Genealogy Primer

Researching a family tree should always start with the current generation and work backwards in time. At every step you should check and cross-check your findings. Make a mistake and you'll be researching the wrong family!

Before you start you should consider what you want to research. Some people focus on following their family name back in time, and therefore narrow their research to just one name. This can be broadened to a single name study, where the name is not only traced back in time, but also forward to find relatives around the world who share a common ancestor. Others want to find out about both male and female branches of their family tree. This becomes an ever increasing research front, as with each generation you double the number of names you're tracing.

It is also worthwhile making an early decision about how to record your findings. My preferred genealogy application is GenoPro. There are a number of other very good genealogy programs available if GenoPro doesn't suit. If you decide to subscribe to a commercial Genealogy website, they often have a facility for building your family tree online.

The major sources for family history research are detailed below.

Your Family
Speak to all living relatives and gather as much information about the family as possible. Make notes! Gather together any certificates and other relevant documents. Before you go online to do any research your aim is be able to draw your family tree back to at least 1911. Try to verify everything you're told. People do mis-remember names and dates. Sometimes family events were deliberately mis-represented, particularly in bygone times to avoid a "scandal."

Civil records of Births, Marriages and Deaths
Civil Registration of births, marriages and deaths started on 1 July 1837 in England and Wales.

The indexes to these records are referred to as the General Register Office (GRO) Indexes.

There are separate indexes for births, marriages and deaths, filed in date order. Each year is split up into quarters with, for example, all events registered between 1 Jan and 31 Mar held in the index labelled March. An event will be listed in the quarter it was registered in, which for marriages is normally the same day as the ceremony. Births however may be registered up to 6 weeks after they occur, so a December birth could be indexed in the March volume for the following year.

A typical Index entry looks like this:

Index     Quarter     Year     Surname     First name(s)     District          Vol     Page
Births     Mar          1888     SMITH         John                   Camberwell   1d      913

Since the inception of Civil Registration a couple of fields have been added to the indexes:
  • Age at death from June 1866
  • Mother's maiden name in births from Sept 1911
  • Spouse's surname in marriages from March 1912
  • Date of birth in deaths from 1969
You can search the GRO Indexes at FreeBMD. The aim of the ongoing FreeBMD project is to transcribe the GRO Indexes, and to provide free internet access to the transcribed records. The project started with the earliest records and is working forward in time. As at June 2009, transcription of records from 1837 - 1925 was largely complete, with patchy coverage up to 1935, and little beyond that.

Once you have the GRO index entry you will then need to obtain the certificate to get any more information. The GRO has an online ordering service. Turnaround is 7-10 days from ordering to receiving the document.

In actual fact there are two sets of Birth, Marriage and Death indexes in the UK. The primary indexes are held by the local register offices. The GRO index is a secondary index, formed from the consolidated records sent by the local offices. If you fail to find your ancestor in the GRO index you can attempt to find them in the local register. If you do find them in the local register - you HAVE to order the certificate from that Register Office, as the reference system is totally independent from that of the GRO.

UKBMD has links to all the county sites that offer online transcribed indexes to the records held by the local register offices. Coverage is patchy.

Whether you order from a Local Registry Office or the General Records Office, the charge for a certificate is about GBP 9.

Birth and Marriage certificates are the best sources. Working from the present day backwards in time, the best tactic is to identify the right marriage index entries and order that certificate first. There will be two index entries for a wedding, one for the groom, and one for the bride. The District, Volume & Page will be identical for both entries. If you know that Joseph Broadfoot married Susannah, then you can inspect each index entry relating to Joseph Broadfoots, looking at whether any of them also have a Susannah being married on the same page. Be careful not to leap to conclusions - several marriage records will be on the same page - you won't know for sure whether you have the right record until you order and receive the certificate. Marriage certificates contain the names, ages, occupations, and addresses of the couple, plus the names and occupations of their fathers. Armed with this information you can then attempt to locate the birth index entries for the bride and groom and order them.

Until recent times infant mortality rates were very high, meaning there are many more entries in the birth indexes than the marriage indexes, which can make identifying the birth index entry much more tricky. This is why it is a good idea to have the marriage certificate in hand. If you have a couple of possible birth index entries you can submit them all and request a reference check, providing extra details you have from the Marriage certificate (like the father's name). They will pull each of the records you indicate and check to see if any of them match. There's an extra charge for this service, usually GBP 3 per record to be checked.

