Family tree FAQs - how to start your family tree
Find out how to start your family tree with Family Tree magazine's FAQs for beginner family tree researchers - getting you started on finding your ancestors.
Our family history FAQs are a handy guide to the questions which people who are new to tracing their ancestors ask most often. From getting started to using the census, we'll guide you through the basics of family tree research.
What is family history?
Family history is the hobby of tracing your ancestors, starting with yourself and then working backwards in time, discovering details about your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. Family historians trace backwards from one generation to the next using clues including birth, marriage & death certificates, census records and parish records.
How do I start tracing my ancestors?
Begin with yourself. Write down your full name and date of birth, then the dates of birth of your parents and grandparents if you know these. You can then obtain a birth certificate from the General Register Office (GRO) for your closest ancestor (your father or mother) which will then give you the date and place of birth, name and occupation of that person's father, name of the mother (with maiden name). This information allows you to track down the marriage of that person's parents, giving you the names of the fathers of the bride and groom – taking your family tree back a generation.
How much does it cost to start your family tree?
Starting your family tree doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, there are lots of free resources to help you get started. One of the first things you’ll have to pay for is a birth, marriage or death certificate for an ancestor from the GRO, which at the time of writing costs £9.25 in the UK.
How do I order a birth, marriage or death (BMD) certificate?
One of the most common family history FAQs is how to order a BMD certificate. Firstly you need to find a GRO reference number for the event, which you can obtain from websites including FreeReg. Then use this reference to order the certificate from the GRO. This will arrive by post.
Why do I need a death certificate?
A death certificate is the final stage in mapping your ancestor from birth to death. Although it contains fewer clues than a birth or marriage certificate, useful information includes when & where your ancestor died, their cause of death, their occupation, age and the name and description of the informant.
What is the census?
The UK census is a record of each household taken on one particular night. The first UK census available is 1841 and a census has been taken every ten years since with the exception of 1941. At a minimum you can expect to find the name and age of each person resident at a given address on census night, plus information including their date of birth, occupation, marital status and relationship to the head of household. Begin your census search for free at Free Cen and Family Search.
What is civil registration?
Civil registration is the official and comprehensive recording of life events such as birth, marriage and death. Civil registration in England began on 1 July 1837 (1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland). Before this, documents known as parish records kept details of some life events.
What is the 1939 Register?
The 1939 Register was brought about by the outbreak of war in 1939. The register was taken just a few weeks after the start of World War II and was a census of the population to help the government prepare for rationing, evacuation and conscription. The registers record name, date of birth, address and occupation. You can explore them (using credits) on Find My Past or free of charge at the National Archives in London.
How do I draw up a family tree?
A family tree is a visual way of showing how one generation of your family connects to the next. Either find a ready-created template (Family Tree templates have some good examples) or draw up your own. Write in pencil, only making each entry permanent once you’re confident that the names and dates are correct. Plot the youngest generation of the family at the bottom of the page, allocating a box to each person, with the oldest child on the left and subsequent siblings listed to the right of the previous name.
Then create vertical lines to connect each sibling to the two parents (with the father shown to the left of the mother) and write the parents’ crucial dates as in generation one.
(Images - family tree © Family Tree templates)