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Finding Your Family
Considering looking into your family history? Here are a few tips and pointers to start you off...
Have you ever wondered who your ancestors were? When you start looking into your family history you could be in for some surprises.
Don't expect to complete your search in a few weeks, and remember that there will be certain expenses - you'll probably have to pay for some documents, and you might need to spend money on travel, stamps and phone calls.
First Things First...
Talking to older relatives is a good way to start. Encourage grandparents, uncles and aunts, even cousins to reminisce about their youth and what they remember being told about the family. You may find that another relative is already researching your family history, and you could pool your information.
Start collecting material about your family - including birth, marriage and death certificates, photographs, diaries and letters. All of these will help you build up a picture of your relatives.
Be patient with older relatives and you may need to speak to them several times to jog their memories. Get them to show you their photograph albums, letters and family Bibles and it will trigger reminiscences.
But remember that memories can be faulty, so double-check all dates and names. Be very careful about recording all the information you get, and its source.
Checking the Records
All births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales since 1st July 1837 are recorded at the Family Records Centre in London. There is no charge to look through the index but for the full biographical details - including parents' occupation and so on - you'll need to buy a certificate, which takes four days to prepare.
You'll be able to use these files to work backwards from a known event, such as the date of your grandmother's birth. From her birth certificate, you'll be able to get her parents' names. Then by looking up their marriage certificate, you can find their dates of birth and so on.
The Census Returns
We have just had the 2001 census. It has been carried out every ten years since 1841, but the details are not released until 100 years later. At the moment you can search the census returns for 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891, which record who is living in a house, their relationship, ages, occupations and birthplaces.
The census will tell you who was living under one roof in that particular year and, if you're lucky, this will include several generations all at once. By checking later returns, you can get an idea of the wider family.
You don't have to go to London to check the returns for England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Copies of most are available from the local Records Office or even your local library.
If your search takes you back to the time before civil registration in the early part of the 19th century, you'll want to consult parish registers, such as baptisms, marriages and burials, which were recorded by individual churches rather than in a central register.
Start by consulting the local priest or minister in the area where your relatives lived. If you're lucky, the church may still hold the records. If not, they may have been deposited in the local county record office (in some cases, local family history societies are compiling indexes of all the county's parish registers which you may be able to consult).
The Family Records Centre has many nonconformist registers from England and Wales. The Society of Genealogists in London has the largest collection of indexes of all parish registers, in the country.
Another invaluable source of information is the International Genealogical Index compiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons. This contains about 80 million baptisms and marriages from parish registers between 1538 and 1875, arranged alphabetically in county sections. Anyone can look at this register at their local Mormon branch library - check the phone book for details.
Their records also cover entries world-wide, so if your ancestors were born, married or died abroad. This could be of great help to you.
The Mormons have begun to put their genealogical database on-line. It has the world's largest collection of genealogical data, which it has collated over the last 100 years. The on-line project initially puts 400 million names on-line, with more to follow.
Tracing your ancestry is encouraged by the church. The site has proved immensely popular, getting 500 hits a second and requiring extra servers to be brought in. You can find the site here.
You can get a lot of useful and unexpected information from your ancestors' wills, which are often much more informative than death certificates. They'll give you an idea of how wealthy (or broke!) your relatives were, and the names of the executors and beneficiaries in the will could give you some intriguing clues about other branches of the family.
Copies of wills dating back to 1858 can be seen at local county record offices, or you can see them at the Principal Registry of the Family Division at Somerset House in London.
The Record Office
Each county has at least one record office: you may need a readers' ticket to use it.
A record office can provide you with a treasure trove of data, including maps, trade directories, newspapers, records of local businesses and landowners, as well as details of schools and lists of apprentices in various professions.
Local libraries can also be a mine of information.
Join your local society
If you want to meet other people who are compiling their family trees, then join your local family history society.
Contact the Federation of Family History Societies or look for a listing in your phone book. Most of the societies organise meetings and produce journals, and they are also carrying out useful work in indexing registers of census returns and births, marriages and deaths in their county.
You may also want to join the Society of Genealogists, although you can use their library for a small fee without becoming a member. However, if you join you receive the quarterly Genealogists' Magazine and you can borrow books, microfilms and microfiche.
Many family history societies will have lists of the families on which members are working - and the Society of Genealogists also keeps an index of them, so you may find your research overlaps with that of a long-lost relative!
From the start keep detailed records of everything that you discover in your search. Use one of the many family tree computer programmes to store and index your research.
Don't just record the details - remember to note down each source so that if you find any discrepancies you can cross-check your information.
During your research you may well come across someone with the same name as yours, but don't be tempted to launch into him or her, unless you are quite certain that it is a relative. You can waste a lot of precious time by going off at a tangent.
If you need help in tracing your family, or are struggling with documents in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting, consider employing a professional searcher. The Society of Genealogists publishes a leaflet listing professional genealogists.
When you are writing to someone for help or information, remember to include an sae. Librarians and record offices get many requests for help, so make life as easy as possible. Just like any other skill, tracking down documents and interpreting them can actually be learned. Some universities and colleges offer courses in genealogy, which you may find useful.