Are you curious about
your family history? Understanding your background can help you make
sense of who you are today. Researching your ancestors may feel like a
daunting task but follow these simple first steps and you can make a
1. Write down everything you know
Jot down everything you can remember about your family,
particularly the dates and places of marriages, births and deaths.
Geography will play an important part in your future research.
You can probably already sketch out a small section of your
family tree. This will remind you of what you know, and reveal the
2. Speak to your family
Living family members can be a wealth of knowledge. Start
with parents, aunts and uncles, and then work back a generation if you
"If your grandparents can tell you about their
grandparents then you will have access to a hundred years or more of
family history", says Sara Khan the genealogist of the current series of
Who Do You Think You Are? "Minnie Driver had never met her grandparents
on her fathers' side. But she spoke to her half-cousin Jean who knew
them well and could tell her more about them."
Record the interview if your relatives don't mind. It will be
useful for your future research as well as an heirloom that can be
passed to future generations. Just make sure you label them meaningfully
so that you or others can get back to it easily.
However, there may be areas of your relatives' lives that
they do not want talk about, so respect any boundaries. As an
alternative, they may want to consider writing down their memories so
that they can be read in the future.
Watch out for pet names. 'Uncle Jack' may have been born
'Michael John Smith'. Different family members might refer to the same
relative differently. And non-relatives may be awarded 'aunt' or
'uncle' status in family conversations.
Similarly, ask about any names that may have more than one spelling or version.
Compare different versions of an event. Look out for rumours
or hazy recollections. Where tales overlap, there is likely to be a
grain of truth.
3. Look for physical clues
You'll be amazed how much you can uncover by looking through drawers and boxes.
Obvious documents such as certificates, wills and military
service papers can provide the 'building blocks' of your family tree.
Keep an eye out for other family heirlooms. For example, bibles can often have entire family trees inscribed inside the cover.
Photographs can be another important find. Talk to relatives
and see if they can identify the people in them. Jot the names in
pencil on the back, or scan the photos and label them. Sara Khan
explains, "Una Stubbs had never seen a photograph of her paternal
grandparents and visited the house of her cousin who showed her a
Letters can be another valuable source of personal information.
You may want to ask your relatives for any of the above but, again, respect their right to privacy.
4. Organise your family tree
Your family tree is a map of how all your ancestors are related to
one-another. "It can be time consuming, so you must be diligent and
resourceful to get results", explains Sara Khan.
Take an A3 sheet of paper and start with your name near the
bottom, allowing space at the top for previous generations. You can also
use a word processor.
If you are married, your husband or wife sits alongside you,
linked with an 'm' or an '='. Add any children beneath you, including a
'b.' followed by their date of birth.
Above you go your parents, and above them your grandparents,
along with their birth dates. As you go back in time you double the
number of your direct ancestors - four grand-parents, eight
great-grandparents - and so on. Include the date of their death as well
as their birth, similarly the date of their marriage.
You may know very little about some of them. The whole point
of a family tree is to work out the gaps in your knowledge, and help
you develop a research plan.
Keep an accurate master copy of your tree, which you update
after every piece of research. Keep older versions, so that if you make
a mistake you can rectify it.
In a separate document or folder, keep notes and copies of any documents where the information came from in chronological order.
5. Develop a research strategy
"Memories may become blurred over the years, so verification is very important," according to Sara Khan.
It's always a good idea to check names and dates against
official records. Many indexes of birth, marriage and death
certificates are now online. You can also find indexes at a county
archive or a local study centre.
Census records can also be a way of checking data, or
discovering previously unknown relatives. A census has been taken every
ten years since 1801 with the exception of 1941. There are other ways
to proceed. This may mean a trip to a more specialist archive or
6. If you need help
"Sooner or later you are going to hit a brick wall in your
research, so it's good to think laterally," Sara Khan advises, "often
reaching the earliest census return and the start of civil registration
(1837) can mean a dead end in terms of pushing back further using
centralised sources. However, with Nick Hewer we were able to go back to
the Civil War by using parish records and other sources held locally."
As well as local sources, online resources, books, magazines and journals can offer practical help.
You might want to consider joining a family history society - either near where you live, or near where your family are from.
They organise local talks and provide a support group of
other users who have caught the same family history bug. You may even
discover that someone has done research on a branch of your family.
7. Get started
To find out more about researching your family history, go to the family history section of the BBC History website.
This article has been adapted from a guide by Dr Nick
Barrett, who worked at the National Archives (formally the Public Record
Office) from 1996-2000 and as a specialist researcher on Who Do You
Think You Are? with contributions from Sara Khan, genealogist in the