Starting your Family History in the UK

Welcome to this short introduction to starting your family history research.

You may find these articles helpful too:

Tracing your ancestors

Benefits of Membership

About Berkshire FHS

First . . .

... why not read a simple book on the subject?

The Society offers several in the Shop  — including 'Starting Your Family History' by Margaret Ward and the soundly principled (but now very dated) 'Beginning your Family History' by the late George Pelling.

Then . . .

write down what you already know of the family — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents — ideally in simple chart form (eg drop-line chart or pedigree/birth brief).

Next . . .

if you can get to Reading, plan a visit to The Centre for Heritage and Family History — the home of the society.

It is on the second floor of Reading Central Library in Abbey Square, in the heart of Reading. Entry is FREE. Searching online resources is FREE. Research your ancestors - wherever in the world they came from. It is not just for people with Berkshire interests. Opening times

Volunteers staff and run The Centre. Talk to them, and they can explain the wealth of research data you can access here, whether online:

— using websites like Findmypast  The 1939 Register  The British Newspaper Archive  The Genealogist or an international edition of  Ancestry — enabling you to search worldwide edition

— or in CD format, microform, or in print, and on the many useful publications that are available. Let them help you to identify what resources are best for your needs, and suggest next steps in your research.

Unable to get to Reading easily? contact one of the society's Branches or, if you live well beyond Berkshire, get in touch with a family history society local to you. Get details of most (not all) from the Family History Federation (the FFHS rebrands in April 2019).

Get back to 1911 and 1901 . . .

  • Rummage . . . through cupboards, drawers and boxes for birthday and address books, copies of certificates (Birth, Marriage and Death), Education documents, records of Military Service and any medal records, letters, diaries, photographs, the family Bible if there is one, memorial cards, wedding announcements, newspaper cuttings . . .All can hold key details for research.

  • Contact and interview... all your living relatives ... you will always wish that you had done this sooner! They will know much about your family — even if some of the details are sometimes blurred or exaggerated!

  • Search online indexes of key websites, like FreeBMD and Findmypast for the General Register Office (GRO) references that you need before ordering copy certificates for your ancestors' life events — births, marriages, deaths. For England and Wales, indexes start from the September quarter of 1837 — for events registered during July, August and September 1837.  Registration began on 1st July 1837 in those countries (It was 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland). Online searches are the best way to find these references but copies of GRO indexes on microfiche are still held in a few libraries and record offices, including Berkshire Record Office.

  • Obtain . . . copy certificates of life events (births, marriages, deaths) that date from July 1837 or later. Use the online ordering system of the General Register Office. In most cases, you can also obtain copy certificates from the local Register Office where an event took place, but you will need a local reference (not the GRO reference) to do this. Websites like UKBMD or Berkshire BMD are helpful here.

IMPORTANT: Copy certificates cost £11 when ordered online from the General Register Office .

The GRO also offers PDF downloads of some certificate information (Births 1837-1918 and Deaths 1837-1957 only) for £7 per download.

If you order from a local register office, a copy certificate costs £11.00 and you must give a local reference and/or event date.

BEWARE A few commercial companies and websites charge much more than this — for items that you can easily order for yourself, at a fraction of their prices!

In 1939, in 1911 and in 1901 . . .

The 1939 Register (use it at The Centre for Heritage and Family History in Reading) can help to fill gaps in 20th century research.

Working back, search for entries in 1911 and 1901 censuses too. These are online at Findmypast and several other websites. Search indexes for FREE but unless you have a subscription, you will need to pay for transcribed details of individuals and households, and page images of original census returns (1911) or enumerators' schedules (1901). Quality of transcriptions is variable. Always look at the images where you can.

Then back to 1891, 1881 . . .

by searching for census records that are easy to access on websites like Findmypast and The Genealogist . SEARCH THESE FREE AND SEE TRANSCRIPTIONS AND IMAGES (and more) at The Centre for Heritage and Family History in central Reading.

Try simple searches first — with the minimum of information entered. Search progressively — you can always refine things later should you get too many results (or no results). One key benefit of using The Centre is that experienced researchers are there to give advice and guidance on how to get the best from the different search options of the various online services.

You can view census details for eight censuses (those for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911) for all of England and Wales (not just pre-1974 Berkshire) at The Centre for Heritage and Family History in Reading. More websites that may be helpful to newcomers to family history can be found on our web-links page.

Earlier than 1837, it gets a bit harder . . .

because you need to go to parish records to find information on ancestors who lived or were born before 1837. Details of baptisms, marriages and burials are recorded in parish registers. Other parish and local records can give useful details of individuals and families too.

