Introduction to Family History

An Introduction For Family History

In genealogy (the tracing of your family tree or pedigree) or family history (biographical research into ancestors) you should go from what you know backwards into the unknown. There is no other method. Theoretically, though practical problems may occur, nearly all of us ought to be able to trace most of our direct ancestors (parents, grandparents, Etc) back to the first half of the 19th century without too much difficulty before other factors take over which determine further progress backwards.

If your ancestors were prosperous or poor (most people have rather humble origins), or in a profession or trade, or in the army or navy, the chances of tracing them back into the 18th century, and possibly even the 17th century, are quite good as all of those groups of people were usually very carefully documented.

You may require a stroke of luck to trace ancestral lines back into the 16th century, but before then you will be extremely fortunate to add further generations of ancestors. Though do not be too ambitious, for were you to succeed in finding all your direct ancestors over 25 previous generations (highly unlikely), you would end up with 33,544,432 of them.

The Initial Task is to Find Out As Much As Possible About Your Family From Living Relations

  • Even those relations younger than you may have a vital heirloom or remember something someone now dead once said.  Everyone has a tale to tell (though some may be reticent) and a visit, or letter, with a carefully prepared list of questions may reveal many interesting facts about your family.
  • Note everything, even if it seems vague or unimportant, as it could be useful later. Borrow and copy (most ordinary photocopiers make very satisfactory copies now) any old family records like address books, family bibles with recorded events, birthday books, old newspaper cuttings, old family photos and any old birth, marriage or death certificates, but always return anything loaned to you.
  • Remember an elderly relative recalling memories of their grandparents is spanning well over a hundred years of your family history.
  • It is absolutely vital to establish where your ancestors lived and with this knowledge check out all churchyards and cemeteries in the area for family gravestones (usually known as Memorial Inscriptions.)
  • Find out if any records exist of any pedigrees of your surname (extremely unlikely if the family was just working class) and there are books in reference libraries which list some, though far from all, family surnames which have been researched. Ask the librarian for help.
  • Don’t be put off if you discover someone else in your family has tried and failed. Within recent years there have been many new developments and you stand a much better chance now than ever before of success.
  • Look up all available lists of surnames being researched by County Family History Societies’ members.
  • Many societies publish lists of these. Check on the Register of One-Name Studies (listings of mostly unusual surnames being researched and published annually by the Guild of One-Name Studies, London).
  • Ask to see the Genealogical Research Directory, (GRO) new editions of which come out regularly showing alphabetical lists of surnames being researched, together with their locations and the names and addresses of the researchers.
  • Earlier copies of GRD and Big R may contain surnames and researchers not listed in the current editions.
  • With an unusual name consider contacting anyone else researching it.
  • Great Great Grandfathers half-brother may have emigrated to Australia, and his descendants there may already have traced his earlier generations, who would be your ancestors tool.
  • Don’t forget to include at least two International Reply Coupons (IRCs), available at post offices, for letters being sent abroad, or a stamped addressed envelope (SAE) for letters to UK destinations, for the replies.
  • By now you will probably have several rough family trees and it is time to confirm events with copy birth, marriage and death certificates from the records of CIVIL REGISTRATION.
  • For those with few remaining relations reference to them in official records may occur at a very early stage.
  • In England and Wales all births, deaths and marriages have been both locally registered and nationally recorded and Indexed since 1 July 1837 (in Scotland since 1855 and In Ireland since 1864 ).
  • You may search freely on normal weekdays and Saturdays in these national indexes for every county, at the Office for National Statistics, The Family Records Centre, I Myddleton Place, London ECIR IUW (nearest tube station is The Angel).
  • In four quarterly indexed volumes per year they list surnames followed by Christian name in alphabetical order, plus the registration district where the event was registered and references for ordering copy certificates.
  • Microfilmed or microfiched copies of these national indexes (still sometimes mistakenly called the St Catherine’s House Indexes after the place where they used to be housed) are very generally available around the country in some record offices and Libraries.
  • In Lincolnshire there are microfiche copies of the national indexes held at Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street~ Lincoln LN2 LAB (3 01522-525158) where they may be seen freely provided a seat is reserved in advance of a visit. They can also be seen at Grimsby Reference Library, with the same proviso.
  • There is now a site on the internet where you may find the index reference.
  • Once an event has been positively identified in the indexes a copy certificate should be purchased which will provide further genealogical information (see below).
  • Copy certificates may be bought for fees from either the Office for National Statistics, at The Family Records Centre, London, I Myddleton Place, London or through the local register office where the event was first recorded.
