My Advice to Budding Family History Researchers:
I often get emails from people asking me for advice on how to start researching their family tree, so much so that I have decided to create a web page specifically for newcomers to this wonderful and satisfying hobby. My research into my own family history has used records available in the United Kingdom and I assume that similar sources exist in other countries. My research knowledge only extends to sources used when researching my own family - for example I have never looked for or searched criminal records - apart from the list of convicts on the 'First Fleet' to Australia (no family members found).
Start with Yourself::Always start with yourself. You will have a birth certificate that will at the show the names of your parents and provide other information as to where you were born, perhaps the exact address or maybe just the name of the registration district. The next step is your parents, their birth certificates would document their parents - your grandparents. Hopefully these birth certificates and perhaps marriage and in some cases death certificates should all be readily available - if not held by your parents then perhaps by your grandparents, or maybe another member of your family who all the family documents, certificates, photographs and letters tend to gravitate towards.
One Generation at a time::Always go back a generation at a time - from parents to grandparents, grandparents to great grandparents. Cross reference where possible to confirm the information you are entering into your family tree. In the UK a census was taken every ten years from 1841 and the information contained in each census (or at least some of it) is going to be available, either on CD or accessible over the Internet. When I first started my family research, the only freely accessible census was the (UK) 1881, however now it is possible to access transcripts of not only the UK censuses but also a wide range of other resources, the only charges being made when the original document is viewed. Please bear in mind that transcription errors do occur, so if there is some doubt over the information being presented check the original document. Always try to get the dates of a family members birth (or christening if pre-1837), marriage (if applicable) and death (if applicable!). Use the census information to get an idea of when the person in question might have died - if they appear in the 1901 but not the 1911 then your search window is narrowed to ten years. The Free BMD website is an excellent resource and the (UK) General Records Office website now features a search facility for Births and Deaths and a search for a birth record on the GRO website will show the mothers maiden name, very helpful when you are researching a female member of the family.
Ask Granny before asking Google::Where possible, before you reach for Google, try Granny or even Granddad first or any older member of your family. Elderly aunts I have found tend to have a greater knowledge of the family than elderly uncles. Being of an older generation they are more likely to retain family letters and old photographs - and to know who is in the photographs. Be sceptical of family stories - some will have been embellished over the years and perhaps confused with other tales. Check on the likelihood of the story being true - it is easy to check the crew and passenger lists if you are told that your great grandfather went down with the Titanic. Similarly if you're told you are the real King or Queen of England, I might be inclined not to walk into Buckingham Palace before you have investigated the claim! Other stories may contain useful information - not readily apparent but worth noting for future reference. One thing that I have found is that some members of the family were not known by their given name, sometimes they might be known by their second name, a nickname or a completely different name altogether. The eldest son in the family was often named after the father but tended to be known by another name to avoid confusion at the time - only to cause confusion one hundred years later. Was it Thomas the father or Thomas the son? Cross reference with official documents where possible - birth, marriage and death certificates and census records.
Military Service::If your family lived through either of the two World Wars, then it is possible that some members of the family served in uniform. Their service records may have survived (sadly my family's records didn't survive the Blitz) and will give you an insight into where they served and what action they might have seen. Medal cards contain information as to rank, theatre first served in, medal entitlement and often service number and regiment. The Medal Roll Index will contain information as to all the theatres of war served in and if they had been killed in action. If your relative was from the UK or the Commonwealth and was a casualty of either the 1st or 2nd World War then you should be able to find where they were died and where they were buried, or if missing in action, then the memorial where they name is remembered. If you live in the UK, then there will be a local war memorial to the dead that you can visit.
Some UK military records are available online, for others you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew. Be sure to take with you identification and if you want to make notes don't take a pen - only pencils are allowed and only ones without erasers. Cameras were permitted the last time I visited but best to check first. Bags - holdalls and handbags need to be stored in lockers.
UK General Register Office::The UK General Register Office (GRO) now has a search facility on births and deaths. Index searching is limited to a maximum of plus/minus two years for each search but by altering the search start date between searches you can cover the required time span. The births index search is especially useful as it will include the mothers maiden name, although at time of writing (November 2017) it is only searchable up to 1916.
