How to trace your family tree
Welcome to our short guide on how to research your family tree in England, Wales and Scotland, using resources readily available on the Internet.
If you think this will be a moment's work - think again.
It may be easy to trace your family if they have unusual names, married only once, and lived in the same village for generations; but in other cases you will find that people moved around a lot, names were miss-spelt, and dates of birth were incorrectly given. Consequently you may have to do a lot of detective work to piece the jigsaw together.
With luck you should be able to trace some branches of your family tree back to people born at the start of the nineteenth century, but should you come across an unmarried mother or person whose name is not listed in the index of births, for example changed to cover up a bigamous marriage, that may not be possible.
Note that it is very important to check and cross check information as it is very easy to branch off on a false trail, and bear in mind that that new information is being added to the web daily, so that it is always worth returning after a while to personalities with which you think you have finished.
If you were adopted, or your relatives came from overseas, you may need to look elsewhere for guidance.
Step 1 - ask the family
Start off by writing down what you can remember, and if possible ask brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents what they can remember - like who married who, where, and when. Stories about members of the family might not always be right but often there is a grain of truth.
If clearing out a relative's house, search attics and old suitcases for 'archived' family papers to see if there are any surviving documents such as newspaper cuttings, family bible, wills, obituaries, photos, birth, marriage or death certificates that the family might like to keep.
Step 2 - review and plan
Draw up a draft family tree to help you understand the information you hold, relationships and gaps.
Then think about what you want to find out, and how you will store the information you collect.
A lever arch file with dividers for the different branches of the family can be useful.
Step 3 - initial searches
You will need to search the index of Births, Marriages and Deaths to find the reference of the certificate you want to order.
Civil registration started in,
1837 England and Wales
Copies of the England and Wales BMD indexes compiled by GRO can be found in Public Record Offices and on subscription websites such as Ancestry. Be aware that some errors have occurred in transcription and some records never reached the GRO
Transcriptions of local records by Family History Societies are beginning to appear on line. The websites listed below include links to some of these and other websites of potential interest to family historians.
UKBMD Links to BMD indexes on the Internet
UKGDL Links to genealogical directories and lists on the Internet
UKMFH Links to Military Family History on the Internet
FreeBMD Is an on going project to make civil registrations available on-line free of charge
It is best to concentrate on one person at a time, and it will help if you have an idea of their occupation and where the individual was living. eg
The basic process is to locate your relative's birth certificate, which will name both parents (if married). Then search for the parent's marriage certificate, in the index of marriages, which can be purchased from the GRO. The marriage certificate should give parents' age, and the names of their fathers and occupation. From that you can search for the parent's birth certificate and so on back to the first central registrations in England and Wales in 1837.
Given that stated ages are often inaccurate and some surnames such as Brown, Jones and Smith are common in cities, you may have to obtain several certificates before you come across what you think is the right one.
Census returns offer another window into family life and you may be able to trace your family back from one generation to another, aided by the transcribed indexes of Births, Marriages and Deaths, which have been made available by Ancestry (and others) and are now fully searchable.
Many UK public libraries have a subscription to Ancestry.com so you can often book a computer at the library and dip into the Census returns (including Scotland) on a trial basis at little or no cost.
Ancestry and others have created a searchable index from the census pages so you can search for a record for example by name, place and date of birth, and then click to view the images matching your search criteria.
You will learn some useful lessons from this first foray into the census records eg,
So sometimes a lot of investigation is needed to tease out a record, and even then it is not always possible.
Ideally you should start with a relative, such as a grandparent, who you can easily identify in the 1901 or 1911 census, and from there you can attempt to go back to earlier censuses.
Censuses of the population (recording names) have been taken every 10 years since 1841 and (except for 1841) list people living at the address, relationship to head, age, occupation and place of birth.
In 1841 family relationships were not documented, age was only recorded to the nearest five years rounded down (and even then cannot be relied on), and the census only stated whether or not the person was born in the county.
