Roger Thomas's Family History Research

Getting Started in Family Research (Genealogy)

This page details my thoughts on how to go about researching your family tree, and is biased around using the resources available on the Internet.

They are specific to research in England and Wales, and to a limited extent Scotland, but do not cover Ireland and the rest of the World.

Identify as much information as possible from living family members

Start with yourself; add your family i.e. parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Ask around your own family, particularly older members, to see what information they know, such as:
  • What they remember about their parents and grandparents
  • When and where they were born, married and died
  • What their maiden names were
Ask your family if there are any certificates/documents/family bibles that will help you.

More information about how to start building your family tree can be found on the Ancestry website, where they have a specialised section helping beginners to start creating their family tree. It is Ancestry's family tree resource, a publicly available feature of the Ancestry website.

Further information on how to get started in Genealogy can also be found on the GENUKI website:

Sending for Birth, Marriage or Death (BMD) certificates

Having identified the oldest family member, I try to obtain the birth and marriage certificates for them, as these give useful information to enable you to trace back further.

Birth Certificates will give:
  • Name, date and place of birth
  • Father's name (if given at time of registration) and occupation
  • Mother's name, maiden surname
Marriage certificates will give:
  • Date and place of marriage
  • Name, age and marital status of man and woman
  • Occupation and usual address
  • Name and occupation of each party's father (and sometimes whether he is deceased)
  • Name of the witnesses
  • Name of the person who solemnised the marriage
Death Certificates will give:
  • Name, date and place of death
  • Age of deceased
  • Occupation and usual address
  • Cause of death
  • The person who gave information for the death registration
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths (BMD) started in July 1837. If you are looking for information prior to this, then you need to investigate Parish Registers (see later).

These certificates, when ordered from the General Register Office, cost a minimum of £9.25 (current prices as at Feb 2016).

To send for a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO), you need to identify the following:
  • The year and quarter and district that the entry was registered in
  • GRO (General Register Office) Index Reference:
    • The volume (of the Register)
    • The page number (in the Register)
The birth, marriage and death registrations are transcriptions from the actual registers, which are sets of books. These books are held at various Registration districts. For example, Clevedon comes under the Bedminster Registration district. They are held by year and quarter, and divided into volumes (books) and referenced by the page number within the volume.

More on the Registration districts can be found here:

This website tells you what Registration district is holding the records for every town/village, which one needs to know when looking at the results of a search on FreeBMD (see below) or to refine a search.

The method that I use to obtain the information to send for a copy of a certificate is as follows:
  • FreeBMD -

    • Press "Search" and enter details.
    • Not all records have been transcribed. To see the coverage charts, look at "Information" / Statistics / Coverage Charts / Births, marriages or deaths.
    • If I can't find the record, and the coverage chart graph indicates it may not have been transcribed, I look in below.
    • I find FreeBMD useful as you can do a combined search for husband and wife on marriages - e.g. search for John Watson marrying a Mary Jane.
    • On the results of a marriage search, click on the page reference, which will show all the names on that page. Normally each page contains 2 marriages, which means 4 names. This means that there are 2 possible husbands shown.

  • -

  • I am a member of (costs about £96/year), which allows access to all of the censuses, but you can have a free guest membership that allows access to the BMD indexes.

    • Click on the "Birth Marriages & Death 1837-2005" link.
    • Select "Birth, Marriage or Death link.
    • Select the relevant collection.
    • Enter details.
    • Select the image of the Index you want to view.
    • It will request that you enter basic information about yourself to set up a free guest account, which you can use to login on subsequent times.
    • The index image may not contain the person you are looking for, it is just the page the person would be on if he/she is there.

  • Having found the GRO reference, I then order the certificate using the GRO Website -

    • Click on "Order a certificate online now".
    • You need to register or create a guest login (no costs involved for this, but the certificate will cost £9.25).
    • Select the type of certificate.
    • Tick "General Register Office Index known".
    • Enter the year of the event.
    • Enter/confirm delivery address details.
    • Enter details of the certificate required.
    • I do not ask for Reference checking as this costs more.
    • It will then ask for confirmation and credit card details.


Once one gets back to people who were living in 1911 or earlier, they can be looked up on the census returns.

Censuses are taken every 10 years, and those used for family research effectively start at 1841. The censuses prior to this do not contain enough useful information (i.e. they do not contain the names of the people in the household, just the number of people).

So the censuses available are 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911.

The latest census available to view is the 1911 census, as the classified period for census data is 100 years.

