How to start your family tree

Ask the Family

Searching for your ancestors must begin with what you know.

Collect all the family documents you can and question your relatives: the older ones may know about letters, diaries, papers and dated photographs, while, if you are lucky, the Family Bible will have vital dates.

They may be able to estimate ages and suggest locations, even if they cannot give exact details of births, marriages and deaths.

Every fact and its source should be noted, as well as vague remarks which can prove unexpectedly useful at a later stage (such as ‘that was before the war’, ‘she was grey at your aunt’s wedding’, ‘I believe an elder brother lived on the south coast and went to Australia or New Zealand’)

Start Reading & Recording

Record what you learn about each relative on a dedicated family history computer software package or else use separate cards or pages of a loose-leaf notebook. There are many books and websites that will give you advice and tips for your next steps: or BBC - Family History: Get Started are useful online guides. M. Herber Ancestral Trails (Alan Sutton) or N. Barrat Who Do You Think You Are? Encyclopedia of Genealogy (Harper Collins) are comprehensive guides.

You may want to buy at least one of these, but they should all be available from a public library. You don’t have to use a computer for family history but one could certainly be of great help. There are several family history magazines available from good newsagents that regularly review genealogical software programmes, websites and include cover discs so you can find which software is right for you. The Society of Genealogists’ online bookshop stocks useful titles and software and the learn pages of the Society’s website link to useful guides and education resources.


If you know an ancestor that was alive a hundred or more years ago, you can consult the official census returns for 1911, 1901, 1891, 1881, 1871,1861 and 1851. The censuses are a snapshot of a family together on a particular night recording the members of each household, their relationship to its head, ages, occupations and birthplaces. The 1841 census is also available, but is less informative.  A useful book is Census.The Expert Guide by Peter Christian and David Annal.

Census returns are generally  made available to be searched online via the large commercial genealogy websites such Findmypast, Ancestry, the Genealogist etc. All have name indexes and images of the census and are often made available free in local libraries and at the Society of Genealogists.

The Scottish returns for 1841 to 1911 are available at the National Records of Scotland /Scotland’s People Centre in Edinburgh

The first complete Irish census extant is that for 1901, which, with that for 1911, can be seen at the National Archives, Bishop Street, Dublin D08 DF85, Eire and free online at

Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates

England and Wales

Births, marriages and deaths have been officially recorded by the General Register Office (GRO) for England and Wales since 1 July 1837. The certificates give details of names, dates, ages, addresses and occupations. Each official paper certificate currently costs £9.25 and takes four days to prepare. However the GRO is currently experimenting with delivering cheaper non-certified PDFs of documents via email. You will need the appropriate reference from the GRO indexes to order the certificate or PDF. Copies of these indexes are available in some libraries including the Society of Genealogists, on microfilm or microfiche. The GRO website has links to the 7 libraries and offices where indexes with information up to the present day can be found.

The GRO online ordering service includes a revised and updated online index to births 1837-1916 and deaths 1837-1957:

Indexed information for later births and deaths, and marriage from older GRO paper quarterly indexes can be found online on, an ongoing collaboration between family historians to transcribe the GRO birth, marriage and death indexes entries from 1837 up to about 1983 onto the Internet. Not all the indexes are available yet, but there are about 332 million records and the work is growing all the time. This site has some images of the original quarterly paper indexes as well.

Some commercial organisations such as: and have launched digital images or databases compiled from all the old GRO quarterly paper  indexes for England and Wales up to 2006 to use on a pay per view or subscription basis. All these sites will give the reference needed to obtain a birth, marriage or death, certificate. Prices to view the indexes vary. Some of these sites can be viewed free of charge at the Society of Genealogists.

Once the appropriate index entry is found, official paper certificates and/or PDFs of birth, marriage and death can be ordered online:

Certificates can also be ordered by post and by telephone. You can telephone the Certificate Services Call Centre on +44 (0)300 123 1837 to place your order or write to Certificate Services at PO Box 2, Southport, Merseyside, PR8 2JD.

Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates elsewhere


Such events in Scotland from 1855, are available at the National Records of Scotland, Scotland’s People Centre. The Scotland’s People Centre is the official government resource for family history research. It provides access to the Scottish birth, death, marriage, divorce and census records, Catholic parish registers, Coats of Arms, valuation rolls, wills and testaments. 

