Information and websites useful to Family Historians

Published: 10 December 2009


For anyone starting out to trace their family history the most important mantra is 'Do your homework first'. i.e. get as much info from living relatives as possible - names, dates, places, family stories, gossip, anything. However, you have to remember that what they tell you may not be correct, or may be only partially correct.

At the same time dig out any family papers - Birth, marriage, and death certificates, old letters, postcards, photographs, in fact anything that might be useful in your quest. And, get identification for any old photographs - many people have boxes of old photos with no names, which is a great shame.

When you have gleaned as much information as possible you need to prove your line back to 1901 using birth, marriage, and death certificates. The information on each certificate varies, and has changed over the years:

A Birth certificate should show the names of both parents (but not always the father), and the date and place of birth. It also shows the mother's maiden name.

A marriage certificate should show the names of the two parties along with their fathers' names and occupations (again a father's name may be missing where not known), the date and place of marriage, and the names of the witnesses, which can be useful. It should be noted that the image of a marriage certificate obtained from the O.N.S. is not the same as the one in a church register. After the ceremony a handwritten copy was taken from the church register and it is that copy that is the official record held by the government department. If you want to see your ancestor's handwriting (or 'mark - X') you will have to track down the church register, which will probably be held at the local record office.

A death certificate should show the date, place, and cause of death, together with the name of the informant, who may or may not be a relative.

Remember that the spelling of names may/will vary from document to document, but when you have all your certificates linking son to father to grandfather etc., you should visit your local library or record office who will almost certainly have access to the free library edition of, a fantastic website that provides access to all the censuses from 1841-1901 inclusive, and much more. So if you have certificates back to 1901, it is usually possible to trace a family back to 1841. This is an oversimplification, but using the websites to trace BMD references, ordering certificates on line, finding your way around Ancestry with all its mis-transcriptions etc etc is what you can only learn by practice.

The recently made available 1911 census is also a great help, but that is not available free in the libraries, and a subscription might be a bit expensive for someone just starting out.

The Local History and Archive offices are a fantastic repository of all kinds of documents that date back hundreds of years, and the staff are usually happy to advise you and help you to begin your research, however, you may have to be prepared to spend hours trawling through microfilms in a darkened room to find an elusive piece of information, which might not even be where you are looking. The staff can only do your research for you if you pay their researcher, which is expensive if you could have done it yourself, but cheap compared to a trip to Guernsey (for example). All Libraries, Local History centres, and Record Offices have varied opening times, and they all have different rules regarding booking in, Readers' Tickets, charges etc. Many also have closure weeks, so it is vital to check in advance of a visit whether they will be open, whether you need to book a microfilm/microfiche reader, and whether you will need a Reader's Ticket - a widely used system is the CARN ticket, but that is not universal, and the National Archives at Kew have their own unique system. Acceptable items for proof of identity will usually show your home address and signature, but these may vary from place to place. Security also varies from place to place, but for a record office you are often required to keep papers in a transparent folder and use only pencil for your notes; and at Kew especially you are not allowed rubbers (including on pencil ends) or pencil sharpeners, in fact nothing other than pencil and paper. However, again at Kew you may register your camera and use it to photograph some documents - flash and tripods are forbidden! And the use of cameras and computers must be checked in advance with the relevant office.


Genuki link
This free website has a vast amount of information available including a ‘Getting started in Genealogy’ section, which is a great place to start. In particular Genuki has information about local parishes, which can be a great help when you start searching out villages and churches where relatives may be recorded in the church registers.

Freebmd link
A volunteer created free website that lists Births, Marriages, and Deaths information from the start of civil registration in the September quarter of 1837. Not complete, work ongoing, but useful for tracing the periods below:
Births almost complete 1837-1931
Marriages almost complete 1837-1937 with a few gaps
Deaths almost complete 1837-1935 with a few gaps
This is the basis of the BMD info on Ancestry (below) but the search engines work in different ways so both sites have their advantages.

Ancestry link
A subscription website, which is usually available subscription free in libraries and record offices, although there may be other charges for PC use, booking in etc.
Provides access to a wide range of information including:
Births, Marriages, and Deaths indexes gleaned from the Freebmd website, and the Censuses 1841-1901 inclusive
A range of subscriptions are available from: ‘Essentials Access’ at £10.95 per month or £83.40 per annum, up to Worldwide at £18.95 pm or £155.40 pa.(Dec 2009)
A 14 day free trial for home use is available (Dec 2009)

Find my Past including the 1911 census link
A subscription only website, which has a range of subscription options costing between £39.95 for only the 1911 census for six months, up to £149.90 for complete access for 12 months (December 2009) FMP is the only website that has access to all the available censuses 1841-1911. It has other records as well including Migration documents, which can be useful if you had relatives who travelled abroad/emigrated.
A 14 day free trial is available (Dec 2009)

1911 Irish Census

census.nationalarchives.ieExternal link
For anyone who had relatives in Ireland in 1911 this is a great online resource that is free to use. When it was launched it only covered Dublin, but I have just discovered that it now covers much of the country. The amount of detail recorded for where the families lived is fascinating, but it doesn't make easy reading.

Family Search - International Genealogical Index

familysearch.orgExternal link
"An official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"
This free website, created by the ‘Mormons’ and known as the IGI, holds information submitted by their members primarily about births and marriages gleaned from church and chapel registers. It extends back before Civil Registration began in 1837, but it is not complete, and any references found should be double-checked against the original source document. Also the information recorded on the website ignores any personal data that may have been on the original register – occupation, address etc.

Family Search - via Hugh Wallis' Batch Numbers index link
This website, created by Hugh Wallis, provides access to the IGI for a specific batch or place. This can be useful if you know the particular parish in which you are interested.

UKBMD(Births, Marriages, and Deaths) link
A free website which links into counties where volunteers have transcribed some of their church registers. Far from complete, but it can be useful if your area has been transcribed and you find a relevant event (e.g. marriage). In Cheshire the name of the church is recorded, information that is not available in any other website.

Cheshire specific parish register transcription project link
The Cheshire parish register project is ongoing, and very accurate and detailed information is slowly being loaded on to the website. Only 21 parishes have been loaded so far, but a ‘complete’ parish includes detailed transcriptions of the earliest registers available, back to the 1500s in some cases. Mere mortals would not be able to read some of the registers already transcribed.

Cheshire specific Tithe Maps publication project link
The Cheshire Tithe Maps project provides free online access to the whole of the Cheshire Tithe maps collection with side by side mapping comparing old and new maps, and also the Apportionments (details of Owner/Occupier) for a highlighted plot. Great resource if your ancestor rented or owned land in Cheshire in the period 1836-1851.

West Yorkshire Tithe Maps publication project for Leeds Metropolitan area link

Genes re-united link
This is a subscription website where you can search for people researching the same names as you. Searching is actually free, but to contact people you have to subscribe.

Historic Ordnance Survey maps link
Great free website that provides access to various editions of Ordnance Survey maps. Useful for investigating the old layout of villages etc and even identifying properties if you are lucky.

Geograph - Geo-located photographs covering large areas of the British Isles
A great website, which may well have a photo of your ancestor’s church, and possibly even their baptismal font in some cases. It also has many links to other useful websites.

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright December 2009, John S Turner; licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.
With contributions by Penny Mayes and Barry Hunter. (details)
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