gen for beginners



Genealogy For Beginners

Health Warning!

The first problem in genealogy is less about your ancestors and more about you. Your ancestors lived in difficult times and they had to adjust to conditions that we would find appalling and terrible. That you exist, shows they did a pretty good job at surviving, despite low wages, hard work, very basic accommodation, sickness, starvation and a high mortality rate among children and pregnant women. Cholera, Typhoid, Influenza, Diphtheria and other diseases swept through the land and very few families escaped the loss of children and loved ones. It would be totally wrong for you to judge them by modern standards. You can expect to uncover many dark family secrets. Some of them may directly affect you. For those of you who cannot deal with this ….. it is better to stop your search now!.

Recording the evidence


          You obviously have access to a computer because you are reading this on one. If you haven’t already got a genealogy computer program, now is the time to get one. Some can be downloaded free from the Internet and you will also find magazines sometimes give them away for free on their cover disks. These programs will enable you not only to store your data in an orderly manner, but also to exchange family tree’s with other genealogists. The other thing you will need is a ring binder file with a few clear A4 pockets.  A basic rule is that no piece of data is put onto the tree without documents supporting or ‘proving’ it. The ring binder is required for storing this documentary evidence. The evidence may be in the form of …..

a.                     Birth, marriage or death certificates.

b.                    Photocopies of census returns.

c.                     Photocopies of land and tax returns etc..

d.                    Newspaper clippings.

e.                     Photographs.

f.           Wills and inventories.

You will find the clear plastic pockets are ideal for storing fragile newspaper clippings and photographs. Do not glue original documents to sheets of paper, use acid free transparent pockets. For further advice on storing documents go to …..


You start at the very beginning!

The ONLY place to start researching your family tree is with yourself. You would be amazed at how many people want to start in the Middle Ages! I would always recommend that you begin with your own birth certificate.


Birth, marriage and death certificates.

             Certificates are available from only two places in UK, the local registrars office where the original registration was made and the other is the General Register Office (GRO), which is at Southport, Merseyside. The register that the original entry was made in, stays with the local registrar. The only reason the GRO knows about it, is because every 3 months or quarter, the local registrar has to send a list of all the entries for that quarter, to the GRO. County Record Offices (CRO’s) hold a micro fiche index of all birth, marriage and death entries, going back to 1st July 1837 when civil registration began.  This means that you can apply for your birth certificate, your fathers, your grandfathers etc. all the way back to 1837.  There are two forms of certificate “Short” and “Full”. Only the Full certificate is of use to genealogists.  If you obtain the Full certificate from the local registrar it will cost £6.50. If you obtain it from the GRO it will cost £8.00.

            It should be kept in mind that if you apply for the birth certificate of Fred Smith, born in Great Dunmow in 1856, you will get exactly that!  If you ask for a certificate for the wrong person, you will get it. So we have to be very careful in considering certificates as ‘evidence’ on their own.

            You will sometimes find that the information that the local registrars office requires with an application for a certificate, may be the exact information that you hope to get off the certificate! .  However you will find most registrars very helpful and the very minimum amount of information they need to perform is ……

a.                   Birth certificate. Surname, first name, and date of birth.

b.                  Marriage certificates. Date of ceremony, name of building the marriage took place in and names of bride or groom.

c.                   Death certificates. Date and place of death and full name of deceased.

As you can see to get a birth certificate you need the date of birth and this is often not known. In this case you can apply for the death certificate and get it from that. To make things a little clearer let us consider what information is on each certificate …..

a.                   Birth. Date and place of birth. Full names of parents. Occupation of the father and particulars of the informant. .

b.                  Marriage. Date of marriage, full names and ages of the parties, whether bachelor, spinster or widowed. Occupations and addresses. Full names and occupations of the fathers (and whether deceased usually). Place and form of marriage. Names of witnesses.

c.                   Death. Date and place of death. Full name, sex, age, profession, cause of death, Doctor certifying and particulars of informant.

For further detailed information on British certificates go to …..


Talk to the living!  

