Introduction to Family History Records

This is just a brief overview of what records are available if you want to start your own family tree.

Your own family

Your first starting point is to collate what you and your relatives already know. You may find your older relatives have birth and marriage certificates of family members that you can copy. Get them to share their memories with you. Collate all this information and create your initial tree.

Your aim is to try and get back to before 1911 so that you can get started on census records which are the most useful records for building your tree. (See below for census records). If you can’t get back to pre 1911, then you will need Civil Registration Records.

Civil Registration Records

Civil registration began in 1837 when it became a legal requirement to register births, deaths and marriages. These records are held by the General Register Office (GRO). You can fill in any gaps in your family history information as far back as 1837 by ordering copies of birth, marriage and death certificates from the GRO web site. Each certificate currently costs £11, with some available as a pdf for £7. It will get expensive if you want a lot.

Indexes to these records are available on the internet from websites like FreeBMD. These indexes give names, places, the year quarter of registration and the GRO page reference. You need all this information if you want to order a certificate.

Census Records

The first census was in 1801 and they have been held every ten years (except 1941). However, not a lot survives from the first four censuses with very little online.

The 1841 census is the first census where most of it is available online. They become available after 100 years, so the 1841-1911 censuses are available with the 1921 census becoming available in 2022. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire so the 1921 census will be the last to become available for a long time.

They contain details of each household with names, ages, occupations and places of birth. These are available on the internet mainly through subscription websites like Ancestry, FindMyPast and TheGenealogist. These websites have transcribed versions of the census information and also digital images of the original hand-written census.

It is particularly useful if you can find an ancestor in the census when they were a child, because then you get their parents and you are another generation back. The census is interesting because you can see how big their families were and what were their occupations.

Parish Records

Once you want to get back to before 1837, then parish records are the main source of information. These are records of parish christenings, marriages and burials. Parish records can go back as far as 1538. These are usually held in county record offices which you can visit and search. More and more are getting transcribed and becoming available on CDs sold by family history societies or on the subscription websites mentioned above. The biggest collection of free parish records are on FamilySearch, the Mormon Family History website.

Christening entries will give you the date and place of the christening and parents names (but but seldom give date of birth). In some cases, it only give the father’s name. Marriage entries are useful for giving you the wife’s maiden name. Burials will only give the burial date, not the date of death. Sometimes they give the age at death.

Finding your ancestor in parish records is still hit and miss. There is no central source of parish records. Christening was common but not compulsory, so there may not be any record of your ancestor. Even if they were christened, the record may not have survived because of the age of these records or the legibility of the writing. It is a matter of luck how far back you can get.

Other Records

There are a huge amount of other websites where you may find information about your ancestors such as old newspapers, convict records and family history society websites. They are too numerous to mention here but I’ve included a few links on the Links page.

Write Your Own History

Family history starts to come alive if you can find additional information about your ancestors such as newspaper reports or letters. That’s why I think it is important for any family historian to write down their own memories of their life for their descendants to keep. If you don’t know where to start, then there are several ‘life memory books’ available which prompt you with lots of questions about your life.