These records are usually held in County Record Offices, like Berkshire Record Office which holds the original records of parishes and places of the pre-1974 Royal County of Berkshire.

Increasing numbers of parish records are now indexed and transcribed and some can be found online, with viewable page images in some cases. Berkshire Family History Society has transcribed substantial numbers of parish register entries. These have been published in CD format in a county wide series — see Berkshire Baptisms Berkshire Marriages and  Berkshire Burials

The society also publishes a growing series of Parish Register CDs by individual parish.

You can access many (but for a variety of reasons not all) of the society's parish register and other transcriptions online at Findmypast.

The FamilySearch website can be a useful finding aid, although the coverage by parish and by time period are far from complete for most counties. Due to privacy considerations, the most recent records may not be displayed online. 

To summarise - aim to get back to 1837 . . .

use GRO Indexes of Births, Marriages and Deaths and census details together, whether in the Berkshire Family History Society's Centre for Heritage and Family History, or in County Record Offices or in other online searches. Other pages of this website explain where online information is available.

Ensure that you have a true member of your family — not someone who simply shared the same forename and surname and was about the same age! To be certain, you will sometimes have to buy a copy certificate. A certificate can often give you vital extra information that can help the next steps in your research — examples are addresses, ages, maiden names, occupations and confirmation of relationships.

Then later . . .

you may want to search parish registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, and other parish records, for towns and villages where your ancestors once lived. Original records are held by County Record Offices and are usually available on microfilm or microfiche. Some parish register transcriptions and images can also be found online.

However, despite what online publishers would like you to believe, while many records have been transcribed and can be accessed online, these are only a small proportion of the records held in archives and record offices. Many of these holdings are unlikely ever to be available online but they could hold the key to unlocking your family history — so consider a visit to the relevant archive or record office when the moment is right!

Storing your research findings . . .

You will need to organise and store information that you discover. In the past, this was often done using a card index or paper record. Today, it is usually done with the help of one or more computer programs. There are many widely available programs written for family historians. Examples include:

RootsMagic Kith and Kin
Family Tree Maker (FTM) Discontined December 2015
Legacy Family Tree

Personal Ancestral File (PAF) Discontinued July 2013

Ancestral Quest

Family Tree Heritage
MacFamilyTree Pedigree
Family Historian Gramps (free software for Linux and UNIX like systems)
Family Tree Builder (linked to )
Genopro (free software)

All can generate reports in several forms, including 'Family group' tables and charts of ancestors and descendants. Some allow extensive customisation of reports. The society can offer good advice in this area and, where requested, demonstrate programs by arrangement on Tuesday evenings at the Research Centre..

Computer Branch meetings frequently review and discuss pros and cons of individual programs in their latest editions.

Find a course . . .

to learn how to research your Family History properly.

Berkshire Family History Society runs introductory programmes from time to time too. Details can be found on this web page

Ask about courses available in your area. Or look online, using a search engine like Google or go to the GENUKI web page tor local information and details of events, including courses.

Contact . . .

others who are researching the same surnames that you are. See Members' Surname Interests lists on websites like this one. There are Birth Briefs (also known as Pedigree Charts) that can help you too.

Also . . .

the society runs workshops for beginners and improvers in family history research and also in the IT (computing) aspects of the pastime. Here are the current details.

On the first Tuesday evening of each month, a Discussion Group meets at The Centre for Heritage and Family History.

And on most Tuesday evenings at The Centre, knowledgeable volunteers are available to answer your computing related queries - from hardware issues to choosing and using a family history program.

You are always welcome at . . .

... any meetings of Berkshire Family History Society (or your local family history society) and meet and talk to other researchers, most of whom will be only too pleased to help you and share their knowledge and experience.

For registered charities, provision of public benefit is a legal requirement. It follows that visitors are always welcome at Branch meetings and events.

Where they can afford to do so, visitors are encouraged to donate £3 when attending a meeting. This is a suggested contribution towards the costs incurred by the society in arranging local activities.

Look out too for the many outreach events — often in local libraries — where you can drop in for free help and advice with your research.

Subscribe, read and watch . . .

Buy a family history magazine like 'Who Do You Think You Are?' and watch out for family history programmes — regularly repeated — in TV and radio schedules.

The BBC TV series 'Who Do You Think You Are?' gives some valuable perspectives on researching your family history — but does not necessarily explain exactly how to do it! Programmes from the earlier UK and US series are often repeated. Look out for these.

page reviewed and part revised 4th April 2019


Additional information