      Get a notebook and small tape recorder and go talk to your relatives.  This is not as easy as it sounds, so go prepared with some interesting questions! Old folk retain an amazing amount of information, not all of which is reliable. However we are not doing this at this stage to help with our search. Record everything because in the early stages you may not recognise the significance of a single sentence. Take some photographs with you and any of the history that you have gathered so far. Once you can get them talking you may find it difficult to get them to stop. Allow yourself at least an hour or so for each visit.

          The other reason it is not easy, is because of inter family frictions and barriers. All I can say about this is, Just go do it! . If you can knock down any of these usually silly walls people put up between each other, then it has to be good.

          This might be a good time to point out that family history is not just about names and dates, it is about the story of people lives. When a person dies, all their memories die with them if they are not recorded. If you consider the family tree as being the branches, then the family stories, jokes, photographs, letters etc are the ‘flesh’ that we will hang on our tree.  In a sense, by recording everything, we immortalise our ancestors.


Census returns.

           Every ten years a census of  the population is carried out.  The contents of these are subject to the 100 year privacy rule, which means that we cannot look at them until they are a 100 years old or more. From a genealogist’s point of view, the first usable national census was the 1841. The 1851 census was even better, in that it gave more information. Since then there has been a census every year except in 1941 because of the war. At the moment we are supposed to have access to the following census; 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901. 

              Probably the best-known census to genealogists is the 1881. The Church of The Latter Day Saints very kindly collated data from volunteer transcribers and produced the whole of the 1881 census and the National Index, on about 25 CD’s for the extremely low price of £30. The other censuses are available on fiche for all registration districts.

            In January 2002 the 1901 census was supposed to have come online. The government’s sub contractor grossly underestimated the demand for this site and it crashed almost as soon as it came on line. Some Record offices and major libraries hold copies of some 1901 census return microfiche for their areas.

           Censuses are basically records of everyone who was living at a specific address, at the time of the census.  They also give the names and relationships of everyone at the address to the head of the household., their ages, occupations, marital status and place of birth. More detailed information on censuses can be found at ….


Using Census returns.

          Using the birth certificates we can gradually work our way back through time to one of the above census. We will then hopefully find the individual with parents and family. We can then go back in ten-year steps to 1841, effectively getting a snapshot of the individuals life, relatives and neighbors at each census. 


Parish Records.

           As we have seen, certificates work well back to 1837 and census back until 1841. To go back further we have to resort to other resources for example Parish registers. 

            In 1538, Thomas Cromwell ordered that all incumbents would record all births, marriages and burials. In 1597 it was further ordered that all such records should be recorded on parchment. At the same time it was also ordered that a copies of the register entries should be made and forwarded to the diocesan authorities. These copies eventually became known as the “Bishops Transcripts” or BT’s. This means that if the original register has been destroyed we may be lucky to find what we want in the BT’s.

         We can therefore expect registers to go back as far as about 1600, or earlier.  The earlier ones are written in Latin changing to English about 1731.  Many of these registers have been transcribed by hard working volunteers and are available from County family history societies, on fiche. County Record Offices also sell fiche copies although they tend to be more expensive.  It is possible to buy part of a fiche set, from the CRO, or even a single fiche. The way to do this is to email the CRO and ask for a break down of the fiche. They will then send you a paper copy by snail mail.  The breakdown will show which fiche cover what years for baptisms, marriages and burials. Some fiche sets will also include Banns and memorial inscriptions. For a small church, there may be only six fiche in a set. For a large church the number of fiche may exceed one hundred.

            Usually it is fairly straightforward tracing back and forming ones ancestors into tree’s back to about 1750, before then, most registers I have encountered lack surnames and mothers names. A typical entry may read “John son of John”, which is not terribly enlightening!. So unless it was a very small church, or it had a verbose incumbent, parish registers on their own may not give perfect proof of ones line, beyond a certain date.  You can cheat and accept any old data as being yours ….. But you will be only cheating yourself!

