Family History Federation

Beginning my own Family History

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What useful records can I find and where?

Before embarking on researching your family history, the best advice is to speak to older relatives to find out what they can tell you and to gather old photographs or copies of documents which contain details of your family. However, it is always best to check what you have been told by consulting records to verify facts, as recollections can fade over time.

There are many types of records available, but those new to family history should usually start with the following:

  • Birth, Marriage, and Death (BMD) records
  • Parish Registers
  • Census records
  • 1939 Register

  • First, some history about these records…

    Birth, Marriage and Death records

    The General Register Office (GRO) was created in 1837 and the civil registration of Births, Marriages, and Deaths (BMD) began in England and Wales on 1st July 1837. Initially England and Wales were divided into 619 registration districts, although the number of districts and the boundaries have changed many times since then.

    Unfortunately, the registration of birth and deaths was not universal until the law was tightened in 1874. Records of BMD are held by local registration districts with copies sent to the GRO. From 1837, a quarterly index of BMDs for all of England and Wales was compiled by the GRO and these indexes are now available online on many websites, some of them are commercial sites which require a subscription.

    Parish Registers

    PIn 1538, King Henry VIII formed the Church of England following a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over the annulment of his first marriage. Soon afterwards, a law was passed which required each parish priest to record each baptism, marriage, and burial in a register. These parish registers continue to the present day though, sadly, not all the early registers have survived.

    From 1598, each parish was required to send a copy of their register to the bishop of their diocese each year. This is useful as sometimes these Bishops Transcripts, as they are known, have survived where the original register has not. Bishops Transcripts are usually available until around the mid-19th century.

    Census Records

    PThe first census for England and Wales was compiled in 1801 and has been taken every 10 years since, except for 1941 during WW2. However, it was not until 1841 that the first UK census of individuals exists nationally in reasonable numbers and condition. There are earlier records for some parishes but these are very few and far between.

    The 1841 census was a simple list of names in each household, their ages, occupations and whether they were born in the same county. Ages of those people over 15 were usually rounded down to the nearest 5.

    The type of information collected varies from one census to another, with the most recent seeking more detailed information. Census records are only released after a 100-year privacy period so the 1921 census is the most recent census available.

    The 1931 census records were destroyed in WW2 so the next census to be released will be the 1951 census, expected to be released in 2052.

    1939 Register
    Shortly before WW2 in the summer of 1939, a Register (not a census) was taken, of everyone living at that time. It was required to use that information to prepare for war. How many doctors, nurses, farmers, engineers, or bricklayers were there? How many people needed to be fed? How many young fit men and women could be called upon? The information was used for issuing identity cards and ration books and later formed the basis of the original National Health Service records.

    This free website has been created by a group of enthusiasts who have been helped by a large number of volunteers who have so far indexed over 292 million records from the GRO indexes. The indexes up to 1989 are now virtually complete.

    To use this free, easy to search website, go to FreeBMD

    Start from the Home Page by selecting and reading the Information page:

    then find the useful 26-page illustrated online guide Discover your Family History produced by the GRO.


    To start searching, go back to the FreeBMD homepage and click the Search button.

    The best place to start is with what you know. Start by finding your own birth entry. You will know what answers to expect in most cases. Then, in turn, find the births of any siblings you may have, the marriage of your parents, and then and then each parent’s birth.

    DO NOT try to fill in all the boxes.

    Once you have entered your family names, press Find to search. For common names, there may be a number of possible entries, so you will need to look carefully to select the correct one. When you have found the correct entry, be careful to write down all the details.

    Bear in mind that in the indexes, each year is split into four quarters, e.g., the March quarter will include all events registered during January, February, and March. You also need to be aware, that parents had six weeks to register a birth so, for example, a birth on 22nd February could be found in the June quarter, rather than the March quarter.

    Likewise, the registration of a death usually took place a couple of days after the death occurred. Therefore, for a death on 30th March, it could appear in the June quarter rather than in the June quarter.

    For marriages, they will always appear in the correct quarter.

    With luck and careful searching you can find your ancestors back to 1837 when civil registration began.

