Genealogy Tips.Learn from my mistakes!
Updated October 2018: various amendments and corrections
There's lots of research you can do nowadays on the Internet, without leaving your computer screen. And there are loads of magazines, web sites and books about genealogy - a confusing variety, frankly. To get you started here are a few pointers to help get the most out of your limited time...
There are essentially three periods of anyone's family history that need to be approached in a particular order and for particular reasons. These periods are:
- "Family memory" - from today's date back to around 1900,
- UK censuses - from 1911 back to 1841, plus the 1939 Register; Births, Marriages and Deaths records for roughly the same period
- Parish records, family bibles, wills and other historical sources - prior to 1841, and overlapping with the censuses.
When you're drawing your family tree you really don't need any fancy software - doing it on paper with a pencil and eraser is just fine. You'll probably make mistakes and need to add branches so doing it with pencil and eraser is best. There is software around (see the separate page on this) but frankly it's best to do your research first and only when it all fits together put it into special software. The biggest problem for me has been working out how to put huge trees onto documents that will print out. Very tricky - either the type comes out way to small or you have to stick sheets together with sticky tape.
Note that most countries other than England and Wales pose some interesting challenges, not least because their public records are different or their censuses were very different from those in the UK. I've given some tips relating to Australia on a separate page.
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1. Family Memory
You should always start by writing down your "family memory" - ask your living relatives for as much information as they can recall about your ancestors. If you can get a reasonably complete picture back to before 1901 this will help a great deal, since the date of the most recent UK census that's available for detailed research is that done in 1911, though note that the 1939 Register (described below) is also a great, though incomplete source of information.
There's lots of frustration ahead if you choose to start with the oldest sources (parish records etc) and work forwards - not least because the number of people today related to a single individual from back in the 1700s or earlier is likely to be huge. Even for a relatively uncommon surname like Doodson! Do yourself a favour and try to trace your own forebears as far back as possible, not the other way round.
When you record people and relationships you should record for each person as much of the following as you can:
- First and middle names
- Maiden name if they married into the family
- Birth date and location (town, county)
- Marriage date and location
- Whether they were divorced
- Whether they remarried after their spouse died
- Occupations - all the things that person was paid to do, as people changed jobs often.
- Places they lived if different from where they were born
- Whether they ever traveled abroad, especially if they ever lived outside the UK
- Parents', siblings' (sisters and brothers) and spouses' names
These probably seem obvious, but they can all help to remove doubts where the census records are ambiguous - this is especially true if the surname is common. Even for the surname Doodson, which is a relatively uncommon name, there is often ambiguity, since Victorians were not terribly adventurous about first names - there are numerous Doodsons called William, George, Thomas, Elizabeth, Mary and Sarah. Knowing that William Doodson was a railway clerk in 1861 can be very useful if you find another railway clerk called WIlliam in 1871.
If you can get hold of birth and marriage certificates you'll get some good quality information - sometimes far better than what family members remember. Certificates can be obtained via Ancestry.co.uk or FindMyPast.co.uk but frankly it's just as easy and cheaper to get them directly from the General Register Office, the official holder of these certificates.
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2. UK Censuses
All UK censuses from 1841 and 1911 are available for search. To have access to all of them online you'll need to subscribe to something like Ancestry.co.uk, GenesReunited.co.uk, or FindMyPast.co.uk - all three have access to the microfilmed-and-then-converted-to-computer-format census returns and transcriptions of them.
Another great online source is the 1939 Register, also on these family history sites, which wasn't strictly a census, as it didn't capture all the same information as a census, but did record the names and birth dates of people, occupations and the addresses at which they lived. One downside of this is that anybody currently alive is blanked out on the records. Not sure how this is done, or how often the records are updated, but I've found a few Doodsons who have been blanked out on the 1939 Register.
Be aware that censuses and the 1939 Register are not foolproof sources of information for several reasons:
- Some of the census returns are either very badly written - almost undecipherable sometimes - or very poorly microfilmed. The images may be faded so that deciphering the original hard-to-read handwriting can be frustrating. Does it say "Willie" or "Nellie"? And even if it's beautifully written some Victoria handwriting is so loopy and different to what we're used to that it's difficult for anyone to make out. The best way to address ambiguity is to look for known words elsewhere and compare letters and loops. Census recorders were at least consistent in how difficult their handwriting was to read!