For each member of the household, the census shows the following details:
  • Name
  • Relationship to the head of the household (not on 1841 census)
  • Marital status (not on 1841 census)
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Where born (only whether in the county of the census on 1841 census)
1881 census

The only census that is available to view on the Internet without subscription is the 1881 census, which can be seen on the LDS Family Search website. The LDS is the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" (the Mormons).

Access to the LDS Family Search website is found here:

Access to the 1881 census via the LDS Family Search website is found here:

I decided to subscribe to Ancestry, as I have found the Ancestry website to be extremely useful. It does cost £96/year, but I was spending more than this on the 1901 and 1911 censuses alone, as I am researching so many families. has the full set of censuses (1841-1911) for England and Wales, and they are complete with searchable name indexes. They also have the 1841-1861 censuses for Scotland. also has the complete BMD indexes for 1837-2004, similar to what can be found in Family History Centres or Major Libraries. These are searchable, but it just gives you the page that the person would be on, and one has to look down that page to see if he/she is there. This is different to FreeBMD, which will only return matches from a search. However, it is still useful, saving trips to the Family History Centres or Major Libraries, and it is a full index, whereas FreeBMD is still incomplete.

Major Libraries now have access to "Ancestry Library Edition". This is a special version of the well-known subscription web site made available free on computers in major libraries (including Birmingham Library).

Other methods

Copies of the censuses on microfiche can be viewed at Family History Centres. I think only the 1881 census has a surname index. Only censuses relating to the local area are available, apart from the 1881 census, which covers the whole of England and Wales.

A list of the LDS Family History Centres can be found here:

Parish Registers

To find details of a birth/baptism, marriage or death/burial prior to 1837 when civil registration began, one needs to look at parish records. One of the major resources for this is the International Genealogical Index (IGI).

The IGI contains millions of entries, mainly of baptisms and marriages, many of them taken from parish registers as part of an organized program of careful transcription, others provided by individual and not always overly careful researchers. However, its coverage is far from complete, so the fact that the ancestor you are seeking does not appear in the IGI should not cause you to give up. (Note however that the IGI includes essentially all Scottish births and marriages between the years 1855 and 1875, extracted from the civil registration records.)

Access to the LDS Family Search website is found here:

Access to the IGI records via the LDS Family Search website is found here:

Copies of Parish Registers on microfilm can be obtained from Family History Centres for a small fee, and viewed at the centres (see below).

LDS Family History Centres

A list of the LDS Family History Centres can be found here:

LDS Family History Centres have copies of 1881 census, IGI and BMD indexes.

Also microfilm of all parish registers & censuses may be obtained for a matter of a few pounds.

The centres are free and you don't have to be a member of the church.

Local History Centres

Local History Centres have access to all local censuses (often with surname indexes), parish and cemetery records, trade directories and possibly wills.

They may have some or all of the BMD indexes on microfiche.

The staff are generally willing to help with research.

Specific tips on tracing a female from one census to the next, when they probably got married inbetween, and hence their surname changed.

Try to find their marriage by entering the person's name into FreeBMD.

  • Set the "from year" to the year that would be when she was 16 years old or the date of the last census where she was unmarried (whichever is the later).
  • Set the "to year" to between 5 and 10 years on. (Too big a range can make the search too slow if trying at peak times of the day).
  • Examine the results looking for marriages where the Registration districts are near the area where she was born, or was last living.
  • If there is a likely one, click on the page reference, which will show all the names on that page. Normally each page contains 2 marriages, which means 4 names. This means that there are 2 possible husbands shown.
  • For each one found, look on the relevant census on Ancestry for the female but with the surname of the man shown on the page.
  • Looking at the results, check if the husband has the correct first name as shown on the possible marriage from FreeBMD, and whether the wife's age, birthplace etc matches what is expected.
This can be very laborious, and often comes up with nothing, or nothing conclusive.

If there is a good possibility found from this method, I then send for the certificate from the GRO to confirm it, but this can get expensive (£9 each) and I only do it if it is an important part of the family tree.

One needs to bear in mind that FreeBMD does not have all the records transcribed, although it is much better than a few years ago. You can see how complete the transcriptions for a year are by looking on the FreeBMD homepage, selecting Information, then Statistics - Coverage Charts, then Marriages.

Otherwise, I try to follow all members of the family through the censuses via Ancestry, and hope to spot an unusual visitor, or daughter with a different surname. But again this can often find nothing.