for all they are worth, but keep in mind the following:
• Do it now, before the memories are lost forever.
• Remember that names and relationships may be recalled accurately, but dates must be treated with caution
• Don’t expect Aunt Hilda to just tell you all she knows. Write out a series of questions beforehand, preferably ones which lead up to important details. Remember that some of this may be painful to her.
• Names and dates are all very well, but what you really need are anecdotes and photos. Remember to annotate photos straight away.
• Old family books, particularly bibles, can often be a good source of data as can wills, service records, passports and that old shoe box stuffed full of letters.

Phase 2 – Certificates and Censuses
It is important to have documentary proof before you can be certain about a relationship. The best of these are undoubtedly the General Records Office (GRO) certificates:

Birth certificates give name, birth-date, place of birth, parent’s names (including the mother’s maiden name) the father’s occupation and the parent’s address.
Marriage certificates reveal the names, father’s name and occupation for both parties. Also, an address at the time of the wedding.
Death certificates give the name and date plus the age of death and the name of the spouse. These rely on the testimony of whoever registers the death so must be treated with caution.

These certificates do not exist before 1837 when Lord Melbourne’s government introduced legislation under which all births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded and appropriate certificates issued. Copies of the records were kept locally at parish register offices and centrally at the GRO. Most, but not all, births, marriages and deaths were recorded until 1875 when it became an offence not to register an event.

FreeBMD is an ongoing project to index all the GRO registers. This makes it very easy to search for a year, quarter, volume and page reference for the event which can be used to order a copy of the certificate from the PRO online or through Ancestry.

Ten yearly censuses have been taken in the UK from 1801, but the 1841 census was the first to be kept for posterity. It is, however, incomplete and does not always record much more than the name of the head of the household and the number of people living there. Ages are usually rounded up to the nearest five. From 1851 onwards, however, the information is far more complete, giving the names, ages, occupation and place of birth for all people present at an address on the night of the census (usually during the first week in April). Households were visited by census enumerators to complete the census forms on the families’ behalf. This means, however, that we are at the mercy of the enumerators’ handwriting and spelling. The most recent census in the public domain is 1911.

Ancestry and FindMyPast both offer online, searchable indexes to all censuses up to 1901 (only FindMyPast holds the 1911 index) and it is very easy to find ancestors and download an image of the enumerator’s forms. In this respect, the 1911 census is different as it is the actual form, completed in the householder’s hand, which is available. Bear in mind, however, that to add to enumeration errors, there are a considerable number of transcription errors in the indexes.

Phase 3 – Everything Else
So, what happens when you have found all the ancestors born, married or who died after 1837? No more birth certificates, no more census returns and definitely no more personal recollections.

There are many possible sources of information, ranging from prison records, records of those transported to the colonies, lists of Catholics and Huguenots etc. The main sources are likely to be:

International Genealogical Index (IGI)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, aka the Mormons) believe that everyone who ever lived should be baptised as a Mormon, although to avoid controversy they keep to those already dead and not in a position to object. It follows that they spend a lot of time searching for individuals to baptise. They do this by transcribing local parish records into a massive database called the IGI which contains details of about 39 million individuals from England alone. As you might expect, some of the more conservative parishes have refused access to their records and the database is thus incomplete. For example, Essex is believed to be about 33% complete whilst Sussex is nearing 100%. The database can be searched on the Internet at For a baptism or christening, the IGI gives an individual’s name, the date, the parent’s names and the church where the event took place. In the case of a wedding, the parent’s names are replaced by the Spouse’s name. From personal experience, it appears that entries can be found from about 1500 to around 1860. This is a very valuable source and I have found many ancestors from the IGI but it is definitely worth confirming anything with the original parish records.

Parish Records
Parishes were typically villages with a church and larger towns and cities would contain several parishes. Records of British baptisms, m
arriages and burials have been maintained by law since 1538 but not all clergymen kept proper records in the early years. The early baptism, marriage and burial records were usually jumbled together and some of them were written in Latin but by 1732 all registers were required to be written in English. For the first 200 years it was normal to record only the father’s full name and that of his child in baptismal. Most original parish registers are now available to view in County archives and have been microfiched. Some, but certainly not all, parishes are available online and some are available to buy on CD Rom. From 1598 the clergy had to send a copy of their entire year’s parish register to the local bishop. These copies, known as Bishop’s Transcripts are also available in County archives.

A note of caution is required here. Parish records, and consequently the IGI, do not record births – they record baptisms. Usually, children were baptised within a month of their birth but not always. It was also common to have a communal baptism. As an example, my second great-grandfather was baptised with four of his siblings in 1841, five years after he was born. Remember also that the most parishes were Anglican. Catholic, Jewish and later non-conformists churches collected their own records.

Commercial sites such as Ancestry are competing with each other to put more and more records online, such as military rolls, workhouse records, parish records from the London Metropolitan Archives, phonebooks and passenger records. These are incredibly valuable for fleshing out our ancestors’ lives. They also encourage members to upload their own trees but be aware that some genealogists may not be methodical as they should be, so don’t rely on other people’s research – check it yourself.