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!

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