Help! How do I start tracing my ancestors?

Photo by Jon Marshall

Photo by Jon Marshall

Are you fascinated by your family history but don’t know where to start? Finding your ancestors can be a real adventure – here are a few pointers to start you off in the right direction:

1. Get ready!

Read these blog posts: Golden Rules before you start your Family History; Getting Organised; How to interview your relatives – Part I, Part II, Part III.

2. Make a start with what you know

Fill out a research sheet (click to download PDF) for yourself and then your parents, only entering information you know to be true. Move on to your grandparents if you can. As soon as you enter the realm of guesswork,switch to pencil and make sure to use question marks.

3. Check yourself

Now verify the information you have just written down. You will need to search birth, marriage and death indexes (read “Ordering BMD certificates” for more info) to check the dates and places of these events. Don’t forget that registrations sometimes took place in the month, or even year after they happened and registration districts sometimes include surprising places. Births after 1912 should include a mother’s maiden name and deaths after about 1968 should include an accurate birth-date. Write it all down!

4. Get over the first hurdle

Struggling to find someone? Always start with what you know.

  • You already know the name of one of their children if you’re working backwards. So, find the child’s birth registration and look for the mother’s maiden name. You may have to order a copy of the birth certificate if it was from before 1912.
  • Do you know when or where they died? If so, find them on the death index. This will give you a year of birth.
  • Do you know who they married? If so, find their marriage on the index. You may have to order a copy of the certificate to find out their fathers’ names, occupations and their addresses.

5. And you’re off!

Keep working backwards until you reach a generation who would have appeared on the 1911 census. This is the most recent one we can see at the moment. Make sure you write everything down on the correct research sheet. Find your ancestors on the census – you will need a subscription to or Find My Past. After this, it’s just a case of moving backwards through the censuses, using birth, marriage and death certificates as verification when you can.

Of course, this is very simplistic and there will be lots of hurdles to overcome, but that’s the fun part, right? Good luck on your adventure!

Were your ancestors rich or famous?


‘I believe I’m related to the Hamiltons, the Dukes of Abercorn and Devon, as well as Winston Churchill and Lady Diana, but I’d like you to check for me.’

When this gentleman rang us we were, of course, a little sceptical, as we often get asked to trace back to the rich, famous or aristocratic. Usually, we’re not able to make the connections our clients are convinced exist. This one, however, proved to be true. As well as the rather impressive list above, our client also turned out to be related to sixteen British prime ministers, albeit distantly, including William Pitt the Younger, Sir Winston Churchill and David Cameron.

This find was unusual however – just one nugget of gold in a stream of enquiries. So, why do so many of us believe we are descended from nobility? Here are three of the most common misleading factors:

1. A famous place

A recent client found the surname of Bamborough in her tree, a couple of generations back. She wondered if the name came from the owners of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. We explained it was very unlikely that her line of the Bamborough family, who were all coal miners, ever owned or inhabited the castle itself, except perhaps as servants. During the Middle Ages when people left their birth place to seek work elsewhere, they would often adopt the place name as a means of identification. Besides, we quickly discovered on Wikipedia that the Forster family of Northumberland provided twelve successive governors of the castle for some 400 years until the Crown granted ownership to Sir John Forster. The family retained ownership until Sir William Forster (d. 1700) was posthumously declared bankrupt, and his estates, including the castle, were sold to Lord Crew, Bishop of Durham. So the family who owned and inhabited the castle were never actually called Bamburgh.

2. A famous name

Someone else came to us with the surname of Windsor. Surely she must have been related to the Queen somehow? If you have a famous name it’s always worth checking its meaning before you start working out your eligibility to the throne! A quick look on the Surname Database will tell you the most likely origins. In this case it was from Windsor in Berkshire and came from the Olde English word, windels, meaning a windlass (ship’s winch) plus ora meaning a bank. In other words, a boat’s landing-place with a windlass. Furthermore, the British royal family only took the name of Windsor in 1917, when it was changed from the too-German-sounding Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (a branch of the House of Wettin).

3. ‘Illegal child of the Lord of the Manor’

This one comes up more than any other. I don’t know if people think they can prove their ownership of their local National Trust property, or think that there’s a large unclaimed inheritance waiting to be scooped up but, sadly, any claims like this are almost impossible to prove one way or the other. Firstly, even it were true that your great-great-granny had fallen foul of her wealthy employer, it is highly unlikely that any documentation would exist to prove this. On the birth certificate of an illegitimate child, the name of the father was almost always left blank, presumably to protect the reputation of the menfolk. The mother was left dishonoured and impoverished, of course! Only in a very few cases would a man own up to his misdemeanours and acknowledge their child.

And then there’s always the chance that great-great-granny was in fact swept off her feet by the local baker’s lad and the ensuing pregnancy was hushed up to avoid the shame. When facts are not given, stories rise up to fill their place and are then fuelled by generations of Chinese whispers.