- Many people in Victorian times were near-illiterate so didn't spot when the census officer wrote their Christian- or sur-name down incorrectly. The surname Doodson is often recorded as Dootson, for example.
- The transcription of census returns for computerised records was done by people who had to decipher the original and may not have heard of the obscure surnames and/or towns where people were born. Examples: Doodson being transcribed as Doadson, Stockport being transcribed as Sandbach
- The census process split each county into parishes and towns/hamlets. Not every census return records these properly and both parish names and towns either change boundaries or spellings or even disappear altogether over the 60 or so years of published censuses. A parish called Pilkington (near Bury in Lancashire) in 1841 became Radcliffe or Unsworth later. The villages called Pilkington, Whitefield, Outwood and Ringley are hard to find on modern maps. Sometimes recording the street names can help, though of course people moved house and streets were either knocked down or renamed.
- The birth dates recorded are often only indicative - the 1841 census is particularly confusing as for children the actual age was supposed to be recorded but for adults the age was supposed to be rounded down to the nearest 5 years. Even for later censuses in many cases the age recorded for specific people varies by up to five years either side of their actual birth. Sometimes you can use Birth Registers to make sure of dates but that might not help validate that the George you find in the 1871 census is the same one you find in the 1891 census. The 1939 Register is the one exception here - the exact date of birth is recorded, and this can be incredibly useful.
You'll find that some families simply disappear from the census records (either trying to go back or forwards in time). This can be for all sorts of reasons - emigration, mis-spelling of surname in the census, people changing their surname (e.g. from Doodson to Dudson, due to local pronunciation) or occasionally incomplete census records.
Usually it's possible to track people by searching on birth town or county - or by searching using birth date, first name and first name of parent! But don't forget that in Victorian times life expectancy, especially for children, was far shorter than today. Some estimates said that 3 out of 20 children in the mid-1800s would die before they were 12 months old and average expectancy was only 40 years! So don't be surprised if some family members disappear from one census to another. Oh, and until the mid-1800s it was quite common to transport criminals to Australia or Tasmania rather than lock them up in the UK.
Despite all these problems it can be quite easy to track your family back to people born before 1800 - there were quite a few Doodsons born in 1778 or so still alive in 1841, for example. But tying these families together prior to 1800 is difficult. In fact the reaching much certainty prior to 1851 is hard - the 1841 census was the first to record first and surnames, but didn't record family relationships or where people were born except to the extent that people were born in a different county.
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3. Births, Marriages and Deaths records
Once you get past the most recent published census you needn't stop, provided you have access to the Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMD) records. On the major genealogy sites there are great searchable databases that can help fill in gaps and even explore new branches. In some parts of the UK there are even more detailed BMD databases (Lancashire is a great example) that give more information that isn't normally captured, such as mother's maiden name, which wasn't recorded in central registers until after 1911.
The best way to approach this is to search for people you know a little about on your tree. Search for marriages in the right approximate period and, especially if the names and locations are unusual, you should be able to find people getting married, and find the date of the marriage and the full name of the spouse. Then you can search the post 1911 birth records looking for people with the key surname and the mother's maiden name. Often people are recorded in the same area as the parent's got married. And repeat... I've used this to trace from people in the 1911 census all the way to people born in the early 21st century! You can do the same thing backwards into history too. Starting with someone's full name and approximate date of birth you can find the maiden name of their mother, then find when their parents got married, along with the first name of both father and mother. Using death records can help identify not only when/where people died but also their date of birth. This can help prove relationships since you can then use the birth date to prove someone you've found is the right person. Not particularly straightforward, but a really rich source of information.
BMD records don't go back forever either. Formal registration of births, marriages and deaths in England and Wales didn't start until 1838.
