Researching your family history can be a life-changing adventure. This guide will help you research your British relatives, find out about your ancestors and trace the history of your family step by step.

Start Close to Home

Sketch your First Family Tree

The first thing you should try to do when tracking your ancestry is to sketch your family tree (no matter how small). You can draw it on paper or use one of the many online services such as Ancestry (paid), MyHeritage (paid), FindMyPast (paid), FamilyEcho (free) or FamilySearch (free). 

Many trees begin with just two or three names and a few vague dates. Write down your information first, and include your full name along with the date you were born. You can also add your partner and when you got together, as well as your children.

Once you have the very first outline of your tree, start going up the branches and sideways. If you know them, add your parents and siblings, and continue with your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and everyone else you remember – even if it’s just first names. Only make sure that the relationships between the tree members are correct, you can always adjust the rest later.

I like to think of a family tree as a living organism. Mine has over 1200 people, and it changes all the time. I’m constantly adding new data, updating existing one and, once in a while, breaking through a whole new line!

A FindMyPast Family Tree
A family tree created in FindMyPast

Gather Ancestry Information from Relatives and Friends

If you can, talk to a relative that might have more information. Write down anything you find interesting, even if it doesn’t look too relevant at first. As your tree grows, you’ll be thankful to have those memories stored.

When I started my tree, I talked to my mom and grandma first. They knew so much! 80% of my immediate tree was constructed from what they remembered. And not only they had all this untapped information, they were also ecstatic to share it with someone!

When I hit a roadblock in my tree, I created a facebook group for one of my family’s surnames and invited others with the same one. After just two weeks, the group had been filled with photos, family lines and anecdotes. Those that joined had asked their own relatives to tell them stories, so we constructed our past collaboratively.

Explore the Archives

Online Genealogical Records

Fortunately, there is an immense quantity of online genealogy records you can check to find relatives, and most are free to use. Among the documents you can usually find online are birth, marriage and death certificates, baptisms, phone books and war records. 

I would suggest starting with FamilySearch, which houses the world’s largest collection of free records and is quite easy to use. You don’t have to register, but if you do you can search the databases without limits (occasional visitors are restricted to a dozen per session). FamilySearch has documents in both text and image format, and also store a huge number of non-digitalized microfilms you can request and check from their family centers. This is the site I always recommend to check first. 

There are other pages that offer record searches, but you will need to register and in some cases pay a monthly or annual fee.

The biggest one is Ancestry, which offers all sorts of records such as birth, marriage and death certificates, censuses, immigration registries, phone books and a myriad of incredible documents you probably won’t find anywhere else. They have monthly and yearly plans, and in my experience they are worth the investment if you are comitting to researching your family tree.

The site where I have my ‘official‘ family tree (the very big one!) is MyHeritage. They have an incredibly complete library, and link to other sites for extra results. MyHeritage is free for up to 250 people in the tree – more than enough for most! Because of this, it has more users than any other site, so you can frequenly match with others and add information to your tree. 

Finally, don’t forget to visit WikiTree. WikiTree is a community of genealogists connecting the human family on one free and accurate tree using traditional genealogy and DNA testing. Their aim is to have one record for every person that lived.  They are also incredible friendly and love to help new users. Don’t miss their work!

Parish Records

Not every record is online, so if you’re not having luck with the sites mentioned above, it might be time to visit Parish registers (especially if your ancestor lived before civil registration began). You can find some online records from the mid-16th century on at Parish Register and FreeReg

Unfortunately, not all parish records are complete and a large majority are not onlie. The registers vary between dates and geographical areas, and the names are often spelled phonetically or (if it’s before 1730) in Latin. It’s generally a good idea to keep an eye on different spellings and small errors. 

Always try to see the original sources to the documents (and not just transcriptions) and keep in mind that many family members shared Christian names, so double-check occupations, age and other data to make sure you got who the person you’re looking for.

The majority of parish registers can be found at local record offices throughout England and Wales, and their indexes tend to be available online. 

Civil Registration

From July 1837 on, you can find Civil Registrations for England and Wales, although many parents didn’t officially register their kids until the 1870s.

From the third quarter of 1911, maiden names were introduced in the index of births. This makes searches easier, especially when dealing with a fairly common surname. The names of the witnesses can also help consolidate family connections. If you’re ordering certificates from a local Register Office, you may have to supply more information like the exact place of birth.

You can order certificates by post from the General Register Office. They can emit and send birth, marriage, civil partnership, death, adoption and commemorative certificates from £11.00 including postage. 

You can find an overview of how to research using GRO records at Research your family history using the General Register Office.

Census

Census in the United Kingdom were taken every ten years, beginning in 1801 (unfortunately, copies of those older than 1840 have rarely survived).

The Census contain invaluable information such as family addresses, ages (with ladies tending to reduce theirs by a couple of years :)), occupation, education and more. 

You can find census returns for England and Wales for 1841-1911 on sites like findmypast.co.uk, as well as transcriptions of the 1841-1901 Scottish censuses.

Wills and Testaments

You can confirm the death of a person through a will and obtain information about relationships and addresses, especially if there was no death entry on the General Register Index (for example if the person died abroad).

A will should contain name, address, date of death, date and place of probate and the value of the estate

The Index to Wills for England and Wales is currently held at The Principal Probate Registry in London and covers entries from 1858.

Applications can be made in person (in London) or by post to the York Probate Sub-Registry. Copies of the Index are also available at District Probate Registries throughout the country. Wills from before 1858 were administered by church courts and are often located in local county record offices.

There’s a different process in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Wills proved in Scotland from 1513 to 1901 can be purchased online, and those up to 1992 are held at the National Archives.

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland holds wills from 1900 to 1994, however all original ones proved before 1900 were destroyed in a fire in Dublin in 1922. Some local registries might, however, have microfilms. The National Archives for Ireland in Dublin have wills from 1917 on.

UK Electoral and Trade Registries

You can search records of UK electoral registers 2002-2013 and UK Companies House Directors 2002-2013 using findmypast.co.uk (paid) or in directories for trades and professions that can be consulted at main reference libraries.

UK street directories and London street directories were discontinued into the 1970s and 1980s, but older editions can also be consulted in record offices. The University of Leicester has a large collection of scanned images and full-text of trade directories available online. 

DNA Tests

DNA tests have been getting increasingly popular in the last years. You normally send a saliva sample, and a couple of months later receive a genetic analysis of your origins. 

There are different kinds of tests (mother line, father line, both lines and full genome, among others) with different costs. If you’re not sure where to start, I recommend the autosomal DNA test – it’s the cheapest and most popular, and it will give you plenty of information. 

You can buy tests from a lot of different companies. I get mine from FamilyTreeDNA, but the two most popular services are Ancestry and MyHeritage.

If you need help interpreting your DNA results, we can help you. Check our Services page for more details. 

Books about Genealogy