Still convinced your ancestors were wealthy or famous? Tell us in the comments and we’ll let you know what we think!

Genealogy: D.I.Y. or Go with the Pro?

Photo by John Carleton

Photo by John Carleton

Are you curious about your ancestry? Perhaps there’s talk of a mystery that’s never been uncovered or maybe you want to prepare a family history as a gift for another family member? How do you decide whether to set off on your own adventure or commission a professional to do the digging for you?

Here are some things to think about:

Spare time

Researching your family history can become a lifetime’s work! As you trace further back in time, there are more and more branches of your family to follow, and every week new records and databases are becoming available to search. For some people, perhaps those who are retired, it’s a very satisfying hobby that can be picked up and put down whenever they feel like it. Others are wary of starting out on their own and paying for subscriptions, if they know they are not going to be able to give it the time it needs.

D.I.Y.? Make sure you have plenty of spare time.

Go with the Pro? The best option if you have little time to spare.


Very few family histories are as straightforward as they appear on TV shows like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Even with unusual names, it’s surprising how your ancestor can be lost amidst a sea of other similar names or misspellings. And the nature of the beast means that your own family history is probably the first, and perhaps the only one you’ll ever attempt. On the other hand, even hiring a professional can be a mistake if they’re not up to the task. At Family Detective we are regularly contacted by people who’ve had their tree researched by someone else and want it re-doing because it was wrong. Choose a company with a good track record that’s recommended by a friend, or has lots of good testimonials.

D.I.Y? Avoid as many mistakes as possible – subscribe to this site for example, and receive a free download to get you started: ‘Research your Family History like a Pro.’ See ‘Getting Organised’ ‘Golden Rules before you start your Family History’ ‘Barking up the wrong tree – avoid foolish mistakes’ and many more helpful articles.

Go with the Pro? Find a reputable company with a good track record. To give you some idea: at Family Detective we’ve completed 500+ projects and all our research is checked by at least three people.


There’s no doubt that genealogy can become a costly exercise. Even if you want to do everything yourself, you’ll certainly need a subscription to a site like (currently £119.99 for 12 months) or Find My Past (£129.50 for 12 months). Then there are BMD certificates that you might need, as well as a software package for creating a tree and presenting your findings. Most good professional genealogists will have subscriptions to both of the above sites, and sometimes lots of others too, but hiring a Pro will almost certainly be more expensive.

D.I.Y.? The best option if you want to keep costs low.

Go with the Pro? Paying for other people’s expertise never comes cheap. However, if you decide to hire a professional, make sure you’re clear about what’s included in the price. Rambling budgets which are payable by the hour can grow fast and furiously – that’s why we provide fixed-priced packages for different budgets. You know exactly what you’re going to pay, with no nasty surprises!

Discovering the Real McCoy (Part II)


Last week I gave you steps 1-4 to successful ‘Haystacking’ – an elimination technique we use when there are just too many people with similar names and details who fit our client’s ancestor – when we feel like we’re looking for a needle in a haystack.

Here are the final steps:

Your haystacking form should by now look something like this:


5. Start to fill in the gaps

The aim of this exercise is to be able to bridge the gap between all the adult Charlie McCoys on your sheet and them as children, with their parents.

Find births, marriages and deaths if you can, and try to work out which belong to which man.

The key censuses are the earliest ones — in my example the 1861 and 1871, when I would be hoping to find my Charlie McCoy living with his parents.

6. Consolidate the information

Once you have filled in as much as you can, you may find that you have some duplicated columns. Closer investigation might reveal that Charlie McCoy number 3, for example, was the same as number 6 and you can see that he simply moved counties or changed his occupation. Remember that duplicates will never appear on the same census twice, so if you have gaps in the real McCoy’s column that can be filled by another candidate, consider the possibility that they are one and the same person.

7. Eliminate the red herrings

Sometimes you will find treasure that will enable you to eliminate someone straight away – for example, they may have lived on the same street all their lives, or maybe they have their elderly father staying with them on a census. If you know your ancestor’s father was called Charles, and you find them with a James, you can cross them off the list.

You might have to see a marriage certificate of one of your red herrings, in order to eliminate them. Yes, this can be time-consuming and add some time to your project, but for those of you that have been searching for the real McCoy for a long time it might be worth the investment.


8. Reveal the real McCoy

Hopefully by now all the data you have amassed will have started to make some sense. There will be some definite red herrings that you can confidently cross off and maybe one or two ‘possibles.’ What you are looking for now is some definite evidence that you have found the right person. This might mean ordering in a birth certificate or tracing a set of parents backwards and forwards through the censuses to try and rule them out.

On some occasions we have been absolutely convinced that we’ve found the right person, on others, as with Charlie McCoy, we now have three birth records to obtain and another haystacking exercise to do on his mother. Such is the life of a Family Detective – some of you will appreciate how exciting it will be when we can shout ‘Eureka! We’ve found the real McCoy!’