  • If you are absolutely certain of the area in which your ancestors lived you should, on the grounds of economy alone, approach the local register office for copy birth and death certificates, but marriages are not so easily located in local register offices unless you know with certainty the name of the church or chapel where the marriage took place and the date.
  • Copies can now be ordered over the internet at: . These cost the same as buying locally or direct from the The Family Records Centre, London, I Myddleton Place, London EC1R 1UW.
  • Postal applications for copy certificates, including a three-year search in the indexes, may be made to the Office for National Statistics, Postal Applications Section, P0 Box 2, Southport PR8 2JD, but this is the most expensive way of obtaining certificates and those bought from local register offices or by personal application at the Office for National Statistics The Family Records Centre, London, are less expensive.
  • You can also make a huge saving if you visit a local register office and avail yourself of its facility to make a general search” in its local indexes (NB This service may not be available in all register offices).
  • For this a daily search fee is charged allowing up to two researchers, working on the same family, unlimited access to the local indexes and free verification (details from a register) of up to eight entries from the registers per day’s visit.
  • When searching for an ancestors name in the indexes in the 19th or early 20th century be prepared to check a range of different spellings to the one you are familiar with now. It may seem hard to imagine now, but there was fairly widespread illiteracy until the late 19th century, through lack of basic education opportunities, and this sometimes affected early 20th century records too.
  • Registrars wrote down peoples surnames as they heard them and so (for example) Phayer could become Fair, or Hansen turn into Anson, though more common were changes like Nawton for Norton, or Merden for Murton. Nor do Christian names always tally with what we think they should have been as people have always played around with them chopping or changing them.
  • Always obtain full birth Certificates; the cheaper “short birth” certificates are a waste of money and useless for genealogy. The principle of building up the ancestral picture of preceding generations can usually be done with birth and marriage certificates and is always the same even if you have to start with your own birth certificate. Of the information on birth certificates the fathers and mothers names plus the mothers maiden surname should pave the way to locating their marriage some time, not always, before the birth. From the marriage certificate the couple’s respective fathers’ full names should be shown and with this information, plus the couple’s ages (if you are lucky), it should then be possible to find either’s birth entry in the indexes and order the correct birth certificate. By repeating this process of using the information on birth certificates to locate a marriage and the using the details from that to obtain birth certificates it should, in theory, be possible to trace nearly all your direct ancestors back until you arrive at one of these events which took place before 1837.
  • There can be many complications and problems arise if a couple chose to live together without a formal marriage (less common in rural areas) whilst birth certificates of illegitimate children may not disclose the fathers full name.
  • Before 1875 something like 16% of all births and many deaths were never registered, but marriages if they took place should appear somewhere in the national indexes (try alternative spellings).
  • Death certificates contain very limited information except for ages (not always correct) and ages also appear in the national indexes since 1866. However death certificates may point the way to a sought after address where someone died, or lead to the discovery of a will.
  • Once back into the last half of the 19th century a wealth of genealogical information is available from CENSUS RETURNS. Taken every ten years for statistical purposes since 1801 (except for 1941) censuses are open to public inspection when they are 100 years old and are very useful as they show complete households and families. The earliest census of genealogical use is that for 1841 (earlier censuses were largely just head counts of males and females and were destroyed after being statistically analysed). Those from 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 AND 1901 contain more helpful details like relationships within families, exact ages (though people sometimes lied) and exact places of birth.
  • Searching for people or families on census returns can sometimes be difficult, unless you have a precise address. There were an awful lot of people around in Victorian times and hopefully searching even small towns for someone can be very time-consuming. Nowadays this problem is being eased as more and more censuses become indexed by voluntary groups (all the Lincolnshire census returns – 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 – have been surname indexed, mainly by members of the Lincolnshire Family History Society, and may be bought in booklet and or microfiche format from the Society).
  • The whole of 1881 census of England, Wales and Scotland is now available, on CD-ROM, or by county for England and Wales (not for Scotland) on microfiche with indexes. It can also be accessed through the LDS site on the internet. The Lincolnshire Family History Society and the Great Grimsby Family History Group (a branch of the LFHS) both have the CD-ROM and microfiche versions and the microfiche county indexes for England and Wales can be loaned to members.
