Tracing your family tree has become one of the fastest growing hobbies of recent years. This guide will give you some basics in starting to research your family history in England and Wales. Many sellers on eBay have various resources to help you with your research, I also offer some look-up services in my eBay store for Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates and for 1841 - 1901 England and Wales Census searches.
The first thing to remember is that you must always work backwards from known facts - don't try to work forwards in time from someone you think may be your ancestor, as you will more than likely be tracing someone else's family! Consider the facts that you already have; talk to your older relatives and ask them what they remember about your family. Ask them if they have any birth, marriage or death certificates, or any other documents or photographs that you can borrow. With a bit of luck this approach will help you build up a picture of your grandparents or great grandparents and their families.
Compiling your Information
It's a good idea to enter the information you collect into a computer software program dedicated to family history, as these programs help you to sort your family into a manageable tree and show you where you need to research. One little tip - right from the start, make absolutely sure that you record exactly where your information came from (certificates, letters, grandma's recollections etc.), otherwise you'll find in the future that you have lots of facts, but no easy way of verifying them or remembering where they came from.
Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates
These are incredibly useful! In England and Wales, all births, marriages and deaths since July 1837 should have been registered with a local Register Office. However, Civil Registration didn't become law until 1875, and before that many people didn't bother to register, so many births, marriages and deaths may have gone unrecorded.
Typically a Birth Certificate will show:
- Name and date of birth
- Place of birth
- Father's name and occupation
- Mother's maiden name
- The family's usual address
Probably the most useful piece of information in a Birth Certificate is the Mother's Maiden Name - from this you should be able to find a Marriage Certificate for the parents.
Typically a Marriage Certificate will show:
- Name and ages of both Bride and Groom
- Date and place of marriage
- Occupation of both Bride and Groom
- Usual residence of both Bride and Groom
- Both fathers' names and occupations
- Witnesses to the marriage, often other family members
With the marriage certificate, you will now know a little more about your family. Having fathers' names and occupations will be one of the most important clues in identifying your family on census returns; more about those further down this guide.
Typically a Death Certificate will show:
- Name of deceased
- Date and place of death
- Occupation of deceased
- Usual residence of deceased
- Cause of death
- Name of the informant, often another family member
- Name of the doctor who certified the death
Death certificates are slightly less important when tracing your family tree, although they can be useful in many ways. They can help to positively identify a relative, and can also give you more idea of conditions at the time your relative was alive. For instance, many children died in infancy in the 19th and early 20th centuries from diseases that are unheard of today. It's not unusual to find families with 10 or more children, with maybe just a few of them surviving to adulthood.
The census in England and Wales has been held every 10 years since 1801, however only the records from 1841 are of any use to a family historian as previous records contain no more than a headcount, with no names or any other information. If you've already done the basics outlined in Getting Started above, then it's quite possible you will be aware of some of your relatives who were alive in 1901. For this reason, it's best to consult the 1901 census first. If you start with say the 1881 census, then it's highly likely that you might not find the correct family and you could be wasting your time researching the wrong family. Just because they "look" right, doesn't mean that they're yours! Remember.... start with what you know for sure, and work backwards in time.
The information included in this census is very basic compared to later decades. It includes the name of the place and parish, the names of persons present in the household on census day, ages (the over 15 year olds ages were rounded down to the nearest 5 years), and birthplace (Y if born in the same county, or N if born elsewhere)
1851 - 1901 censuses
There is much more useful information included in all these later censuses. Typically:
- Place and parish
- House names and/or street addresses
- Names and ages
- Relationship to the head of the household
- Profession, rank or occupation
- Birthplace, usually including the place and county, or country if born abroad
Census returns also include details of any visitors or servants in the household on census night. This can often prove very informative, especially if another family member happened to be staying on census night.
As in all records, spellings of surnames can vary wildly so some care is needed. Don't dismiss records out of hand if the spelling doesn't look right - in the early part of the 19th century, many people were illiterate and relied on the enumerator to enter their details. If the enumerator didn't understand a particular regional accent for instance, he may have entered the family's name in the way that he heard it. Often this could lead to a complete mis-spelling of a surname, but if you already have details of the family from birth, marriage and death certificates you should be able to sort out which is your family.
You also need to be aware that many people in the 19th century didn't seem to know how old they were, as many seemed to age more (or less) than 10 years between each census. One good example of this is of my own great grandfather:
- In the 1841 census he was living in Ipswich with his parents and sisters, and shown as being 16 years of age, therefore born around 1824-1825.
- In 1851 he was still in Ipswich with his family, but now he was 23 years old indicating that he was born around 1827-1828.
- In 1861 he was married and living in London. Apparently he was now 29, giving him a birth year of 1831-1832
- In 1871 he was still in London, and had a young family. He was 38 years old, giving a birth year of 1832-1833
- In 1881, he was now a widower with five children. And how old was he? Apparently he was 50 years old, giving a birth year of 1830-1831!
- Confusingly, his Death Certificate from 1887 describes him as 53 years old, giving him a birth year of about 1834. Obviously the person who registered his death also had no idea of exactly how old he was!
I had proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that all these census entries were indeed my great grandfather as I had purchased the relevant birth and marriage certificates. The wildly varying ages could probably be explained away by the fact that he would no doubt have been illiterate, and would have had no real idea of exactly how old he was.
As there was no Civil Registration before 1837, and therefore no birth, marrriage or death certificates, you will need to consult Parish Records. This can be more time consuming, as you generally need to visit local Records Offices throughout the country. An online alternative is the International Genealogical Index (IGI) which is free to search at familysearch.org. Do be aware though that this is nowhere near complete, and there are many errors. It's always best - where possible - to consult the original source at Records Offices or Family History Centres.
Once you have the basics of your family history, there's plenty more you can do. Lists of names and dates are all very well, but it's wonderful to be able to fill out these bare facts with oddments of historical detail. For instance, you might like to research the village your family originated from, or discover just what was involved in a particular trade carried out by your ancestor. All this extra information can really help you to understand just what your family's life was like in centuries past.
Do be aware though that it can be very addictive. Once you find one relative.... you just have to see if you can find some more! Discovering a previously unknown branch in your family tree can lead to contact with new found cousins who may also have been researching your family, and there are plenty of online message boards where you can post requests for help.
Your family tree will NEVER be complete, but you'll certainly have plenty of success (and a few disappointments) along the way.