When you receive the correct birth certificate you'll have the mother's maiden name, and you can then attempt to go back another generation by identifying the correct index entries for the parents' marriage.

You should not attempt to research your family tree just using the Civil Birth & Marriage records. The Census provides a wealth of information and is often what will provide you with your search parameters for FreeBMD. You may quite easily find a branch of your ancestors in the Census, listing all their ages and places of birth. If your direct ancestor has a very common name, like Robert Jones, then you may be overwhelmed with possible birth records. The census may show you that Robert had a younger sibling with a far less common name, for instance Ezekiel Roberts whom you can locate easily in the GRO indexes. Also as you approach the 1837 cut-off for the civil records, you may find your direct ancestor was born before this date, but the census may show siblings born after 1837 - ordering their birth certificate will help you identify the mother's maiden name.

Census Returns
The Census in England is taken every ten years and has been since 1801; the only exception being during World War II (1941). The first four censuses were little more than simple head counts of the population, and only fragments survive.

The Censuses were taken on the following dates, and are available online to search for a fee:
  • 1841 - 7th June
  • 1851 - 30th March
  • 1861 - 7th April
  • 1871 - 2nd April
  • 1881 - 3rd April
  • 1891 - 5th April
  • 1901 - 31st March
  • 1911 - 2nd April
If you're serious about researching your family tree, consider a subscription to one of the main genealogy websites FindMyPast or Ancestry, as this will probably work out cheaper than using their pay-per-view options. The 1911 census is only available at 1911census on a pay-per-view basis.

A census return for a family will provide their address, names, ages, relationship to the head of the house, occupation, and where they were born.

With respect to the 1841 census: Ages of people over 15 were often rounded down to the nearest 5 years; Place of birth was restricted to a Yes/No as to whether they were born in the same county as their current residence, F for foreign, S for Scotland, I for Ireland, or W for Wales; No information was collected about the each person's relationship to the head of household.

The clerks who compiled and reviewed the census data made a variety of marks on the returns. Unfortunately, many of these tally marks were written over personal information and some fields, such as ages, can be difficult to read as a result. More useful marks include a single slash between households within a building and a double slash separating households in separate buildings. The letters "do" stand for ditto meaning "repeat the above information here."

Finding a family in the census can often help in narrowing down the search for the correct birth certificate, by providing details on place of birth and age. Because the censuses are typically carried out in April, only a quarter of people will have had their birthday that year, which means if you're calculating a person's year of birth from the age they give in the census the chances are they'll have been born a year earlier. For instance if a person turns 37 in October 1851, but they were asked April how old they were, they would have replied "36". Calculating their year of birth from this information (1851 - 36) would give 1815, but in truth the year of birth was 1814.

The year the eldest child was born is often a good clue in looking for a couple's marriage certificate. An unsurprising amount of couples were married and had their first child well within a nine month period.

If you're following the premise of working backwards in time, then with the census there is a good case for an exception to this rule. Say for instance you've been working backwards and have gotten back in time to an ancestor called Joseph Broadfoot, who appears in the 1881 census with his new wife and first child. Working backwards in time you find Joseph in the 1871 census living with his parents (Henry and Mary). It's natural to carry on working backwards to find Henry and Mary in 1861, but at this point it is also worth following Henry and Mary forwards in time (after Joseph has left home) to find them in the 1881 census, and 1891 census. You could be lucky and find in the 1881 census that Henry's aged parent is now staying with them (or better Mary's - which gives you Mary's maiden name.)

Look out for unusual middle names. Often the maiden surname of the mother or the maiden surname of one of the grandmothers will crop up as a middle name.

Parish records of Births, Marriages and Deaths
So at this point you've gotten back as far as the 1841 and there are no more censuses. In 1837 you also run out of civil Birth & Marriage records. Where do you go from here? The answer lies with the Church records, and at this point you may need to step away from your computer to go view the parish records at whichever Records Office they're deposited with.
Many parishes have allowed the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) to transcribe their parish records. The Mormons believe that knowing their family is a key to salvation, and hence are very keen genealogists. They have created the International Genealogy Index (IGI) which is online and free.