The Centre is located in central Edinburgh with search rooms in historic General Register House and New Register House. Details of opening hours and planning a visit are found on

There are copies of the Scottish GRO indexes 1855-1920 on microfilm at the Society of Genealogists in London. Digital images of the Statutory Scottish GRO certificates can be found on the Internet (births over 100 years, marriages over 75 years and deaths over 50 years only) along with online indexes up to 2016 via the pay-per-view website (ee link below). Later documents can be ordered but not viewed online.

Northern Ireland

The General Register Office for Northern Ireland (GRONI) was instituted after the creation of Northern Ireland in 1922. However the GRONI in Belfast has computer indexes of births, Catholic marriages and deaths that occurred in the Province from 1864 and Protestant Marriages from 1845.

The General Register Office for Northern Ireland is within the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and administers marriage law and the registration of births, deaths, marriages, civil partnerships and adoption in Northern Ireland. The public search room can be found at: NISRA, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast, BT9 5RR. Tel: 0300 200 7890 (028 9151 3101 if calling from outside Northern Ireland). Email:

Online searches of the indexes and images of birth records in Northern Ireland over 100 years old, marriage records over 75 years old and  deaths records over 50 years old can be made at GRONI online.


The Irish Genealogy website makes available free online indexes to births over 100 years old, marriages over 75 years old and deaths over 50 years old. Having obtained the index entry photocopies can be ordered in person or by post (see below) or via a downloaded application from the Irish genealogy website or online from for €20.

Certificates for of Ireland from 1864 (and Protestant marriages from 1845) can be obtained in person from the search room of the General Register, Werburgh Street, Dublin 2 Ireland. See: for information about fees, opening times and search facilities.

If you have a date and index reference of a birth marriage and death then research copies of certificates can be ordered by post at a cost of €4. Otherwise and extra €2 is charged for a search. Postal enquiries should be addressed to General Register Office, Government Offices, Convent Road, Roscommon. Tel: 090 6632900.

Indexes for some civil birth, marriages and deaths registered in Ireland up to 1959 can be found on:, and


Much useful information can be gleaned from wills and administrations, copies of which for England and Wales back to 1858 may be obtained online the Court Service’s Find a Will Website: 

The Find a Will website currently consists of three searchable databases: 

          • Wills and Admons  probated from 1858-1995
          • Wills and Admons probated from 1996 to date
          • Soldiers Wills

Having found an index entry for an appropriate will or administration you can order a PDF of the will to be made available to download at cost of £1.50. This can take up to ten working days.

Images of the probate indexes from 1858 to 1966 can also be searched online at but this website does not make copies of the wills themselves available.

If you do not wish to go online to obtain a will, then postal applications for searches and copies can be made through the Leeds District Probate Registry using the official PA1S application form. A pdf of the form can be found on online here.

Postal search and copy fees include copies of the Will and/or grant if a record is found. If you want the Probate Registry to conduct a search for a period longer than the standard four years additional fees are charged for each four year period after the first search.

Reading the Will by William Home Lizars (1788–1859). Photo credit: National Galleries of Scotland

They can be obtained from Leeds District Probate Registry, Leeds District, Probate Registry, York House, 31 York Place, Leeds LS1 2BA. Tel: 0113 3896133.

From Sumer 2017 microfilms formerly held by The London FamilySearch Centre of the Mormon Church containing images of the wills from 1858 to 1925 will be held at the Society of Genealogists’ Library. Having noted the date of probate and probate registry from the various online indexes, copies of the will can be made there. It does not have the official grants of probate or the administrations.

Wills before 1858 were under the jurisdiction of church courts and are mostly in local repositories, described in J. Gibson and Stuart Raymond, Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills (FFHS, 6th edn. 2016). The Society of Genealogists has indexes for wills proved in most church courts and microfilm copies and abstracts of wills amongst its collections.

The records of the highest church court known as the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) can be searched on line via the National Archives Website at:

Many local record offices are beginning to index and digitise the wills from lesser courts in their collections and the National Will Index on is making good progress in indexing wills for many church courts.