            A very useful program for dealing with parishes is called Parloc. It can be downloaded free from: -



          Directories have been printed at least as far back as the early 1800’s.  They were intended to give a description of towns within a county. They usually list all the leading figures in a town or village and the names and professions of the trade people. Later street directories appeared giving at least the surname of each householder. Telephone directories are also very useful but limited to subscribers. Trade directories exist from early times.

          If you go to your local library and ask to speak to a researcher, they will show you what directories are available for your area. Some directories were printed annually and you may be surprised at how many they have.

          The better know directories such as Kelly’s, Whites etc., are now collectors’ items with collector size price tags. Fortunately many of these directories have now been photographed, digitised and are available on CD’s.

            A good starting point to find out what directories exist is: -*%2C180%2C0&subject=directori&presubject=directories


Mailing lists.

You already know about the existence of mailing lists because you are reading this from one. The biggest host for mailing lists is ROOTSWEB. To find out what mailing lists are available from them, go to the following address: -

It has lists for 8000 surname and variants. The RootsWeb home page can be found at ……

Other lists of genealogical mailing lists can be found at: -

Each list has a list owner, usually the person who requested the creation of the list. The list owner is there to help and also to deal with any problems that may arise on the list.

         Any mailing list on RootsWeb has an archive facility, where all old messages are stored. This is a very useful facility for newcomers because it means you can easily catch up with what has been covered to date. .



 The Church of the Latter Day Saints has done much to record the location of old documents and makes them available to genealogists on film or fiche. If you are fortunate you may find an LDS family history center near you. A good bargain is the LDS catalogue on CD. The contents are also available free of charge at:-

It lists all the copies of records available on loan, from LDS family history centres.  Even if you do not live near a center it will give you a very good idea of what sources exist for even very small villages.  Tithe records, manorial records, tax returns, memorial inscriptions inside churches, parish clerks registers, bastardy orders, settlement orders and certificates, visitation records, quarter and petty session records, criminal indexes, wills etc. all help to fill in the missing gaps.

          In addition to the above they also have a web site where you can search their genealogical archives for names. The search page is at: -

At the bottom of the search page you will notice the alternative of entering batch numbers instead of names. This facility will return all entries in their database for the parish that has a specific batch number. There may be different batch numbers for Christenings and marriages. To make things easier a gentleman called Hugh Wallis has created a web site that will handle batch numbers for you the easy way and at the same time overcome the returns limitation on the LDS site. Hugh’s web page can be found at: -



 This is a project to put the index of all birth, marriage and deaths since 1837 online. So far about 25% has been completed.  It should be understood that this is only an index, and is basically a copy of the GRO (St. Catherine’s) index held at all County Record Offices. If you require further detailed information you then have to apply for the certificate in the normal way. The advantage is that you can search FREEBMD in the comfort of your own home. FREEBMD is available at: -


The Commonwealth War Graves Commission Site.

The Commission have undertaken to record the resting place of all servicemen (and some civilians) who died in and as a result of World War I and II. The website can be found at: -

It will reduce the length of the search if you know the serviceman’s full initials, unit or service number. It is also possible to print out a commemoration page for each person.



Finding places can sometimes be a problem. Again, many good map sites can be found on the Internet. Aerial photographs are also available on some sites.  Here are a few sites that offer very good maps online.


You are not alone !

          Everyone had two parents, four grand parents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great, great grandparents, thirty-two ggg grandparents, and so on. Each one of those pairs had children and their children had children. The end result is that you have an awful lot of relatives that you don’t know about, perhaps even hundreds! Now consider that genealogy is the second most popular subject on the Internet! The chances are that some of your unknown relatives are probably researching the same tree as yourself and would love to get in contact with you right now!

 Genealogy is a glorious detective hunt and can be very addictive!  Not only can it give terrific self-satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, but at the same time you are producing a priceless heirloom for your grand children and all your future descendants. If it is not done now, much of it will be lost forever. Good Hunting!

Copyright John Kent 2002. [email protected]


Copyright ...Kerry Prentice .2003