Tracing your ancestors

Article last reviewed and part revised December 2018

How do you start your research?

When you are 'new' to family history research, there seems so much to take on board.

It is never quite so straightforward as they make it look in those TV programmes. No one just produces the information for you! This short article provides a practical approach to get you started and establishes some sound working principles to guide your research.

Most people know something of their parents and grandparents (maybe even something of certain great-grandparents). But do you know where they lived? Or what they did? What traces of their lives still exist today that can tell you more about them? When you trace your family tree, you begin a journey back into the past - a journey back into local history, social history and general historical events and not just into a series of names and dates. The quest might take you back no more than 50 or 100 years before the search 'goes cold', or it might take you back 500 years or more.

Family history research is like a cross between a good detective story and a jig-saw puzzle (with no straight-edge bits), and you are the 'family detective' and 'puzzle manager'. Find a person - what else is there to find about them? And now who are their parents? Are there, maybe, siblings to find as well? Family history research will take you to new and unexpected places, provide sometimes joyful and sometimes harrowing moments of discovery, and will often give you new insights and perspectives into local, political, social and economic history through the lives of ordinary people

And, as you explore different avenues and archives, you will meet and make many new friends along the way.

Always work backwards...

...from what you know to what you do not know


Whether you have lots of relatives, or perhaps just a few, your search begins with yourself. And then your parents. And then their parents (your grandparents) and so on moving backwards.


Organise your information

Before you collect too much information, it is a good idea to get a large notebook or lever-arch folder to act as a simple 'filing system'. Then you can keep all of your research material and information (including physical items like certificates, documents and photographs) in one place. At this early stage, having everything on the PC in scanned or retyped form is not necessarily the best answer. You may want to look at items side by side, or to rearrange them as you uncover new details.

Whatever method you choose, be organised from the start — don't collect information on scrappy bits of paper!

Ask questions and get people talking

Talk to your relatives, particularly older ones. Find out what they remember about your family and its ancestors. They will have many memories of many people - past and present (and not all of them factually 100 per cent correct). They will have anecdotes too (again these can sometimes be exaggerated or embroidered) that will fill out your family history. Just as important, their stories may prompt ideas for other questions you might need to ask, and of different lines of research that you might need to follow.


Collecting as much information as you from family members means that you will save valuable time and effort later.


What documents do you have?

Gather together your surviving family documents and look at them all carefully. They will confirm or confound some of those stories and anecdotes - and will highlight areas that you might need to explore in more detail. Birth, Marriage and Death certificates - while 'official documents' - do not always tell the precise story. On occasions, people gave incomplete or misleading details and, taking Death certificates specifically, a friend or neighbour may have had only a vague notion of the age or occupation of the deceased.

Who are the people in those old photographs? Do you know all of their names. Have any family wills survived? (They can often give vital information on family relationships and circumstances.) Are there surviving letters, military papers, postcards, address and birthday books that might tell you more? You may have a family bible with hand-written details about your ancestors. When you have discovered all that you can from reminiscences and records, try drawing the key details into a rough pedigree chart (or family tree). This will confirm what you know and, just as important, will highlight gaps where you need to do more research.

Now you are ready to go back, generation by generation, and find your ancestors. Work from what you know, and what you have proved, back to what you don't know.


Decide on the SURNAME that you want to research

Which family line will be first? You can't research everyone at once. You might want to stick to one surname, or to one particular line in the family. Remember too that how you spell a surname may be different from the spelling of your ancestors. Just because you write COTTERELL today does not mean that it has always been written this way. In the records, you may find others recording it not only as COTTERELL but also as COTEREL, COTRELL, COTTERILL, COTRIL, COTTRILL, COTTEREL, COTHERILL, just to provide a few examples. Never ignore these variations when you find them.

It's probably easier to leave your SMITH, WILLIAMS or JONES lines until you have made a start on looking into some of your less common surnames. Unravelling John SMITHs in London, as an example, will prove very difficult and is not the best place to start research for the first time.

Finding information online

Some data, especially for 19th and 20th century ancestors, in which you are likely to be interested is now available online. But not all of it!

It's vital to differentiate between reliable sources and individual supposition and opinion. There are so many obvious errors in so many of the supposed 'family trees' posted online!

Honesty is essential - if you cannot prove a relationship conclusively from original records, don't just take someone else's word for it and hope that you have the right person. Just because something is posted on the internet does not make it correct!

You will find good indexes to General Register Office references (needed to order copy certificates for births, marriages and deaths). The FreeBMD website is often under-recognised but is the best starting place (before the commercial online publishers). With the correct GRO reference, you can order copy certificates and confirm family and other details.

The GRO indexes contain errors and omissions and it may also be worth looking at details transcribed from the records of local registrars, using the UKBMD website.

Census records (from 1841 to 1911) are now online too, together with some parish register details and nearly 18 million old newspaper pages. But, despite what online providers would like you to believe, always remember that many more records are not yet online (and may never will be).

Many of these 'offline' records are often the ones that you need to provide you with a key detail or proof that enables you to take your research back to an earlier generation. You will find many such records in places like The National Archives, in county record offices and in other archives and libraries. Many of these will reply directly to enquiries (whether by phone, email or post), so that travel is not always necessary.