Step 4 - further investigation
England and Wales
If at this stage you get hooked and want to search from the comfort of your own home you might want to consider purchasing an annual subscription to Ancestry.co.uk for example. For a fixed price of about £85 you get unlimited searches and you can build family trees using their online database which allows you to record cousins and second marriages etc as well as your direct line. This is very useful if you are interested in recording the lives and occupations of the wider family group.
You may also come across other public trees, sharing a common ancestor, which can be very useful in extending your tree. However you need to bear in mind that these trees can contain errors and may lead you down a false track. Remember to check and cross check.
The official website for Scottish records is,
Digitised records are kept of
You have to buy credits to view the BMD, census and OPR records, but the cost is very reasonable. For example the cost of viewing a record of a birth marriage or death is about £1 compared to £9 for obtaining a certificate from the GRO.
If you have ancestors who lived in Scotland you are in luck because the Scottish BMD records contain more information than their England and Wales counterparts.
A full birth certificate will give you,
When and where the child was born
The name of the mother
The name and occupation of the father (if claiming to be married)
The former name of the child's mother
Scottish records also contain the date of the parent's marriage
A marriage certificate will give you,
The date and place of the marriage
Ages, occupations of the bride and groom and where they were living when they were married
The names and occupations of their fathers
Scottish records also contain the name of the mother and her maiden surname.
The Scottish records state (deceased) if the father or mother were dead at the time of the marriage while English records may not. Also some early English marriage records simply state 'of full age'.
A death certificate will give you
When and where died
Name, sex, age
Occupation (if known)
Cause of death
Name and residence of informant
Scottish records also contain the name of spouse and their occupation, name of father and their occupation, and name of mother and her maiden surname.
The Scottish website permits complex searches, but you may find that not all the information, such as age at death, has been transcribed into the searchable database so that filtering by age etc does not always work.
Other sources of information
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often referred to as the LDS) has made the International Genealogical Index (the "IGI") available on the Internet at,
This is a partial transcription of Parish Registers together with additional material provided by family historians, and is useful for looking up baptisms and marriages before the the central indexes were started in 1837 (England), 1855 (Scotland).
The new search page does not always throw up the record you are looking for, in which case it is a good idea to try the old search page. The link below will direct you to where the old search page can be found:-
There is yet another way into the IGI by location, through the Batch Number web pages at,
This can be helpful if you know where your relatives were living.
1911 England and Wales Census
This is a record of everyone who lived in England and Wales in 1911. It provides a unique snapshot of the lives of your ancestors, except that some suffragettes chose not to be registered. The records were completed in manuscript by the head of house, so should be accurate, unlike the trancriptions which can contain errors due to difficulty reading the handwriting.
The 1911 England and Wales census can be accessed from findmypast.com and,
The latter site can be searched free of charge and then credits bought to view either a transcript of the census return or the original manuscript.
Subsequently a transcription of the 1911 census has become available on the Ancestry website, though there are still some areas to be transcribed. If you have an Ancestry subscription, you can view the 1911 census images at no extra cost - whereas if the record you want is only on the 1911 site you will have to pay.
1911 Scotland Census
The 1911 Scotland Census is now also on-line and can be searched on the www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk website
Due to transcription errors, you may need to use different combinations of search criteria to find your relative. We found one person from his place and date of birth, his forename and his wife's forename. The transcribed surname was found to be completely different from the written surname.
Someone once said that neatness is secondary and that the most important thing is that other people can correctly interpret your handwriting. Were it always so!
Public family trees
You will sometimes come across family trees either hosted on www.ancestry.co.uk or posted elsewhere on the Internet. These can be a treasure trove of information. In once case we came across a tree with thumbnail images which matched unknown people in an old family album; from that we were able to make contact with a family whose ancestors emigrated to Australia in 1866.
Networking with others
Sharing information with other family researchers can be one of the most powerful tools in expanding your family tree, especially if you want to record the occupations of the brothers, sisters and cousins of your forebears. We have built up contacts in the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand who have been very helpful in expanding our family tree (a special thank you to Catherine, Heather, Christine, Andy, Jenny, David, Margaret, Robert and Laurie).
Births, marriages, deaths, obituaries, bankruptcies and other events may have been reported in local newspapers.
Archives of some newspapers are held on microfiche in libraries and county record offices.
