Six small steps to take you on the journey of a lifetime – or further


A question many of us will have asked in our lifetime and we will have given ourselves many answers: son, father, socialist; mother, aunt, republican; daughter, teacher, royalist; grandfather, preacher, poet.

There may be other roles we do not recognise ourselves playing.

On the other hand we may know more about our ancestors than we do about ourselves, or we can find out more by talking to the right people and looking in the right places.

Climbing your family tree can be an extremely enjoyable way of using your spare time or can be the most frustrating hobby you have ever taken up.

On the way you will find all sorts of fascinating information about your ancestors, whether they were preachers or pirates; dancers or dockers; shopkeepers or shop assistants.

Yet there might be that person you just can’t pin down. She might be your great grandmother but can you find out her maiden name and was she really a wire dancer?

Most of the time it is a journey of delights.

In the beginning there are just six simple steps.


Begin at the end – that means you, because family history research works backwards and you are the end result.

Write down everything you know about yourself – your full name, your age, your birthday, where you were born, where you live now and any previous addresses you know about. Then do the same with any information you know about your parents, grandparents and any other family members. Finally check whether you have any old family photographs or any documents, letters or certificates.


Ask the family. Talk to your relatives, especially the older ones. They might have all sorts of details or even know if another family member has already done some family research.

Make a list of questions before you talk to them and don’t forget to ask if they have any documents or photographs.

If the person you are interviewing seems reluctant to give information about a particular relative don’t push them. There may be a family secret that older relatives are not willing to talk about. Another member of the family might be more willing to talk.

Write down everything they tell you and check it out later. Sometimes a story might have become garbled over the generations and great-great grandfather and great-grandmother might have run a bed and breakfast house in Hove rather than a 30-bedroom hotel on the seafront at Brighton.


Check out registers of births, marriages and deaths – if you are handy with a computer you can find them online, you can also often find them at your local library or at county record offices.

Birth, marriage and death certificates are legal documents and can give a range of information including: date and place of birth; names of parents (including mother’s surname before marriage); occupation of father and, on marriage certificate, grandfather; address, a marriage certificate gives that of the bride and groom.

Census returns, the 1841 census is the first with real information, can give details of age, marital status and occupation. They took place every 10 years (except during World War II) but are not released to the public for 100 years.


Civil registration only began in 1837, and even then it was a few years before it settled into place. This means that before the mid 1840s information will need to be found in parish registers. These began in 1538 but not many exist before the 1600s.

These can be found at county record offices but many are now online.


Cemeteries can provide extra information, and other family members may also be buried nearby. Not all graves have markers or headstones but the cemetery office may have records.

Many churchyards and cemeteries have had names on graves indexed and these can often be found at local family history groups and more and more are being put online.


Wills can provide information on addresses, relationships and their whereabouts, family heirlooms, and sometimes even more information to pad out the bare bones of what you have discovered from official sources.

Wills can be found at county and national archives and many are also found online nowadays.

Once you have taken these first steps you could be on a journey which could take you back 500 years, or even 1,000 years or more.

The path will not always be easy and you might stumble occasionally or follow a wrong turn to a dead end or even bring you up against a brick wall, but the finds you will make on the way will make up for the problems.

Remember to keep notes of all information you obtain and where it came from. Do not throw away the original notes as you might make errors when transcribing or inputting details to a computer record.

You can keep your information, documents, photographs etc in files and document boxes. If so ensure they are of archival quality so that they will not deteriorate.

You might also consider using computer software programs to store your information.

Enjoy your journey and I will be here to guide you if you need help.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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