Starting your Family History in the UK

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

You may find some of the other articles on this website helpful too. As examples:

Tracing your ancestors

Benefits of Membership

About Berkshire FHS

First . . .

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

Berkshire Family History 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 know already about your family — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents — preferably in 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, and in the heart of Reading. Entry is FREE. Searching online resources is FREE too. Here you can research your ancestors - wherever in the world they came from. It is not just for those with Berkshire interests. Opening times

Talk to the volunteers who staff and run The Centre. They will explain the wealth of research data accessible here, whether online — using websites like Findmypast The 1939 Register The British Newspaper Archive  The Genealogist or Ancestry Library Editionthe worldwide edition — or in CD format, microform, or in print, and on the many useful publications that are available. They can also help you to identify the ones that are best for your needs, and suggest next steps in your research.

If you are unable to get to Reading easily, contact one of the society's Branches or, if you live well beyond Berkshire, get in touch with your local family history society. Details of most (but not all) are on the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) website.

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 of these can hold key details for your 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 family history websites, like FreeBMD and Findmypast for General Register Office (GRO) references that you will need before you can order copy certificates for life events — births, marriages, deaths — of your ancestors. For England and Wales, these indexes start from the September quarter of 1837 — with events registered in the months of July, August and September 1837.  Registration began on 1st July 1837 in those countries (1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland). Online searching is now the best way of finding 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. You can also obtain a copy certificate from the Register Office that is local to where an event took place, but you will need the local reference details for this. Websites such as UKBMD or Berkshire BMD can help you to find those details.

IMPORTANT: Certificates cost £9.25 when you order them online from the General Register Office .From time to time, the GRO also offers PDF downloads of certificate information (Births and Deaths only) at a lesser charge.

If you order from a local register office, a copy certificate costs £10.00 and you will need to give  a local reference or event date.

BEWARE Certain commercial companies and websites will charge you much more than this — for something you can easily order for yourself, and at a fraction of their prices!

In 1939, in 1911 and in 1901 . . .

The 1939 Register (available in The Centre for Heritage and Family History in Reading) will help to fill gaps in your 20th century research.

Working back, search for entries in the 1911 and 1901 censuses too. These are online at Findmypast and several other websites. You can search indexes for FREE but you will need to pay for transcribed details of individuals and households, and for images of pages of original census returns (1911) or enumerators' schedules (1901). Quality of transcriptions can be variable. You are advised always to look at the actual images where you can.

Then get back to 1891, 1881 . . .

by searching for census entries that are readily accessible on web sites like Findmypast and The Genealogist . SEARCH THESE FOR FREE (and more) in The Centre for Heritage and Family History in central Reading.

Search progressively, entering the minimum of information — you can always refine things later should you need to. One more benefit of using The Centre is that experienced researchers are on hand to give advice and guidance on how to get the best from these 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.

Berkshire Family History Society also operates a research service see Berkshire Name Search for details.

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 has the original records of the parishes and places of the pre-1974 Royal County of Berkshire.

Increasing numbers of parish records are now indexed and transcribed and some of these can be found online, with 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

Some (but not all) of the society's transcriptions are also accessible online at Findmypast.

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

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

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

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

And 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.

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 to come along to . . .

... 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 'Your Family Tree' or 'Who Do You Think You Are?' and watch out for family history programmes in the TV and radio schedules.

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

page reviewed and revised 17th December 2017


Additional information