  • All the census returns for the whole of England and Wales may be seen freely in the Public Record Office section (first floor) of The Family Records Centre, I Myddleton Place, London EC1R 1UW, and there – considerable local holdings in county record offices and larger reference libraries in all counties. All Lincolnshire census may be seen on film on normal week days and Saturdays at Lincoln County Library, Free School Lane, Lincoln LN2 IEZ or Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street, Lincoln LN2 MB. There are also localised holdings of filmed Census returns elsewhere in reference libraries including Grimsby Central Library, Town Hall Square, Grimsby DN3I IHG, where they cover most parts of north Lincolnshire and can be seen by appointment.
  • Before Civil Registration began in 1837 your pedigree will be compiled from various sources the most important being records of baptisms or christenings (C), marriages (M) and burials (B) in ANGLICAN PARISH REGISTERS (Church of England). They may not be so helpful if your ancestors were Quakers, Jews, Roman Catholics or members of other nonconformist groups which kept their own records.
  • Parish Registers (PRs) were begun in 1538 (some early ones have not survived) when all clergymen were instructed to record in their registers all baptisms, marriages and burials in their parishes. Copies of PRs, usually known as Bishop Transcripts(BTs) were sent annually to the local bishops as proof that each parish was keeping its records properly, and, if they survive, BTs can be another useful source if PRs – lost or illegible.
  • Most old PRs and BTs are now deposited in county record offices. Deposited Lincolnshire PRs and BTs have been filmed and can be freely seen at Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street, Lincoln LN2 MB. Also microfiche copies of most deposited PRs for all of the parishes in north and much of central Lincolnshire can also be seen on normal weekdays only at North East Lincolnshire Archives, Town Hall Square, Grimsby DN3I IHX (01472-323585 )
  • You may be expected to pay some quite steep fees to consult non-deposited PRs still held in their parishes. Old PRs or BTs are sometimes difficult to read and hours of research time can be saved at county record offices if a modern transcript copy has been made of a parish’s PRs or BTs.
  • Always ask if modern copies (sometimes usefully indexed) are available before carrying out searches on microfiche or the original registers, though later you should refer to them in case there was an error in the copy.· Again it is essential to have some idea of the parishes where your ancestors lived before hopefully wading through PRs or BTs. The place of birth of an ancestor is usually shown on 19th century census returns (from 1851 on) and should indicate the county and parish where you should begin your research.
  • If your ancestors were regular Anglican Church goers PRs since 1837 can sometimes be used as an alternative to civil registration records.  You will often find that there is no record of earlier generations of the family in the parish where you’re some of your ancestors once lived.  Before the 19th century most people did not move around too much and you may find earlier generations in the surrounding parishes, though sometimes a family arrived in a parish from much further a field.
  • The Lincolnshire FHS is also producing an index of churchyard (and some cemeteries) burials from 1813-1900 in the historic county of Lincolnshire which is well advanced and available for members to search.
  • The National Burial index is a CD, which is produced by the FFHS, which Lincolnshire burials are particularly well covered.
  • With mobile ancestors the answer to their earlier origins may sometimes (not always) be found on the INTERNATIONAL GENEALOGICAL INDEX (lGl)./ Family SearchProduced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) from a variety of church or chapel registers and other genealogical sources, it is an index by country then by county of births or baptisms and marriages (no deaths or burials). They are listed by surnames (with phonetic variations) and then Christian names in chronological order and shows names of parents, or spouses, plus the parish where the event took place.
  • There should be nothing on the IGI more recent than 100 years ago and it does not really become useful for finding ancestors until you are back to about 1840. It contains events back to the I5OOs, but its value varies from county to county.  In some counties like Cornwall its coverage is good, whilst others like Dorset and Huntingdonshire have very limited coverage.  Its coverage for Lincolnshire to the mid 19th century, taken entirely from Bishop’s Transcripts, is good.
  • The IGI is now generally available throughout the country at Mormon Church Family History Centres (small genealogical libraries attached to some, but not all, Mormon churches) on CD-ROM and microfiche and on microfiche only at most country record offices and larger reference libraries.
  • In Grimsby the IGI for the whole world can be seen on CD-ROM at the Grimsby Family History Centre, Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, Linwood Avenue, off Waltham Road, Scartho, Grimsby, North East Lincs DN33 2PA (see also below).
  • The IGI for the whole of UK can also be seen on microfiche only in the reference section of Grimsby Central Library, Town Hall Square, Grimsby DN3I IHO, or at Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street, Lincoln LN2 5AB, and at various other reference libraries throughout the county and country. Remember the IGI is not a complete index and also contain errors so anything found must always be checked against, source material lice parish registers. Failure to find an event on the IGI does not mean it did not occur. Coverage of a particular parish may be far from complete, if at all.
  • To check the parishes covered by the IGI you should consult the IGI PARISH AND VITAL RECORDS LISTINGS (PVRL), also on microfiche, and available wherever you find the IGI. Printouts of a particular surname on the lGl can often be made by slot-machine printers where you find the IGI.
