Just starting out? Here are my top ten tips for uncovering your family’s history…

When considering how to start this blog I decided it was only logical to begin at the beginning. There is something very special about uncovering your history for yourself, and here are my pearls of wisdom to help you along the way…

1. Start with yourself and work backwards.

This might sound silly but a lot of people end up trying to research the wrong way around. While you might think your family has links to famous (or infamous!) individuals, it is always best to start with what you know rather than try to prove a distant connection from the other end. You never know, you might find something much more exciting closer to home anyway!

2. Talk to people.

Your elderly spinster aunt, your Grandma’s old next-door neighbour (known as your ‘Auntie Ethel’ when you were little), your Grandad’s accountant and the man that used to trim your Great Uncle’s rose bushes; they could all help you make sense of family connections and give insights into the quirks and intricacies of your ancestors’ lives. Don’t forget those closer to home either – it’s surprising how little many of us know about the lives of even our parents and grandparents before we came along. 

3. Explore sources already in your possession, or that of your siblings and parents.

Photographs, letters, bibles, newspaper articles, old paperwork and heir looms all contribute to your family story. Make a note of the names of people in old photographs while there are people around to tell you who they are. These items are invaluable for transforming your research from lists of names and dates to a more colourful understanding of those that came before you. Dates and names you discover in the process can be useful starting points for your research – but beware! Documents might raise more questions than they answer and can contain inaccuracies or fail to mention a key family member altogether. Times have changed over the period most people conduct family history research and I’ve even seen family Bibles where dates have been ‘massaged’ to cover up children born out of wedlock, whether filled in by somebody that didn’t know the truth or deliberately misrecorded the dates to uphold the family’s honour.

4. Don’t trust everything you read.

It might be tempting to copy and paste information from trees available online, but always check other peoples’ conclusions. The internet can be an incredible resource but it also enables quick replication of faulty research. For example, I frequently spot individuals on publicly available trees that apparently continued having children many years after death! Records online have often been transcribed on multiple occasions before they get to a database, and even the original record may have been incorrect. With every new transcription comes the opportunity for error – take into account hand writing, regional accents, low literacy rates and even deliberate lies to enumerators on the part of our ancestors and it is hardly surprising that dates, birthplaces and spellings are often not as we might have expected. Wherever possible try and view the original record.

5. Have patience.

If you put a name and year of birth into a search box don’t expect the top result to always (or even usually!) be the record you’re looking for. As already mentioned, there are several reasons why names, birthplaces and ages are recorded ‘incorrectly’. Add a year or two either side of the individual’s likely birth year, search for a County rather than a village and use wildcards in names and places (for example, searching for ‘Bl*mfield’ will include records for ‘Blomfield’, ‘Bloomfield’, ‘Blumfield’ etc). Some sites allow you to search for keywords instead of names – I once finally found an ancestor by searching for ‘William Pancras Smith’ when his surname (‘Garner’) was transcribed from the census as ‘Bower’ on two popular websites. Keep in mind that first names like ‘William’ and ‘Thomas’ are often recorded as ‘Wm’ and ‘Thos’ and that sons named after their fathers may be known by a middle name or nick name to prevent confusion.

6. Be prepared for inconsistencies.

Ages might be rounded up or down and census dates were different from decade to decade – particularly look out for this on the 1841 census where most adult ages were rounded to the nearest five. Birthplaces might be recorded differently from census to census too. An individual born in Badingham might start recording their birth as Framlingham, Woodbridge or Ipswich for example if they left the immediate area of their birth – imagine trying to explain some of our more interesting Norfolk and Suffolk place names to an enumerator in newly industrialising London. Children may appear under different surnames to that expected, particularly if a couple’s first born arrived before the couple married. In this case the child may appear with their mother’s maiden name on baptism and marriage records but under their father’s surname in the census.

7. Online records are not the be all and end all.

In recent times an enormous amount of family history researchers have begun their family trees online and many have never ventured away from their computer screens. Despite massive leaps forward, and an undeniable wealth of electronic information, the majority of resources are still not available digitally. County record offices and other archives are well worth a visit and the help of staff can be invaluable when hunting down records. Parish registers, wills, bastardy orders, estate, school, commercial and criminal records for example may all be at your fingertips. There is something magical about seeing your ancestor’s real handwriting on an original record. Don’t write off record offices, archives, family history societies etc as scary or stuffy – you might be surprised at the gems you can uncover. Visiting the places mentioned in your research can also be eye opening. In Norfolk and Suffolk we are very lucky to have a huge amount of heritage on our doorsteps. You can stand at the alter where your ancestors said their vows, find old gravestones and in many cases view village and town centres almost as centuries-ago inhabitants might have seen them (save for electricity cables and motor cars perhaps!)

8. Share queries and information.

Estimates vary but the population of the UK is probably ten times as large now (or even more) as it was in 1700. The further back you go, the more descendants of a given ancestor there might be. Family history research now being so popular, you are probably not the only one researching many people on your tree. Modern technology is making the world smaller and you can interact with distant relatives from even far flung corners of the globe through email, online forums, family history societies and social media with comparative ease compared to a few years ago. Sharing information can provide mutual assistance and uncover new stories and family members. At over £9 per birth, marriage and death certificate, sharing information could also help you financially. Who knows, you might even discover ancestors with a wife either side of the Atlantic!

9. Be organised.

Speaking from experience, it is very easy to get carried away when researching a new line of your tree. A bundle of papers can quickly escalate into reams of sheets full of scribbles which make sense at the time but are difficult to decipher later. Try and keep your research logically and safely and record where you found each piece of information in case you need to revisit it. Also note where you’ve looked and failed to find anything so that you don’t forget and look up the same thing all over again. When visiting a record office or churchyard take a bound notepad and pencil to keep all your information together and in order – using a pencil means you can make corrections easily. Go with a game plan to make sure you don’t stray too far from what you originally intended to look for and end up confusing yourself. This is very easily done where several generations of your family are named ‘John Miller’ and born in Sprowston…

10. Never give up!

There comes a point in every person’s research where a ‘brick wall’ appears. For a while it may seem there is no way to break down this wall. However, new information is becoming available all the time, new contacts are constantly appearing on the horizon and new places to look are continually becoming accessible. It might take you years to find, but a small piece of information could suddenly click everything into place. I finally found an 8x grandfather of mine through a combination of his son’s military record (recently digitised) and marriage certificate together with a parish register transcription from a small village in Lancashire (recently made available online by volunteers). Suddenly my Norwich pub landlord was revealed as the son of a Lancastrian husbandman who travelled the world as part of the 9th Regiment of Foot before settling behind the bar at the Yarn Factory Tavern!


You may of course completely disagree with my top ten but I hope you have gained something of interest from the above – I would be interested to hear your own suggestions too!

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