Recently newspaper archives of the British Library were digitised and a searchable database created to take you to pages likely to be of interest. For example archives of the Glasgow Herald prior to 1900 can now be viewed on-line.
These pages can be accessed on-line by subscription, which is a little unsatisfactory if you are working from home as you can't be sure what you are buying.
Alternatively free access may be possible by visiting either the British Library, or selected Public Libraries, and at some colleges of Higher Education - you'll need to enquire.
Some BMD extracts from the Greenock Telegraph have been put on-line by the Watt Library, and this is a useful resource if your relatives lived in Greenock.
Archives of the London Times, and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can be viewed from home using your Worcester library card. Google Worcestershire 24 hr library to find out more.
There are some WWI British army service, pension and medal records on 'Ancestry' and 'Findmypast', but many records were destroyed by German bombing in WWII; some service records list date of marriage and names wife and children.
The CWGC website records military and civilian casualties, ie those who were killed, in WWI and WWII. In some cases the spouse and parents are named..
Your relative may also be mentioned on a war memorial, church roll, or in the county record office.
Some digitised WWI Royal Flying Corps pension records are held by National Archives and can be purchased on line.
The WWI records of soldiers of the United States of America can be found on Ancestry and the records of Australian soldiers can be found and viewed for free on the National Archives of Australia and other pages. We have found the Australian pages difficult to dig into but when you find your man, there is a lot of information available - their records were not destroyed by the German bombs!
Wills provide another means for filling gaps in your family tree.
Don't neglect maiden Aunts who may have left an inheritance to nephews and nieces, and in doing so named people you might not previously have found. You might also find the married names of daughters.
If you have found and transcribed a copy of a will you can offer the transcription to a new free website where wills can be hosted and shared
There are not many wills online at the moment, but you may be lucky.
Modern English Wills (those dated after 1858) can be obtained by post for a fee of £5 from the Probate Registry in York using an online form (Probate PA1S) You will need the name, date and place of death - which are provided by the death certificate. The form can be found on the following web site under /forms/probate.
An index of wills or calendars is held at selected County Record Offices, so it is possible to search the microfiche for your forebear if you do not know the exact date of death.
On Ancestry you will find a copy of the England and Wales National Probate Calendar for the years from about1864 to 1941 (some gaps). Occasionally you will find confirmation of a death in Scotland. The entries typically give date and place of death, names of the executors and value of the estate.
Some counties, such as Derbyshire, publish an on-line list of the wills held, so you can easily check if your relative is mentioned,
Scottish wills from 1513 to 1901 can be found on the website
which holds digitised images of records of the National Archives of Scotland.
Often there was no will, because property was passed down to the eldest surviving son and the relatives agreed upon division of the remainder of a small estate. However we were fortunate to identify six wills relevant to the family.
Wills have to be purchased and the images downloaded. Payment used to be by a separate credit card transaction (fee £5 per record) but in 2012 it was announced that in future it would be possible to purchase Wills using the 'credits' purchased to view census and BMD records and that the fee would reduce to £2 per record.
You would probably want to download two records
Copies of Scottish wills after 1901 can be obtained from The National Archives of Scotland. The procedure is different and more expensive than that for England. You have to pay a fee up front and then they will give you a quotation for supplying a copy of the will..
An on-line index of Irish wills has recently been created and can be found on the web site,
This, together with military records, newspaper, trade and street directories provides a means to search for ancestors in the absence of census returns.
A list of UK city and county trade directories such as Pigot, Kelly and White's can be found on Ancestry.co.uk. These can be useful for tracing, for example, merchants, shopkeepers and shipping agents. A copy of the 1880 Belfast directory can be found at,
Ancestry hosts a database of British phone books - which can occasionally provide minor snippets of information.
This is not an area we have delved deeply into.
As a busy trading nation with many people coming in and out, few records seem to have been kept of passengers entering and leaving Great Britain. There are some lists of passengers entering Britain from 1891, but you are more likely to have success with people entering America and Australia.
Ancestry hosts passenger lists which can be accessed from public libraries. We have found snippets of information but though interesting these have not added to our family tree.