  • The IGI is now also available on the Internet website:
  • As a genealogical source WILLS AND LETTERS OF ADMINISTRATION (Letters of Administration were granted when someone with property or money died without making a will) are very important and many contain complete details of families and other close relations. They were not always made by the wealthy only and these “Probate Records”, as they are called, should always be searched for all ancestors.  Before 1858 wills or administrations in England and Wales were proved in church courts and should initially be sought in the county record office covering the place or parish where a person lived.  Since 1858 in England and Wales wills and administrations were proved by civil authorities and they have been nationally indexed in annual volumes and can be seen on normal weekdays at the  Principal Registry of the Family Division, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London WCIV 6NR. In many areas local probate registries (see under “Probate” in Yellow Pages for the location of your local probate registry office) have copies of these national indexes, while others are often deposited in county record offices. Some record offices also have microfiched copies of these annual probate indexes, in Lincolnshire microfiched copies of the older national probate indexes from 1858-1943 are available at Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street, Lincoln LN2 MB. The more recent post 1935 annual Index volumes can be seen by appointment on normal weekdays only at Lincoln Probate Sub-Registry, Mill House, Brayford Side North, Lincoln [MI IYW (301522-523648).
  • Before 1882, when the Women’s Property Act was passed, only very small groups of women, mainly widows or spinsters, made wills as all the possessions of married women (even their clothes) belonged to their husbands. Copies of wills found in the national indexes since 1858 may be ordered in person when visiting First Avenue House, London, or by post from The Chief Clerk, York Probate Sub Registry, Duncombe Place, York VOl 2EA. You are advised to contact York first to establish the cost of wills by post .
  • A summery of other Sources you may find useful NEWSPAPERS.  Usually found in local reference libraries. An obituary, or list of mourners at a funeral, may reveal a host of distant relations. If you find a death certificate that gives an accidental death, it is likely to have been reported on.
  • MONUMENTAL INSCRIPTIONS.  Many have now been indexed. Almost all the surviving tombstones in Lincolnshire churchyards and cemeteries have been recorded and indexed, and copies may be seen on normal weekdays and Saturdays at Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street; Lincoln LN2 MB with some local holdings in reference libraries like Grimsby Central Library Town Hall Square, Grimsby N E Lincs DN3I IHG .
  • Record any references to your surname(s) as they may turn out to be cousins with an earlier common ancestor.
  • Events you are told about with a fairly positive date can sometimes be looked up in old editions of local Newspapers.
  • Computer owners linked to the Internet now have growing access to a wide range of different genealogical sources and for general information about UK and Ireland genealogy GENUKI The main genealogical pages on the web for the UK and Ireland
  • You are strongly advised to join family history societies where you live and where your ancestors lived, to benefit from the free advice of their experienced members. Most UK counties have at least one society in them and you can appeal for assistance in society quarterly magazines as well as listing your surnames of interest. The main society covering Lincolnshire is the LINCOLNSHIRE FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY (LFHS), of which the Great Grimsby Family History Group is the local branch.
  • For a modest annual subscription you will receive four quarterly magazines and be able to avail yourself of its many free research facilities and attend any of the monthly meetings, or go on outings.
  • Other LFHS branches are at Boston, Bourne, Grantham, Horncastle, Lincoln, London, Louth and Scunthorpe. All hold regular meetings.
  • Application forms for annual membership of the LFHS are available on request.
  • The names of the other UK societies and their secretaries’ addresses are also available on request and appear in the half-yearly Family History News and Digest. Or by visiting the Federation of Family History Societies Internet website:
  • Outside the main London record offices you should always book a research place in advance of a visit, or you may be turned away.
  • Always take two proof of your identity with you as you may be required to obtain a readers ticket before being admitted.
  • From the onset you are advised to endeavour to keep methodical records of all searches, even negative ones.
  • Be prepared to encounter illegitimacy (we all have them) and other so-called ‘skeletons’ as it is often the ‘black sheep’ who make the quest so intriguing.
  • And do try to remember that not everyone (even your own family) may share your enthusiasm in learning who your ancestors were.
  • For Family Historians Who’s Ancestors Did Not Live In Lincolnshire, filmed copies of many census returns, parish registers, bishop’s transcripts and other records for a wide range of counties outside Lincolnshire, may be ordered for small fees at the Grimsby Family History Centre, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Linwood Avenue, off Waltham Road, Scartho, Grimsby, NE Lincs DN33 2PA, (01472-828876). The centre is only open at specified times and you must reserve a search place in advance of your visit.

Notes taken originally from a paper by Tom Woods©
Updated and expanded by Fiona Poulton January 2004©