Tracing your ancestors

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.


Additional information