Searching the IGI can be a frustrating process, but it can be made easier if you know the parish where the birth or marriage took place. The records for each parish were transcribed in batches. If you know the parish then you can look up the associated batches and limit your search to a particular batch - not only does this restrict your results to a manageable number, but you also have more powerful search options at your disposal.

If the parish records you're interested in aren't available on the IGI, then there are several websites out there with various combinations of parish records available to search online, some are free but most require a fee, including:
Failing that, you may have to visit the Records Office where the Parish Records have been deposited. GENUKI will give you this information, and may have details of any transcriptions that have been made. GENUKI is a comprehensive genealogy resource for the UK & Ireland. If you ever have a question about places, counties, registration districts, parish records, etc, etc, then it is well worth looking on GENUKI. Their search isn't brilliant, so go to Google and enter GENUKI plus your search term.

Very little information can be gleaned from the Parish records. The online transcriptions will give you the bare names and dates. If you want more detail then you can try finding the original record at the relevant Records Office - be prepared for hours of searching microfiche. The original record may give you a little more information, such as occupation.

Go back more than one or two generations via the parish records, and you'll start to feel uncomfortable - it becomes a process of assessing the "probability" of whether the "Joseph Broadfoot" in a marriage record is the same "Joseph Broadfoot" in a christening record from 20 years earlier. Corroboration is nigh on impossible, and unless the surnames are very unusual there can be too many possibilities to be sure.

If you've not exhausted your interest at this point, then you can turn to other historical records - tax records, probate records, wills, gravestone inscriptions, local trade directories, newspapers and so on.

Notes on Historical Records

Spelling: Today most people are literate, but as late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark (a cross) as they were unable to write. A person with poor literacy providing details to a census enumerator, or in Church for a christening or wedding would be unable to verify the information they'd given had been taken down correctly. The spelling of their surname might be subject to considerable phonetic variation. For instance Arendall, Aldam, Aurldan and Arundel are all representations of one particular woman's surname across the various censuses, and birth/marriage records associated with her. Government-financed public education became available in England in 1870.

Addresses: Identifying individual addresses is often a problem. In towns few houses were numbered until the end of the nineteenth century, and in some places street names and house numbers were subject to periodic revision. In rural areas addresses were often rather vague or not given at all. Many streets have since been demolished and replaced with modern housing estates. If you have an address from a census, and you're keen to know where it was then the Enumerator's description of the district can give clues as to other streets in the neighbourhood, some of which may still exist. Old street maps may be very useful. Alan Godfrey maps are excellent.

Marital status: Cases of co-habitation can sometimes be inferred from relationships such as 'servant', 'lodger' and 'visitor'.

Ages: Especially before the 1900's many people did not know their correct ages, and for older people age-data should, therefore, be treated with some caution. Moreover, at a time when the age of consent was 21 householders below this age often had an incentive to falsify their ages in order to rent accommodation and enter into legally-binding contracts. Similarly the ages of child workers appear on occasion to have been falsified to circumvent the various Factory Acts.

Occupations: Job titles are sometimes vague with little or no information given on either the industry of employment or the actual job undertaken. Although people were asked to say how many people - if any - they employed it is often difficult to distinguish employers from the self-employed and employees. The occupations of many women, and especially of those in part-time work and/or working at home, were not recorded in the census. Also occupations of children were often under-enumerated.

Names: It was not uncommon (pre 1900) for a woman who was a widow to use her previously married surname on a second marriage certificate, rather than her maiden surname, even though her maiden surname would be used on any subsequent birth certificates.

Life Expectancy: We often take for granted the idea that we live longer these days than our ancestors did in the 1700 and 1800's. Researching the census you'll find plenty of evidence of adults living to what we still consider to be a fine old age. What has altered in the last century is the infant mortality rate which has dropped dramatically. With the industrial revolution the populations of cities rapidly increased leading to over-crowding and poor sanitation. This resulted in cholera epidemics and the spread of other communicable diseases like dysentery and tuberculosis, which were often fatal for infants and children.

Population Migration: Significant population migration occurred during the industrial revolution. Children who'd grown up in a village where their family had lived for generations would migrate, sometimes hundreds of miles, to find work in the cities, or in industries such as coal mining.

Summary of Useful Websites

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