�¯�»�¿ Advice and tips on family history research, from Zena Grant (family and local history researcher)

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Zena Grant

Family and local history researcher

Wiltshire Regiment

Drums and Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment

Advice on family history research

Before you begin

Tracing your ancestors can be fascinating but it takes time and patience; much more time than you expect, as any family historian will tell you. Many people want to do as much as possible themselves, and the more preparation you do before visiting archives and searching the internet the more you'll be able to achieve on your own. Good preparation also means you can make best use of your time when you start looking at documents, because you'll know what they're likely to contain and how to use them.

And if or when you get stuck, I'm here to help.

Making a start



When you've taken all this as far as you can, you're ready to dip into documentary sources.

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The next step

If, like most people, you start your search with birth, marriage and death certificates to confirm the information your family has given you, you'll be using civil registration records. To help you understand how to obtain a certificate, here's how the system works.

Ever since civil registration was introduced in 1837, every birth, marriage or death is (or should be) registered with the registrar local to where the event happens. Every three months the registrar sends a copy of these records to the General Register Office (GRO). At the GRO the basic details are amalgamated into an index which covers events in the whole country, and you can search this national index. Microfilm or fiche copies of the index are freely available at most reference libraries, some archive offices and all Family History Centres; they can also be searched online for a fee. At the FreeBMD website the indexes are free to view but note that so far the database is not complete. (The original manuscript indexes are not available to the public.) This national index is your starting point.

Once you've searched the index and found the right entry, note the reference number and apply for a copy of the full certificate from the GRO by letter, phone or online. The certificate will give you the details as supplied to the registrar at the time.

And if the event you're looking for doesn't seem to be there? Be flexible about the spelling of names. Most people couldn't read or write and many names are recorded phonetically. Also consider Polly may have been registered as Mary, Fred as Frederick or Alfred or Wilfred. Also, in the early days of civil registration there was some resistance to it and some events didn't get recorded at all.

marriage certificate

Marriage certificate

Other routes

There are two variations on this which will probably not be relevant when you begin your search but may be useful later. If a marriage took place at a parish church it was also recorded in the parish register. This means that if you already know when and where a marriage took place you can get a copy of a marriage certificate from the place where the parish registers are held, usually the county archives. For this you don't need a GRO index reference number, and if you go to the archives yourself you can see the original entry at no cost.

You can also obtain a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate from the local registrar's office, but a word of warning. If you decide on this approach you will need details of exactly where and when the event took place. Knowing it within a few months or general area is not enough. Register offices hold information only about their own area, so the reference number from the national index is meaningless and most registrars don't have time to undertake searches.

So if all you have is a reference taken from the national index, you must apply to the GRO. A certificate costs £ 9.25.

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A national census has been taken every ten years from 1801, but only those from 1841 are useful to the family historian. Before that names were not included.

In 1841 the enumerators recorded

From 1851 they added

This continues until 1901 when a little more information is included. The latest census you can see is 1911 as the records are closed for 100 years. Bear in mind the enumerator recorded what he or she was told: people weren't always entirely honest; sometimes people had a guess at what they didn't know; and occasionally people seem to have said anything just to get rid of the pesky enumerator standing on their doorstep asking intrusive questions.

census 1871

1871 census return

Where to see the census returns

The original census returns 1841-1911 are held at the National Archives at Kew and are not available to the public. However, microfilm and microfiche copies are available to view at local record offices and libraries (except the 1911, see below). These repositories usually have the returns only for their own area and don't always have a whole run of censuses, so check before you go.

There are only eight repositories in England and Wales where you can view the 1911 on microfiche or microfilm, and they are Birmingham Archives and Heritage, Devon Record Office, The National Library of Wales, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, Greater Manchester County Record Office, Norfolk Record Office, Nottinghamshire Archives, and Tyne and Wear Archives.

Census returns are also available online, some free to search and some with a small charge. Generally, searching for a name is free but to see a full copy of the entry you have to pay a small fee or become a subscriber.

Some online locations for censuses are

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Original documents

The Archives: note-taking for the beginner

When you decide it's time to visit the archives, always take with you notepaper, pencils and a pencil sharpener - you may have a lot to write down. To reduce the risk of damage to documents, archive offices do not allow visitors to use pens.

Before you start taking notes, write the date and your location at the top of the page. Next, write the name of the document you're looking through, the dates it covers and the office's document reference number. This will all seem something of a chore to start with but believe me you'll be grateful in months and years to come when you flip back to look at what you saw in that document.

There is nothing more frustrating than having to return to an archive office to get details from a document you've already seen. And nothing more soul-destroying than finding you'd stumbled on a wonderful piece of information but you didn't note down where you saw it, so you can't follow it up. Or worse, you remember where the document was but don't remember how to find it again. So keep careful notes of all this from the very beginning.

You may think you'll remember everything you've seen - after all, this is your family history and it's all important to you - but after weeks, months and probably years of research and several notebooks later, it's impossible to recall where you saw what, and which pages of a document you did and didn't look at.

So take a minute or two to make those headings at the top of the page. You'll always be glad you did.

Parish Registers

When you've obtained the certificates you need you'll probably want to look at the parish registers, but before you set out there is a very useful index you should look at first.

This is the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which is an index to most of the baptisms and marriages (but not burials) recorded in UK parish registers from the mid 1500s to the late 1800s (indeed, for a large part of the world too). It's compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) and is completely free to view.

This index used to be broken down by county, then surname, then Christian name, which was easy and intuitive to use, and very reliable. The new website is less obvious and far less reliable, so do not accept a negative result as final: always check against original sources if an event you expected to find is missing. The IGI is available on microfiche at most archive offices, many reference libraries, all Family History Centres, and is online free at the Family Search site. It's a very good starting point, but if what you're looking for isn't there it may also be because that parish isn't included in the index. Not all are. Do remember to check anything you find there against original sources. Copies are always liable to contain errors and omissions no matter how careful the compilers are.

Now you're ready to turn to the original parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial. These are church, or ecclesiastical, records quite separate from civil registration described above, and are usually held at the local archives office.

Original parish registers are free to view. Check with the archives office before you go in case you need to book a seat or a microfiche reader, as many parish registers are available only on microfiche in order to prevent wear and tear on the original documents.

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Will of Mary Grant 1850


After January 1858

All wills and grants of administration made after this date are held centrally by the Court of Probate in London. You can view the detailed index to them, the National Probate Calendar, on microfiche at the National Archives at Kew, District Probate Registries and many archive offices and libraries around the country. You can also order a copy of the original will or administration from the Principal Probate Registry, London by requesting a search covering 4 years, which costs ���£6.This includes a copy of the will if it's found. The greater the number of years searched, the higher the cost.

Before 1858

Responsiblity for proving wills and granting administrations lay with the ecclesiastical courts. Original wills and administrations are held locally, usually at the county archives office. There is no national index and each repository will have an index to its own wills collection, so the biggest problem is discovering where a will was proved. As a general guide:

Other sources

headstone of Frank Calam, Fridaythorpe, N Yorkshire

Headstone of Frank Calam, Fridaythorpe
N Yorkshire


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More advanced sources

Later on you're likely to want to search other sorts of documents. These are less frequently used by family historians but are very good for giving detail and background to the list of names and dates you've compiled. They are also excellent sources for local history. You'll find most at the local county archives.

Thurleigh, Bedfordshire,  Enclosure Award map 1805

Enclosure Award map 1805 Thurleigh,


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