Posted by: Selina Todd | March 16, 2010

How to research your family tree in 5 easy steps

If you don’t come from a long line of aristocrats or celebrities it can be hard to know where to start – but once you get going it can be addictive! Here is a list of 5 first steps for finding those factory workers and peasants in your family’s past!

1.Draw up a family tree. There is no right or wrong format but you need something you can refer to and add to quickly. Having a paper copy is better than simply something on the computer so you can take it to libraries and on visits to relatives. If you don’t know much then start with a simple list: yourself and your birthdate; your parents and siblings and their birth dates. Do you have any names of more distant relatives (even if you aren’t sure where exactly they fit?) Write those down, too.

2. Ask relatives. It sounds obvious, but its amazing how many people regret that they didn’t ask mum/dad/big sister/cousin about the family’s past before it was too late – or wish they had listened fully to what they were told! Consult your family tree (or list): lots of people know about aunts or uncles or second-cousins without being quite sure where they fit in the family. Ask, if you can. And remember: everyone has skeletons in the family closet, and asking about those can be as therepeutic for your respondent as it can be painful. Think carefully about how to approach this, but go for it.

3. Work backwards in time. The earliest stages of your research can sometimes be the most frustrating, as there aren’t many official records (such as the Census) relating to the second half of the twentieth century open to the public yet. But you could try for birth, marriage and death records. Once you know a year of death, you can try applying for a relative’s medical record from the National Health Service, should you think this will give you more detailed information about the person you’re interested in. You require the next of kin’s permission for this – details can be found on NHS Direct. Also try local reminiscence websites if you are trying to trace a well-know local ‘character’ still within living memory: type the name of their home town/city, ‘forum’, and ‘memories’ into an internet search engine to find helpful websites.

4. Check out the Census online. There are various websites that will allow you access but the best is The most recent Census is for 1911. Remember that Scotland has a different Census to England and Wales. If you aren’t sure which of the many ‘Smiths’ or ‘Jacksons’ is your relative, then note down the most likely ones and go to an earlier Census to see if that throws up any clues.

5. Remember that you and your ancestors and the writers of official records are only human – and you therefore all make errors! If you draw a blank on the Census or on birth, marriage, or death certificates, check you have used the correct spelling. However, also be flexible; use ‘wildcards’ if the search facility allows, or try any common misspellings of the name you are searching for. For example, I found that the ‘Frank’ I’d identified in the 1911 Census was ‘Francis’ ten years earlier and ‘Franck’ ten years before that (this all took several hours, naturally). Either he or the person compiling the Census wasn’t sure of the correct spelling.

Another common frustration is that a relative can be ‘missing’ from a particular Census, only to pop up again in the next one. This may be because they weren’t at home, the Census investigator didn’t call (that was particularly common in overcrowded working-class tenements, where a ‘reliable’ neighbour might be asked for information on several households, to save time), or because they were working as a domestic servant. A servant usually lived with her/his employer but they might assume that s/he would be counted on her parents’ household Census, and fail to record them.

Good hunting!

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