Category Archives: Ancestry Research

Tracing Your Ancestors (in England): Top Tips

Here at Debrett Ancestry Research we have researched more than 7,500 families over the years. Tracing your ancestors is a fascinating and absorbing occupation and we all learn endlessly from what we do. But here are a few pointers for those just starting out.

Tip 1: Cherish living memories

Woodcut: medieval young and old women embracing

Family memories are a precious and fragile resource.  So if you can, before setting out to trace your ancestors, ask other family members what they remember. Keep the answers safe and organised. 

We have designed a special book for this, as described in a previous blog: Recollections.

Tip 2: Treat online family trees with caution

Woodcut: medieval man holding branch

They can be helpful, but a lot of the family trees posted on sites like Ancestry are just plain wrong. Beyond living memory, you want every link in your family tree to be supported by hard evidence. That means a historical document, or an image of one. An index entry isn’t enough.  Someone else’s guesswork certainly isn’t. 

However, the best online family trees include multiple original documents, either uploaded or provided as links. If so, look at the evidence for yourself, and check that it makes sense.

Tip 3: Get birth & marriage certificates

Woodcut: medieval scribe with quill

Census returns are a wonderful resource in tracing your ancestors, but don’t rely on them alone. For the period from 1837 onwards, aim to obtain a full birth and marriage record for each ancestor. The birth certificate gives an address and occupation and the maiden name of the mother. The marriage certificate shows the names and occupations of the fathers of the bride and groom.  This is crucial evidence linking one generation to the next. 

However, your ancestors might have married in a parish church whose registers have been filmed by Ancestry or Findmypast.  In that case, the image of the full record can replace a marriage certificate.  Similarly, a baptism record might provide a full date of birth and address (and the General Register Office birth indexes show the mother’s maiden name).

Tip 4: But remember some events were not registered

Although it was a legal requirement to register births in England and Wales from 1 July 1837, not everyone complied. It was only after the Birth and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 that a fine for non-registration was introduced. Similarly, many couples did not marry formally.

Tip 5: Use original records

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

We all make mistakes, and that includes indexers. Besides, the original records are much more interesting than a transcript. Beyond 1837, use Ancestry and Findmypast to search parish registers and a whole host of other records.  But be aware that they don’t cover everything.  Your ancestors might have lived in a county whose parish registers have not been filmed. If so, use an index like FamilySearch in the first instance, but you will then have to seek out the full details, or employ a professional genealogist to look for them.

Tip 6: Keep detailed notes

Woodcut: medieval scribe

Even if you are using a computer program to lay out your family tree, keep a full written record of everything you have looked at.  Every time you record a fact about an ancestor, make a note of where you found it.  If you save an record to your computer, give it a meaningful name so you can find it easily.

Tip 7: Look at maps and gazetteers

Old maps, in particular.  The National Library of Scotland provides an excellent online collection of old Ordnance Survey maps. Old gazetteers (eg Samuel Lewis) and county histories will provide potted descriptions of a parish or village. The more you find out about where and how your ancestors lived, the more interesting your family tree becomes.

Tip 8: Think about the historical context

It really helps to understand the bigger picture.  Read up on the background. Explore the literature of the time.  Wars, bad harvests, industrial change, all affected how and where your ancestors lived. 

Tip 9: Consider different spellings of the name

Woodcut: medieval figure with book

The spelling of surnames was very flexible until relatively recently.  It’s usually a good idea to use the ‘variant’ option when using an online index. If you draw a blank, try lateral thinking. Indexers sometimes have a hard time reading old records and might have misread something. Some capital letters (eg K/R/P) will have been indexed incorrectly.

 

Tip 10: Take your time

Woodcut: medieval figure with scroll

Genealogy is a time-consuming, painstaking process. It can be very challenging and it’s easy to make mistakes. So, don’t rush or guess.

Look at each record carefully, giving yourself time to get used to the old handwriting if need be. Double-check any detail you have copied.

In tracing your ancestors you are taking a journey back in time. Enjoy the travel as well as the destination!