    You will need to check details and get further information by buying certificates, as paper copies posted to you, PDFs emailed to you or from summer 2023, online jpeg images! A much quicker and cheaper idea.
    Better still just ask your own older family members if they have the originals.

    The data found here is what is required to apply for a certificate to General Register Office (GRO). You will need to register Credit Card details the first time you use that site.
    Some notes on FreeBMD
  • The website covers England and Wales searches only.
  • For Scotland records see ScotlandsPeople.
  • For Ireland records see Irish Genealogy.
  • The Information found here are Indexes.
  • You will NOT find precise dates/places for events. That is on the certificates.
  • FreeBMD only contains entries between 1837 and 1997. More recent records are often available on subscription sites, but not freely available here.
  • Places are shown only as the Registration District where the Registrar recorded the event. For example, Barnstaple Register Office covers events from Saunton, Ilfracombe and Lynmouth across to the Somerset border and down to Chulmleigh which is halfway to Exeter.
  • Example FreeBMD search
    I ticked Birth as a type of search and put my full name in. Capitals or lower case? Doesn't matter. Then press the Red Find box.

    Oh No! It didn’t find me! I don’t exist, I wasn’t born! Don’t panic!! Did I search the way they wanted me to? Read the RED warning box carefully.

    You are ‘learning to search’ - this involves learning the procedures and quirks for each site that you use.

    ..more than one first name?

    Just enter one forename and perhaps an Initial?
    Or save that initial as an extra detective clue for me?

    Example FreeBMD search

    I can always press ‘Revise Query’ and add more.

    There can’t be many children born with the surname blackaby?
    Tick BIRTHS
    Type in SURNAME
    Press Count

    The answer is here by the arrow.
    862 is too many ‘Blackabys’ for me to look at?
    I’ll press REVISE QUERY, type in Peter and press Count.

    That’s better! Just a few to read. Press Find.
    But before I do press it…

    Example FreeBMD search

    ……More detective work.

    I know Mum’s Dad was grandad Jones and he lived in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire and I think I know which quarter of what year I was born in.
    Press Find.

    No one was born as Peter Blackaby between 1837 and 1921, after that most of them were Peter D.

    Born near Warwick register Office.
    Mum was Miss Jones.
    Dec1944, that’s me!
    Born in November in the quarter that ends in December.
    If I press the blue Warwick, it tells me the towns/villages served by Warwick Register Office.

    Example FreeBMD search

    Pressing Warwick doesn’t work for you, here on this page that you are reading.

    You can make the same entries as I did on FreeBMD, on your own device and see if Leamington is served by Warwick register office.

    You can also look up what the spectacles icon and red Info box do on the INFORMATION page.

    Now I can find Mum and Dad's marriage information.

    Press NEW Search

    Tick Marriages and type in their two surnames.

    I sometimes find that I put the family name/surname on the line for the forename/first name. You didn’t do that did you? Press FIND and let’s find their marriage. I know both my Grandad and Dad were called Henry Thomas; their family lived in Morden in Surrey. From my birth record, I know Mum was a Miss Jones.

    Lots of Blackaby family marriages near Warwick.

    Dec 1943 would seem to be correct.

    Pressing the 648 would show who else got married on page 648 in Surrey in that quarter, giving me a forename for the bride, Miss Jones too.

    Example FreeBMD search
    Note- Names on page 648 are not shown as couples, or bride and groom together, simply as an alphabetical list by surname.

    Now let’s look for any siblings I may have from a Blackaby/Jones marriage after 1943?
    I’ll press REVISE QUERY, delete Marriages and my forename, —-------->tick BIRTHS.

    I should know what names to expect,
    But I’ll see how FreeBMD writes their names.
    They’ll be in the correct date order too.

    One Grandad was called Harold, but was registered as Wilfred Harold.
    This can be confusing for a new family historian.

    Good result!
    All the names I expected are confirmed, with a reminder of which quarter of which year we were born in.

    Note- Mother’s maiden name is only given after 1911 on this site.

