How to trace your ancestry

research family tree

by Katharine Wootton |

Master your family tree and uncover the secrets of your DNA with our expert advice

How to start your family tree

Tracing your family history- also known as genealogy- is now easier than ever before with lots of resources to help you figure out what your ancestors got up to.

To make a start, genealogy expert Dr Nick Barratt, historian and founder of Sticks Research Agency suggests asking yourself to question everything you know so far.

"Write down all you can remember about your parents, grandparents or earlier generations, focusing on names and key dates of birth, marriage or death,” says Dr Nick.

Then it's time to fill in the gaps by chatting with as many family members as possible to uncover their stories about your ancestors such as where they worked or any skeletons in their closets you could follow up. Get hold of any letters, photos or other memorabilia your family have.

family chatting

How to draw a family tree

“The next step is to organise your data into a family tree – drawing up this simple map of your roots is the best way to show how each person is connected to you,” says Nick.

“Begin by jotting down all the dates you know of. You can join a genealogy site such as Ancestry or Find My Past, who provide free family tree building resources as part of the package. However, a good old-fashioned pen and paper can be just as helpful.”

Get the right resources

To double-check your information and extend your family tree, Nick suggests using official records that include details of the past generations in your family. These include:

Historic birth, marriage and death certificates from 1837, found online by searching the name of your ancestor. If you live in England or wales, apply to the general register office, call 0300 123 1837, visit Or if you live in Scotland, many of the earlier records can be downloaded via Scotland’s People, call 0300 244 4000, visit for more information.

old photos

Census records from 1841-1911 are also available online, as are indexes to wills and probate records. Most census records can be found via the Ancestry or Find My Past websites – Wills are a bit more complicated. You can find some microfilm versions at archives, libraries and Latter day Saints family history centres.

Parish records, which list baptisms, marriages and burials prior to civil registration in 1837, are being currently indexed for you to search. Aside from the online websites, you can go to the county archive as they usually hold these records in microfilm format.

Family history for free

While the main ancestry websites do hold a fee to join, many libraries and archives provide free access to online resources. The website [www.](http://www. allows you to search indexes with no charge.”

It can be easy to get carried away adding different names to your family tree, but you may also want to investigate military service records, employment records, details of workhouses or details of transportation overseas. you’ll soon feel as though you’ve stepped back in time!

lady on laptop

There are also a number of free apps that can help.

Find A Grave lets you access the largest online collection of burial info for headstones worldwide. Request a headstone photo or snap one yourself and share it instantly.

Meanwhile, Interviewy is a voice recording app that's helpful for saving conversations you have with family members or record your own notes for research.

Getting help

You don’t have to do it all in one go though; many family historians have been pursuing their work for decades and there are plenty of ways to get extra help.

“You might want to join a local family history society, or visit key record offices such as the national archives in kew www.,” Nick recommends.

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