Basic Research Tools
Your Guide to Surname Research and Genealogy.
Find out about the documents most likely to help you trace your family's past. Discover which official documents can help with research, and pick up expert tips to help you get the most out of your searches.
The certificates that record the most important events of anyone's life - their birth, marriage and death certificates - should be your first port of call when attempting to establish concrete facts about your ancestors. It's obviously easiest to start with known relatives.
'Once you've obtained your documents, the fun really begins.'
You will need to order duplicate copies of certificates you are interested in. Before you can do this you will need to obtain a certificate reference number - you do this by looking at indexes that are arranged alphabetically in quarterly chronological volumes, stored at one of several research centres.
The certificates for England and Wales are housed at The General Register Office in Southport, but the relevant indexes are available to the public at the Family Records Centre, London. A separate registry for Scotland is located in Edinburgh, at the General Register Office of Scotland, New Register House, whilst records for Ireland are divided between Belfast and Dublin - at the General Register Office of Northern Ireland, and the General Register Office of Ireland.
Once you've obtained your documents, the fun really begins. From a birth certificate you can obtain your relative's date and place of birth, the name and residence of their mother (and sometimes her maiden name - for you to follow up later). The name and occupation of the father is also added to the certificate.
A marriage certificate provides you with the full names of each partner, and the date of the marriage - more useful clues for further researches. You will also often find out the names of the fathers of both bride and groom.
From a death certificate you'll discover the date of death and final residence of your deceased ancestor. Perhaps of even more interest, though, is the name of the person who informs the authorities that a death has occurred. This is often a relative who can also be traced, thereby setting up another set of searches.
Searching for certificates
Here's a list of things to think about, when looking for the certificates that interest you.
Consider order of indexes. The various certificate indexes are arranged in alphabetical order of surname, with first names (as recorded on the certificate) listed alongside.
Consult the right index. There are separate indexes for births, marriages and deaths, with each volume containing lists of all people registered in one quarter of the year. Remember to consult the volume within the relevant quarter.
Establish your relative's place of birth. Only the registration district is recorded on the certificates (along with the certificate reference), so you will need to know at least roughly where your ancestor was born before you can look for relevant documents.
Try to work backwards. You will find that it is always easier to work backwards from more recent members of your family rather than forwards from some far-distant relative. If you are unsure about the real age of relatives, you can usually obtain a rough date of birth from other sources, such as 19th-century census returns.
Widen your net. Census returns are not always accurate. You will probably find that a hunt for data may involve searching the indexes covering several years either side of the presumed date.
Take care with common names. Common surnames present extra difficulties. You may find several possible candidates listed in the indexes, and great care must be taken to ensure you have identified the correct individual. You may need to order several certificates before you can be confident you have found the right person.
Expect some failures. A known individual can sometimes not be found in the indexes, particularly if they lived before 1875, when penalties for non-registration were introduced. Also, registration sometimes took place overseas, or was done by the military - you can search other records (such as separate military registration indexes, which you will find at the Family Records Centre, London) for clues about this.
Allow for more than one name. People can be known by names other than the one under which they were registered, so that the real name of, say, Aunt Julie, might be recorded as Mabel on the certificate and in the index.
Take one step at a time. Remember that the certificates will only give details of one individual per generation - so you'll find, for example, no details of siblings.
A slightly more complicated source of information can be found in many parishes, in their registers of baptisms, marriages and burials. From 1538 in England and Wales, and 1555 in Scotland, each parish in the kingdom was required to keep these, and they are very useful to genealogists. However, it is important to stress that most of the records prior to 1837 do not provide an actual date of death or birth, but only the date of the event that followed it (burial or baptism).
Parish registers are not a comprehensive record, as they were maintained at the discretion of the local vicar. Some are easy to read, others extremely difficult. Most are viewed on microfiche. Theoretically, you should be able to obtain the name of the individual you are interested in, the date of specific events, and, in the case of baptisms, the parents' identity.
'You will need to have an idea of the geographical location of your family's origins ...'
Try scanning several years to pick up all family members. You may also need to look through records of neighbouring parishes to pick up everyone of potential interest. In many areas, printed transcripts have been prepared that will save you squinting at the fiche.
It is important to note that, until 1752, the start of the year in England was 25 March, not 1 January - so you may come across entries such as '24 February 1678/9', indicating both possible dates.
A possible alternative to parish registers is the International Genealogical Index, prepared by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. This covers every part of the British Isles, usually subdivided into county or region, and is arranged alphabetically, by surname. However, it doesn't include most burials, and doesn't cover all parishes. You will need to have an idea of the geographical location of your family's origins, and you may need to travel to distant archives.
There are also some registers for foreign churches and non-Anglican religions, such as Quakers, Roman Catholics, Muslims and Jews. Many of these were deposited with the Registrar General when official registration was introduced in 1837, and will be with The National Archives. Modern records are likely to be with the relevant organisation or place of worship, for example a mosque or synagogue.
Wills and probate
One of the best ways of gleaning information about family relationships is via an individual's will, which usually contains specific bequests to family members. Before 1858, the executor or executrix would register the will in the relevant ecclesiastical court to obtain a grant of probate, thereby allowing the bequests to be fulfilled. After 1858 a Central Court of Probate was established, where all wills for England and Wales were registered. Nowadays wills are registered at the Principal Probate Registry.
If an individual died without a will, then letters of administration would be granted permitting the heir at law or next of kin to dispose of the estate. Furthermore, from 1796, death duty was payable on the estate, and the registers often detail next of kin, as well as later annotations.
In terms of locating family members, wills are the most important of the sources you are likely to find. In England and Wales you will find separate will registers for the Prerogatives Courts of Canterbury (at The National Archives) and York (at the Borthwick Institute, York) that go up to 1858. Thereafter all English wills have been registered centrally (and copies of wills can be obtained from the Principal Probate Registry, London).
Wills registered in local diocesan courts can be found at the relevant county or diocesan record office. A separate system exists in Scotland, and its records can be found in Edinburgh. Irish wills are mainly kept in Dublin, with copies available in Belfast (although most wills prior to 1914 have been destroyed).
Working with wills
The following are crucial hints on working with wills:
Remember to use probate copies. Handwriting on original wills may be awkward to decipher, so it may be easier to check the registered copies in the probate courts, where more legible (usually) copies will have been created.
Be flexible about date of death. Wills are not always found listed in the same year that a person died, as the actual grant of probate can take some time. It is always worth checking lists from a year or two after a known date of death, especially for disputed wills, which can take even longer.
Remember exceptions. You should be able to obtain the names of family members who received bequests in any will, along with their relationship to the person who wrote it. However, important members are sometimes excluded - as may be the case with an heir at law, who would naturally receive the estate without the need for a bequest. Hence the first born or eldest surviving male may actually be omitted from the will.
Avoid assumptions. Never assume you are receiving all the facts - corroborate your findings against other sources.
The wider picture
There are many other sources of information. Look at other articles on this site (see left) to find out more about them, particularly about Family Trees.
Don't forget the informal research tools that can help you too, such a
The information in this article is for beginners, and will help you take your first steps to finding out about your ancestors. If your case is a reasonably simple one, you will be able to make a very satisfying family tree.
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