Meet our expert
Amy Sell is a family historian at www.findmypast.co.uk
“Family history is the perfect hobby for anybody who likes puzzles or detective stories,” says Amy Sell, a family historian. “Discovering who your ancestors were is the ultimate real-life mystery.” If you fancy turning super- sleuth, here’s how to get started...
Chat with relatives
Jot down everything you can remember about your ancestors, particularly maiden names and significant dates, then ask your family to help fill in the blanks. “They may be able to add extra details to what you’ve listed,” says Amy. “It can really bring your family together, and is a great way of bringing history to life for grandchildren.” Don’t forget to trawl through any letters and photos for clues, too.
Get out there
Births, deaths and marriages are usually easy to fill in, thanks to official census records dating back to the mid-1800s in Britain. Earlier records still exist with local parishes and newspapers, but you might need more help to root these out. Online access is a bonus, but if you don’t have a home computer, visit your local library where someone can assist you.
Or, visit the National Archives in London, or the Borthwick Institute in York, where you’ll find copies of original records as well as computers to use.
Don’t be daunted – the staff are there to help you. Take as much information with you as possible and decide which strand of your family you’re most interested in researching.
Make a start on your family tree
A visual display detailing family names is a great way of recording your research and, as you fill it in, you’ll feel a real sense of achievement! You can do this yourself with a large piece of paper or there are online tools specifically for this purpose.
To do it yourself, write your name three quarters of the way down on a piece of paper. If you are married, your husband or wife sits alongside you, linked with an ‘m’ or an ‘=’ with their birthdate. Add any children beneath you, including a ‘b’ followed by their date of birth.
Fill in your parents, and above them your grandparents, along with birth dates. Add aunts, uncles and cousins, attaching extra pieces of paper to the side or top as necessary. You could even add photos next to the names and display it in your home.
Find My Past offers a free online service where you can add to your tree as you go, and it has census records for you to search. Once you have all your research, you can send your details to a professional printing company such as Genealogy Printers, who create charts starting from £5. They also have blank charts that you can fill in yourself.
“Once you’ve tracked down your ancestors you can find out more about them using school and employment or military records, details of crimes and local newspaper reports, which should be traceable online,” says Amy. “It’s also a good idea to join a local family history society, which may help you further.”
- To find a local group, contact the Federation of Family History Societies, 01455 203133
Find living family
If you want to trace a living relative, you can search the electoral register which should provide you with a postal address.
“Another method of tracing a relative is Genes Reunited,” says Amy, “You can search other people’s family trees to see if you have any relatives in common and get in touch through the website. It worked for me – I found a cousin I never knew about.”
- Visit www.genesreunited.co.uk
Keep records safe
“If you can, create digital copies of any photos or documents you find,” says Amy. “This will protect the information from harm. Whenever I receive a certificate from the General Register Office, or a family member gives me a photograph, I scan it onto my computer.”
Mary Fulton (59) from London, has recently traced her family tree.
“I never knew my grandparents or much about my past. After my mother’s death, I found some old family photos with names and places on the back, which triggered my interest in finding out more.
“I began looking through the census records online and discovered my great-grandfather’s Will on the genealogy website Scotland’s People (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk). When he died in 1918 he left quite a valuable estate – around £2,710,000 in today’s money – which puzzled me as my father had grown up in genteel poverty. The Will revealed he had left his thriving spirit business to his two sons and his main house to his youngest daughter. What happened to the business?
“Now it’s back to the online records to pick up the trail. One find leads to another; it’s like doing a puzzle and I find it totally absorbing!”