It's worth searching National Archives on-line. We found reference to a divorce and were able to order the papers by post which were revealing to say the least.
Recently while searching using a family name we came across an air ministry record referring to 1887. The air ministry was not created then but it happened to be our person's year of birth. The record could be purchased on-line for only £3.50 so we took a punt and it turned out to be their Royal Flying Corps service record.
Cemetery and Burial records
This is not an area we have delved deeply into, as only patchy records appear on-line, but information on gravestones could give further leads, should you know in which churchyards to look.
We found some relatives buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St James, Hampton Hill. The records can be found on-line at,
Look for quick links on the left sidebar and then click churchyard.
Burials can also be searched from the Richmond website,
We borrowed the first edition of a CD of England burials compiled by family history societies and found only two members of the family, buried at the parish church of St Martin, Alfreton - Henry Evans died 1864 and his wife Mary died 1825. A second edition is in preparation and may prove more useful.
Another member of the family died Glasgow 1849, and an enquiry to the Mitchell Library revealed his age at death which aligned with the OPR (but not the 1841 census), and that he was one of 3,000 people who died in the Cholera outbreak of 1848/49. He is buried in Glasgow Necropolis and his obituary was published in the Glasgow Herald.
One place studies
Villages are beginning to place more and more parish records on-line, and family history societies have been transcribing parish registers.
The Malvern Family History Society (MFHS) with the support of Worcester Records Office has transcribed Worcestershire parish baptisms between 1813 and 1839 providing an extension to the centralised records which only go back to 1837 and the IGI. The records can be searched at,
This is a subscription site and after registration you can currently search the baptisms for a charge of £14.95. These records are available to MFHS members free using a voucher system and are also available on-line free to researchers visiting the Worcestershire Library and Family History Centre in Worcester.
Phase 2 of the project, already underway is transcribing Worcestershire baptisms 1754 - 1812
Stanley in Derbyshire
We hit a dead end after obtaining a marriage certificate and failing to trace the father in Stanley, Derbyshire in the 1841 census.
Then we were contacted by another researcher who had further information about the family, and that in turn led us to find out about the Stanley one place study, which is currently hosted by ancestry.com at,
Quite simply to quote from this website, this is a study of a particular area, be it a village, town, or part of a county, with particular reference to its people, parish registers, censuses etc. The concept was pioneered by John Palmer, whose Wirksworth Website is well worth looking at even if you have no relatives there. John's website also contains a list of all other One Place Studies.
The key thing here is that the BMD records have been transcribed and are accessible on-line, so if you had ancestors in Stanley you are in for a treat.
It turns out that the father of our man was latterly a coal miner who died at a young age several years before his son's wedding. The BMD records were able to identify the son's parents and siblings.
Blockley in Gloucestershire
A different branch of the family were farm workers and lived in the Cotswolds. Part of the family settled in the hamlet of Springhill near Blockley.
Blockley now lies in Gloucestershire but was once part of Worcestershire and the baptism records to 1813 have been transcribed by the MFHS.
Even better, Researchers of Blockley have put a lot of information about the village on the web at,
so if your ancestors came from Blockley you are in for a treat.
London Electoral Rolls
The London electoral rolls now searchable on ancestry.co.uk give the names of those registered to vote at each address until about 1950. Note most women did not get the vote until 1928.
Scottish Valuation Rolls (1915)
The valuation rolls list the owners and tenants of properties responsible for paying taxes.
The London Gazette
A useful source of information about civil and military appointments, the award of honours, and bankruptcies. Also see the Edinburgh Gazette.
Well that's the end of our short guide, which records the sites and sources we have tried and found useful.
Succeeding in Family History
Helpful Hints and Time-saving Tips
ISBN 1 85306 691 5
We can recommend this book, particularly if you are new to family history research.
It explains in detail variations in spelling you might come across, the use of nicknames, and possible reasons for changes of surname, transcription errors and records failing to be entered into the index of births, marriages and deaths.
Strategies are also suggested to help you find those elusive ancestors.
If you are an old hand, dipping into this book will confirm many of the lessons you have learnt and will probably bring a smile to your face
Last updated 10th July 2012