Church Registers

Before general registration started (1837, 1855, 1864) births and deaths were not recorded as such, but baptisms, marriages and burials were entered in the registers of the appropriate churches or chapels. Some parish (Church of England) registers date from 1538. Most over a hundred years old are now deposited in County Record Offices, though a few remain in parish churches. Access to original registers in public hands is mostly free; for those still at the church the clergy are allowed to make a charge. The whereabouts of any register may be determined from C. R. Humphery-Smith, The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (Phillimore 2003). Links to all record office websites can be found via The National Archives’ Find an Archive facility:

Over the years a great many parish registers have been copied (perhaps to 1812 or to 1837 or later) and the largest collection of these copies is at the Society of Genealogists. Hundreds of millions of baptisms and marriages from parish registers between 1538 and 1875 have been collectively indexed, by the Genealogical Society of Utah (Mormons) and are available free online at and many of the commercial genealogy  websites are developing contracts with local archives to digitise and make local registers available online. Most surviving nonconformist registers in England and Wales before 1837 are at The National Archives and the majority (other than Quaker) have been indexed into the FamilySearch website. Most nonconformist records and some Catholic records are also available on the Internet on, Findmypast and Ancestry. Guides to the history and genealogical sources relating to various nonconformist denominations have been published by the Society of Genealogists as part of the My Ancestor... series and are available from the Society’s online bookshop or as eBooks on Amazon.

All Scottish parish registers are at the Scotland’s People Centre in Edinburgh. Few begin before 1750 but all the baptisms and marriages prior to 1855 have been indexed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and again are available on microfiche at various libraries and Family History Centres. They are also available through the website

Many Irish registers have not survived. Those we do survive are mostly from rural areas and date only from the early 19th century. In the Republic of Ireland many Church of Ireland Registers have been deposited at the Representative Church Body Library, Braemor Park, Rathgar, Dublin 14 and most of those of the Roman Catholics are on microfilm at the National Archives, Bishop Street, Dublin D08 DF85. Free digital but unindexed images of Catholic Registers from the National Library are online while indexed images can be found on the commercial Ancestry and Findmypast websites.

Records from parishes in Northern Ireland, which are not retained in parish custody, are deposited in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast. For further details about research in Ireland consult J. Grenham, Tracing your Irish ancestors (Gill and Macmillan, Dublin) or Chris Paton Irish Family History Resources Online.

Local Records

When you have exhausted the records of civil registration and have begun to look at the parish registers of the area from which your family came you will need to consult the other sources available in the County Record Office. Here you will find other parish records such as accounts, rate books and poor law records along with local wills proved before 1858, the records of the administration of the county (including the Quarter Sessions or Magistrates Courts, Land Tax records, at least from 1780 onwards), and the records of local land or estate owners.

The Society of Genealogists

Anyone starting their family history should consider visiting the Society of Genealogists, 356 Holloway Road, London N7 6PA  (open Weds, 10am-4pm. Its remarkable library of over 140,000 books, CDs, databases and microform holds many local sources for the places where your ancestors lived. It collects research notes and published family histories and biographies along with special collections of genealogical research compiled over the last century. Free Internet access is given to certain genealogical pay per view or subscription sites. There are sources for the armed services, professional and trade directories; apprenticeship records, school and university lists, will and marriage licence indexes and much, much more. Information on using the library can be found on the Society’s website where you can also find links to its free online library catalogue and information on the Library search/copy service. Internet access to many SoG indexes and databases is available exclusively to its members as SoG Online Data which is part of the website

You need not be a member of the Society of Genealogists as the collection is open to all searchers on payment of hourly or daily search fees, which are outlined on the Society’s website. If, however, you join (details available on the SoG website) you also benefit from the online quarterly Genealogists’ Magazine, access to SoG data online, discounts on some publications, lectures and seminars, courses for beginners and for more advanced searchers. Free tours and family history advice sessions are held on alternate Saturdays in the Library. Details of the SoG’s telephone family history advice line can be found on the SoG website

The Genealogical Community

In addition to the Society of Genealogists there are many local family history societies and membership of those in your area and where your family came from may be helpful. A full list can be obtained from the Federation of Family History Societies, website The Federation has no library and does not undertake research. The Society of Genealogists hosts the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain (JGSGB) and the Irish Genealogical Research Society (IGRS) within its premises.

The World Wide Web is the most popular means of communication between family historians. Two useful genealogical reference sites are GENUKI and Cyndi’s List Social network sites such as Genes Reunited and Rootsweb can be a good way to contact other researchers. The Society of Genealogists has its own website and its members’ forum is a useful way of seeking support and help from other SoG members. The SoG website also has useful information leaflets and learning resources.  News from and about the Society and the genealogical community can also be found on and also via the Society’s Face Book Page or Twitter account @SoGGenealogist. You can also sign up to receive the SoG newsletter via our website.

If you are not in a position yourself to trace your family, or if you need help in distant parts of the United Kingdom, or with documents in Latin or difficult handwriting, there are professional searchers who undertake such work. The Association of Genealogists Researchers in Archives (AGRA) was founded to promote high standards among genealogists and publishes a list of members who undertake research. This is available from the AGRA website

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