Family Tree Folk Free Family History Course: Beginners Course

Starting out in genealogy by Dr Kathryn Senior

2 Ask the family

When you start your family history, the first thing to do is to collect together what you already know. Yes, this seems obvious, but very few people actually do it. They rush off and buy a year's subscription to ancestry and start looking at census returns. Very exciting, but if you don't know who you are looking for, a bit pointless. 

Write down about yourself first, when and where you were born and a little detail about your life. If you have time, write down a short autobiography, or record if on tape (most mobile phones and MP3 players have voice recorders now, and you can save the file to your computer). 

Then write down as much as you know from memory about your parents, when they were born, when they married, where they lived. If they are no longer with us, when did they die and where are they buried.

If they are still with us, don't delay. Arrange to talk to them about what they remember about their parents and grandparents. So many people say "If only I had chance to ask..." when it is already too late.

Interviewing relatives is not always straigtforward and is the topic of a separate whole class in this free online genealogy course - but whenever you get the chance, do ask people about what they remember of your common ancestors.

Family records

As you start compiling your family history, some of the most valuable things that close relatives can give you are original certificates - any birth, marriage or death certificates that they have in a drawer or file somewhere. Photocopy and return them promptly, but this will provide very useful information, and will save you £9.25 per certificate (this is the cost of ordering copies from the General Registry Office or the Local Registry Office).

People also save other records - if you are very lucky, one of your grandparents may have kept a diary or journal. But things like log books, work records, ration books, funeral cards, postcards, birthday or Christmas cards and other memorobilia are like gold dust to the family historian. Again, there will be more detail on family records and their value to family history later in this free online genealogy course.

Again, like certificates, make sure that you take a copy - a colour photocopy, or a computer scan with print out - and then return them quickly. People will not trust you with original family history documents again if you keep them for weeks, or worse still, forget what you have done with them.

Birth certificates

Since July 1837, every child born in England and Wales (Scotland dates to 1851) has been registered and has had an official birth certificate. In the early days, some poor families did not register births, but, after 1870, birth registration became compulsory. A birth certificate will give the child's full name, the date and place of birth, the name of the parents, including the mother's maiden name, and the name of the person registering the birth (usually one of the parents).

Marriage certificates

A marriage certificate follows the format of the marriage register of a church wedding just before 1837, but, since that time, the document has become a civil one, not a church document. A marriage certificate gives the name and ages and status of the bride and groom, the name of both their fathers, their place of residence just before they married, the date and place of the marriage and indicates who witnessed the marriage.

Death certificates

Death certificates have also been issued since 1837. There have been penalties in place for not registering a death, and usually a burial cannot take place without a death certificate. A death certificate will give the name of the person who died, their date and place of death, the cause of their death and who registered the death. It also records their age at death, if known. Since 1969, extra details such as the date of birth of the deceased have also been included.

When you have collected all the information that you can, from your own memories and from those of your closest relatives, try to build up a short and simple family tree. This can just be done with pencil on a sheet of paper, but it will help you see what your ancestry is, hopefully to your grandparents. Unless you are very young, some of your grandparents at least should have been born before 1911 - and you can then start searching for your ancestors in the 1911 census.

If you cannot get to beyond 1911, and your grandparents didn't have any older brothers or sisters that you have details of, you will need to order at least one certificate to progress your search further. 

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