Tag Archives: Tracing Your Family Tree

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 That means a historical document, or an image of one.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!

Spotting Fake Genealogy

In a world where fake news has become as significant as the real thing, it’s time to shine a light into another dark corner: fake genealogy.

The Victorian actress Miss Leigh in 'Pretty Peculiar'

The Victorian actress Miss Leigh in ‘Pretty Peculiar’

Why fake it?

From ancient times, genealogy has been a powerful tool in reinforcing identity, whether personal or political. From the ‘begat’ lists of the Bible, to the often tortuous descents of privilege documented in Burke’s and our own Debrett’s peerage, ancestors have been invoked to demonstrate status through membership of a particular tribe. This is not a universal motive nowadays; many ancestor-seekers are simply curious, and find that identifying their forbears helps them to understand history. For some, however, the desire to be connected to a famous, titled or wealthy family is a driving force.

Inevitably, this has led to false claims and to exploitation.  These fall into two categories:

The accidental ancestor

Tracing ancestry is not always easy, even with all the modern finding tools, and the pages of websites such as Ancestry are teeming with inaccurate family trees. Moreover, oral history tends to value dramatic effect over accuracy. We humans like to arrange things into patterns, and to fill in any gaps in the facts with borrowed ones. Granny (or indeed Grandad) might not have been consciously fibbing with that story of a fine lady who ran off with the gardener; but the chances are, she didn’t. (Interestingly, plod through the documentation and you might find a grain of truth in the story: there might have been a professional gardener in the family, or the family might have relocated for reasons that appear illogical to their descendants.)

The unscrupulous genealogist

Intent to deceive is much rarer, but there have been some notable examples. American genealogy – with the uncertainties of emigrant origins, a vast country, and a lack of early documentation – was particularly ripe for exploitation. The American ‘genealogist’ Gustav Anjou (1863–1952) delighted hundreds of clients by selling them (for very high fees) spurious pedigrees connecting them to glamorous or illustrious emigrant families. This went far beyond the sort of carelessness that we see now online: Anjou provided false or fabricated references to documentation, providing the illusion that scholarly research had been carried out.

To avoid fakes pushing their way into your own ancestry, there are some simple rules to follow. Don’t adopt anyone else’s family tree without checking each connection. Was it is based on guesswork, wishful thinking, idly clicking buttons on a wet afternoon, or on careful research using original records (which includes digitised images of original records)? Are there obvious howlers, such as people having children at an impossibly young age, or simultaneously being in three different parts of the country? Look at each generation carefully, and in full: siblings are important.  Occupations are important.  If there is a marriage or birth certificate to be had, get a copy.  And be wary of those innocent-looking little green leaves or links that the website waves at you. It is not thinking, it is only shuffling its data and showing you a few of its cards.

For further information on fake genealogy:

Gustav Anjou – Fraudulent Genealogist: lists the family names affected by Anjou’s misdemeanours, but contains broken internet links.

Fraudulent Genealogies: FamilySearch’s overview of the subject, with several useful links.

Baronage: sets out a number of errors, and the background thereof, in the 1970 edition of Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage.

Some Do’s and Don’ts in Genealogy

We have been researching British ancestry since the 1970s.  Our starting point is often the research already carried out by the family.  From the thousands of cases we have worked on, here are a few hints for those just starting out…

DO Talk to your relatives

Your own family members are your most precious resource, so if you can, ask them as much as possible.   Our Recollections book is designed to help in this process.

Recollections: A Personal Record

DO Plan your system of recording

You are probably going to amass a large volume of detail.  Before you begin, think how you are going to record what you find.  In a database, online, by hand, or in a  format of your own devising?  All of these options are valid, but make sure that they will last, and that they will be understood not only by yourself but by anyone else you might want to share them with.

DO Record your sources

Be meticulous.  Every time you record a fact, or a theory, make a note of where you found it.

DO Record full details

To avoid having to revisit records, make sure that you capture everything the record says, the first time, by saving an image or transcribing it in full, with its source.

DO Label family photographs

Using full names and dates if possible: not just ‘Mum and Dad’!

Uncle Sam & A. Gladwys (Morris)DO Consider the context

Find out about places and occupations; as well as making the research more interesting, it might explain where an ancestor might have come from or where they worshipped.

DO Work back from the known to the unknown

Avoid the temptation to leap to a more interesting family of the same name.   If anyone tells you they have a family tree with a gap in it, consider whether you have ever seen a real tree with a gap…

DON’T Trust family trees or entries submitted to websites

… unless they are supported at each stage with clear evidence, such as an image, citation or link to a primary historical record.

DON’T Jump to conclusions

It may not always be possible to establish clear-cut evidence of a link, particularly in a period or location where records are sparse, but avoid gung-ho or wishful thinking genealogy.

DON’T Assume printed sources are always correct

To err is human.  Transcriptions and indexes are never completely accurate.  Early genealogical works such as Burke’s Landed Gentry relied on family information that was often wildly inaccurate.

DON’T Restrict your search to what is easily available

If you hit a problem: be logical.  Don’t be tempted to just search what is online, on the shelf in front of you, or indexed.  The answer may be quietly sitting in an unindexed record from the  parish next door.

And finally, keep an open mind.  Your ancestors may have some surprises to spring on you…