But at some point, you will need to visit places where your ancestors lived and worked, and the record offices that hold the original records for those areas. The alternative to travelling is to pay for research services that will (you hope) uncover information that you are seeking.


Benefits of joining Berkshire Family History Society

The society provides help and advice for every family historian living in the local area, whether or not they have Berkshire ancestors and it is the obvious society to join for anyone with forebears who came from pre-1974 Berkshire.

New members receive a Members' Handbook that, like this website,  gives you information, not only on all of the society's resources (like its Research Centre in Reading -see next page) but also more general advice on finding and using other records throughout the country.

If you are new to research, you can also get the help and advice needed to make a positive and successful start in tracing your ancestors.

The society publishes a quarterly journal, the Berkshire Family Historian. Here you can publish your research interests and questions (free of charge), an extremely popular option. The journal also keeps members up to date on developments in family history, not just in Berkshire, but across the country. There is an online Discussion List for members too, where you can ask questions and draw on the collective expertise of other society members. It can also deliver all the news and hot topics to your desk on a daily basis.

Members (and visitors) are always welcome at any of the society Branch meetings held each month in Abingdon, Bracknell, Newbury, Reading, Woodley and Windsor where expert speakers in their field cover a wide range of general family history topics and all those attending can share their experiences. Several branches have reference libraries from which members can borrow books and other publications.

See branch details and benefits of membership

A key aim of the society is to help in the preservation of local records. Indexing of parish and other records is an ongoing process. Key publications on CD include Berkshire Baptisms, Berkshire Marriages and Berkshire Burials and many individual parish registers, and transcriptions and photographs (in many cases) of monumental inscriptions. There are CDs covering Berkshire's War Memorials and Berkshire and the War (First World War) too.

Other completed and published projects include the Berkshire Probate Index —  an index to the Probate Records of the Archdeaconry of Berkshire (1480 to 1857), a full transcription of the 1851 Census for Berkshire, with details of some 178,000 inhabitants, a calendar of Berkshire's surviving pre-1834 Poor Law records and an index to Berkshire Coroners' records.


The Centre for Heritage and Family History

A team of volunteers manage The Centre for Heritage and Family History on the second floor of teh Central Library in Reading. The Centre is accessible by car (parking is FREE during the evening and at weekends), bus and train and opening times are posted on the website. Entry to the Centre is also FREE.

You can access online services like Findmypast, The Genealogist, The British Newspaper Archive and the worldwide version of  Ancestry at the Centre - which means that you can research almost any county or country in the world from this location. Access to these resources is FREE of charge. Many other datasets for Berkshire and surrounding counties are accessible on the computers at the Centre too.

The society has an extensive library of books, film and fiche records in its Reading premises. There is a well­-stocked bookshop too, where you can obtain all of the society's CDs and other publications, and family and local history books, like the Historical Atlas of Berkshire, 2nd Edition, published in December 2012.

So whether your interests lie in Abingdon, Buckinghamshire or Cambridge...

in Faringdon, Kingston Bagpuize or Lambourn...

London, Reading, Wantage or Wolverhampton...

or in Yattendon,Yorkshire or Ysceifiog...

not to mention America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand...

you will find plenty at the Centre to help you with your research.


Monthly meetings and other events

Between them, the society website and the quarterly Berkshire Family Historian - give details of speakers at Branch Meetings. For current activities follow this link. Meetings are usually held monthly, on weekday evenings, starting at about 7.30pm.

Bracknell and Wokingham Branch meets on the third Friday of the month at Priestwood Community Centre, Priestwood Court Road, Bracknell RG42 1TU.

Computer Branch meets on the third Wednesday of the month at The Oakwood Centre, Headley Road, Woodley, Reading RG5 4JZ.

Newbury Branch meets on the second Wednesday each month in St. Mary's Church Hall, Church Road, Shaw, Newbury RG14 2DS.

Reading Branch meets on the last Thursday of the month at The Church of Latter Day Saints, Church Hall, The Meadway, Tilehurst, Reading RG30 4PE.

Vale of the White Horse Branch (Abingdon) meets on the third Monday each month at Long Furlong Community Centre, (at the end of) Boulter Drive, off Dunmore Road, Abingdon OX14 1XP.

Windsor, Slough and Maidenhead Branch meets on the last Tuesday of the month at Christ Church, United Reform Church, William Street, Windsor SL4 1BA.


Outreach events

Society volunteers also regularly offer free, drop-in advice sessions in many libraries across Berkshire, including those at Abingdon, Bracknell, Faringdon, Newbury, Slough, Thatcham, Wantage, and Wokingham.These are intended to help all researchers, not just those with Berkshire interests.

The society also supports a number of family history and associated events throughout the year in Berkshire and adjacent counties.

The society has supported the Who Do You Think You Are? Live event — the UK's biggest annual family history event — since its inception.

Details of all forthcoming events can be found on the society website

Or for more information please contact us


article last reviewed and part revised December 2018


Additional information