Working as a family historian and probate researcher in Sussex, I come across a lot of people who are interested in researching their family history but don’t know where to begin. While research can sometimes be tricky, and every family is different, there are a number of free, simple steps you can take to get started.
Think about what you what to find out
This might sound screamingly obvious but in order to get some answers, you will need to spend some time thinking about the questions you have about your family. What is it that want to find out? This might be as general as ‘I want to know a bit more about my mother’s/ father’s family’, or as specific as ‘I would like to know what grandma’s dad did for a living’, or ‘I would like to know about Uncle Bob’s naval career.’ It’s generally helpful to have an overall sense of where you want to go, bearing in mind that questions tend to lead to other questions!
Write down what you know
Equally obvious, and again mainly for your own benefit, it is useful to set down on paper what you already know. Start by plotting a basic family tree (see below) and then note down what you know about each of your relatives such as the dates of birth, marriage and death (BMD), occupation, interesting facts, stories, theories and puzzles. It is often surprising how little you do know about quite close relations! This exercise will probably raise extra questions to add to your list. Over time, you are likely to build up quite a sheaf of notes, records and photos for each person in your tree.
Create a basic family tree
Starting with yourself and your siblings in order of birth, begin to plot your family tree including key BMD dates, where possible. Add your parents and their siblings and your grandparents. Chances are at this point, you may begin to struggle. If not, you’re doing well! If you know the names of your grandparents’ siblings, add them in too. Ditto your great-grandparents. If you are drawing your tree by hand (often easiest at this stage), use a big piece of paper and try to leave yourself as much room as possible for each generation. For clarity, each generation should ideally be horizontally on the same line. Alternatively, you can download and print a template family tree chart from one of the thousands available on the internet (see here) or start an online tree by registering a free account at a site such as Ancestry.
Interview your relatives
Chatting to your nearest and dearest is initially likely to be the most effective way of building your family tree. The key thing is to think carefully about what you want to know and prepare a little in advance. Click here to link to a separate blog post about interviewing your relatives.
Copy and label old photos
Hopefully contacting your relatives will lead you towards family photos and documents. As well as really bringing your ancestors to life, photos are vital records and can provide lots of clues about your ancestors lives. Ask your relatives’ help to identify them, including when and where they were taken. No doubt, doing this will give rise to more stories and anecdotes for your file. You may wish to build your own collection of family memorabilia. Ask your relatives if you can make copies. Sometimes a high quality photo of an original will do (so take along a camera); otherwise you might ask to borrow items in order to make high-res copies or scans. Remember you may only get the one opportunity, so copies must be as good as possible. Take special care of old photos and documents in your possession. If possible, return borrowed items by hand rather than by post.
This should all give you a good general overview of your family history. It may take you several weeks, months, even years to complete. To some extent, it will probably always be a work in progress and you will revisit these tasks again and again as you research your family history. In the process, you will find out more about what your ancestors did, where they lived, what they were like and hopefully what they looked like. You will probably also have a whole lot more questions!
And, probably sooner, rather than later you will want to dig into some original records! To get you started, here is a list of top free family history websites in the UK which allow you to search for birth, marriage, and death records and census records free of charge. Also, check out our blog guidance about approaching the records.