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4. Parish records, family bibles, wills and other historical sources
Of course, you might want to take a look at parish records for relatives between 1800 and today, and this can be very interesting, if time-consuming, and you'd have to travel to the churches and local council records centres (where many parish records have been moved to). But for family history prior to 1841 you've not got much choice.
There are some parish records available on line via the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (otherwise known as the Mormons) at http://www.familysearch.org, and if you're lucky someone will have transcribed the parish records of the very church you're interested - there are lots of local history and genealogy societies that have done just that - for example the Lancashire records are a splendid source of information. The FamilySearch.org parish records seem quite promising until you realise that the best you'll ever get is a christening/baptism that records the person's name, the date of the event and the first names of both parents (and of course the parish name). Death records often just have the date of burial and the parish name, so you've no way of knowing whether William who died in 1798 is the same William who married Betty in 1764. For that you'd probably need to find the gravestone.
Many families used to record their births, marriages and deaths in a special page in their Family Bible - this practice was certainly common in the 18th century. Your family might just have kept this old bible.
Some old documents are available from the National Archive web site at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ - for example old court cases or wills. But usually you only get names and dates and very little useful information for genealogy. But it is interesting to know that James so-and-so was sued for breach of contract back in 1732.
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5. Other sources, including those outside England and Wales
Other sources include various wills and historical documents - many of these are available, at least in summary, at the National Archive - this site includes army and navy records, extracts from court cases and wills and has many links to other sources, including lists of passengers on various transatlantic liners - can be useful for tracing emigrations.
Sites like Ancestry.co.uk also have access - again subject to paying a bit more - to US censuses from about 1790 to 1920. These are very similar to the England and Wales censuses - not great initially, getting better and easier to use as the years went on, but did include lots of information not included in the UK, such as where each person's parents were born and what year they came to the US. There are also BMD records for various states. I've written in detail about Australian sources elsewhere.
Both Ireland and Scotland censuses have been published. Irish censuses are available for free (example page), but you have to pay for access to Scottish records. As I've come across only a handful of Doodsons in either country I've much less experience with these sources. Irish censuses are available for 1821, 1831, 1841, 1851 (these years are incomplete), 1901 and 1911.
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6. Creating family trees
There is no standard way of presenting family trees. A bit of terminology is useful before we go further. The usual tree, with a single ancestor at the top and a fanning out of descendents towards the bottom is a descendent chart and most people find these more interesting and easier to understand than other charts. There are umpteen others and even for descendent charts there are loads of different ways of presenting individuals' information. You've only got to look at the way in which computer software present descendent charts.
As explained on the main family tree page I have opted not to use pedigree charts, which show who a given person was descended from, because for my purposes they aren't as useful or interesting, other than for showing our kids who they are descended from.
So, you could simply write down all the relationships, siblings ancestors, descendents, cousins, etc, joined by lines. And frankly this can be quite sufficient, especially to give children a view of where they fit in their family history. I've a few personal preferences for presenting pedigree information nice and clearly, but feel free to do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.
- For members of the prime family (Doodson in my case) just give first names, not surnames.
- For spouses add in their surnames in italics to differentiate from the prime family name.
- Always put birth years and, if known, death years and marriage years, and locations for all events. These can be useful in proving relationships and can be really interesting for children to appreciate how long (or rather how short) people lived in bygone days, Unless you're a real completist don't bother with the day and month for any life events.
- If you're going to share your family tree it's best practice to do something to limit the information about living members of the tree. At the very least you should remove the names (especially the maiden name) of living people's mothers - this is a common security question used in on-line banking and other services. In some on-line family trees all living members have been replaced with "Living [surname]" - for example "Living Doodson", so removing even people's first names. In the majority of trees I've put on this site I've removed middle names, mothers maiden names and date/place of birth, but kept first names. I've also removed any non-family members (usually spouses and offspring of living female relatives who have married and become part of someone else's family tree. But note that it is really, really easy to find someone's year of birth and maiden name of their mother and the place they were born, from published birth and marriage records, so this information is really not secure.
- Keep a fully populated version for sending to individual members of the family tree if you want.
Anyway, you can take a look at the family trees on this web site and see what you think.
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