Census Records::If you are in the UK and can get back to the 1911 using family knowledge and birth, marriage and death certificates, then you can then use the 1911 census and step back every ten years until the first census in 1841. You will need to cross-reference but the good news is that civil registration of births, marriages and deaths came into being from 1837. The recording of births might be a bit hit and miss for the thirty years or so following 1837 but deaths will be 100%. As I have said elsewhere on this website it is difficult to ignore a dead body! If you are searching for a family in the 19th century and they are not be to found in one census whereas the ones either side contain the entries you are looking for - then look for the records of the nearest workhouse, your family may be there. There wasn't a workhouse in every parish - parishes got together to establish a 'union workhouse' that they would all contribute to, so you will need to search for the union workhouse for the area you are interested in. My family moved from Berkshire to London in the late 1860's - this was shown in the census records for 1871, so although we already knew of the relocation, the census would have pointed us in the right direction.
Parish Records::If we are to reach back into the past beyond 1837 we need to rely on the keeping of the parish records - my research has used the Church of England parish records - other denominations may have kept records. By using parish records it should in theory be possible to get back to 1536 - the very beginning of the keeping of birth, marriage and death records in the parish. However, in practise you may well find the records you need are missing. The parish records that do exist may be available online or in some cases I have found only available on micro-fiche (fortunately, my local library had a fiche reader). The quality of parish records do vary, some are neatly written, with names clearly listed, others I have found to be hard to read. You will find that the local clergy didn't hold back from expressing disapproval over children born out of wedlock or of a widow that remarries too soon after the death of her husband. Makes for interesting reading though! Remember that in those times, people generally remained in the same area all their lives, perhaps moving only to the next village, so if they apparently disappear from one parish, they might well appear in another one close by.
Churches and Cemeteries::Church yards and cemeteries are always worth a visit, if you are lucky you will find the gravestone of the family member you are seeking and if you are really lucky it will be possible to read the details from it. Many gravestones have suffered over the years and are barely legible. There is the possibility that the gravestone you are looking for has been removed from the grave and do remember that some families were too poor to afford a gravestone or even a marker to indicate where their ashes were scattered. The cemetery will have records that will shown the plot or grid number where the deceased was buried or where their ashes were scattered.
Local Libraries::Some large local libraries have a Family History Centre where for usually no charge you can search through the records they hold. A key resource is the "IGI" - the International Genealogy Index - a set of records (on micro-fiche but also available online) that contains birth, marriage and death records. Be aware of transcription errors, the records were transcribed by volunteers who may have made assumptions as to what a particular location might be. My own experience with a transcription error led me to look in a completely different area of the country for someone who never left London! Also, remember there are a lot of places in England with the same name. Where possible refer to the original documents.
Organise Your Family History::Managing all the information you will acquire can be difficult - so invest in suitable genealogy software, avoid software that is intended to print out jazzy looking certificates, instead chose a good genealogy database that can produce reports and maybe even generate files for publishing on the Internet. I am currently using Roots Magic (version 7) an excellent piece of software and I would recommend you try the free (limited functionality) download.
Things to be aware of::Some families 'reused' the name of dead children - I have found instances where if a child died at a young age, a subsequent baby would be given the same name as the dead child. Which does tend to cause confusion when you find you have two children called William with the same parents but different dates of birth and dates of death. Two hundred years ago child mortality was high and many would die in their early years. They might appear on one census but not the next or they may not appear on any census. Look for gaps in the birth years of children - you may see a regular pattern of births. If there is a gap - could they have been a child born? A search on both births and deaths index may reveal a 'missing' child.
Not everyone tells the truth even on official documents and may appear on a census under one name and on a marriage certificate as another. Women tend to lie about their age - I have found census entries, ten years apart where the woman has aged less than ten years! Not everyone who says they are married are actually married and sometimes children are born before their parents marry. It is possible for there to be two families with the same surname in the same small village - so don't assume they are related. Always trace both families back to a common ancestor. Like me, you may want to share your research on the Internet so as to discover other branches of your family. Please be aware of the possibility of identity theft and you should not publish details of any living family members, especially their date of birth. Any good genealogy software should enable you to exclude that information from publication, but make sure first.
Check and check again::The most important thing to remember is to check and cross-check as obtaining copies of official documents can be expensive so you need to make sure that the document you decide to purchase is the right one - there are no refunds given!