    Example FreeBMD search
    Maiden names earlier? Go to Research your family history using the General Register Office and sign in for more free records, not quite so easily searched. This will be a search of the G.R.O. General Records Office website. A later ‘How To’ talks about searches on that site. You will need to spend a few minutes logging in and opening a GRO account. This involves entering your bank card details but these would only be used if you buy a certificate to confirm the exact names, dates, and places of the data you found in the index. Having entered your details once, next time you can just press Sign in and start searching. I’ve demonstrated how to find reasonably precise Birth and Marriage records, Births to a couple using the brides Maiden name, Places and Dates. All using the FreeBMD website. Let's see if there were any Deaths after my parents' marriage. Press REVISE QUERY Select Deaths instead of Births. Delete Jones Leave Mar 1943 as it is. Count button tells me there are over 200 results, but I know my family were in Morden in Surrey and Leamington in Warwickshire.

    That might help.
    Press FIND
    Freebmd reminds me of my search criteria.
    An opportunity to check for errors.

    Example FreeBMD search

    My sister, Jennifer died (last but one entry) aged 1 in Warwick Hospital in the first three months of 1951.
    Unfortunately, my father was in London at his father’s funeral at the time she died, Grandad, Henry T Blackaby died aged just 51.
    Both entries are on the same page.

    Not all your research will find cheerful results, and no-one can change what has happened. NB. Age at death is only available after 1866 on FreeBMD. Before 1866 you will need to search free on General Register Office (GRO) or a pay site. There is an excellent video on YouTube all about using FreeBMD. I recommend that you watch that too.
    Example FreeBMD search
    Now it is your turn! Now YOU try that. Follow those steps on FreeBMD. Put your family names instead of mine.

    1. Start with yourself, find your birth record as shown in the index.
    2. Find your parent’s marriage record.
    3. Then their children’s births.
    4. Dad’s birth record.
    5. Mum’s birth record.
    Decide which line to follow first. Dad’s surname line or Mum’s surname line.

    Record each person's data carefully

    In a format like this?

    Example FreeBMD search

    You could save a family tree template from the DFHS website or download the free My Family Tree pdf there.

    An alternative is to use Index cards or look for an Index card app for your computer.
    I used Cardflow app on my iPad.

    Do use Maiden names for married ladies.
    You might use a different coloured file or folder for each surname?

    Do record the data carefully.
    What happened?
    Who was there?
    Same date format for each person.

    Example FreeBMD search
    Record siblings on the back of the page or the DFHS free booklet My Family Tree is a helpful pdf for starters to record their family. A later ‘How To’ deals with recording details of whole families. Talking of families, have any of your relatives done a recent family tree? Might be worth asking? Even so, every day more and more information is published online so it may still be worthwhile updating your information.

    There is always the HELP button on the Search page. So useful!

    Spelling Surnames Correctly
    New family historians often start convinced that the name spellings used by their parents and on their certificates are totally accurate and cannot be either wrong or changed. Sorry but this is not correct. Names have been misheard or copied incorrectly since names and surnames began. Until the mid-1800’s most people did not read or write. They passed on what they thought they heard. If your country relatives moved to a city for work in the Industrial Revolution, then it is likely that their names were not written down officially (outside church records) until they told an official what their name was, for work, housing, or a loan etc. Dialects and accents may have affected how names were written. The spelling written down then may well have followed your family only since then. Be open-minded. My name is simple - BLACK with ABY on the end. I have counted 31 different spellings of my name. My 2x Great grandfather died as a widower in hospital. No one there to correct the spelling. I found his name recorded as Blakely. Seems unlikely? No one used to type in those days, records were done in pen or pencil by hand. Records were copied out into other books; copies were copied again. Try for yourself - write my surname in loopy script and it soon becomes clear that a, c & e could all be misread. A loopy b can be seen as l and e. Try that with your name. What might you expect to find? Be open-minded.
    Wildcard is a term given to a character used in place of a letter or group of letters. Most common are * or ? The FreeBMD information page states - Wildcard searches For all the name fields you can use a * to match any number of characters, e.g., Thorn* will find Thorn, Thorne, Thornton, etc. You can use ? to match exactly one character, e.g., Thorn? will match Thorne and Thorns but not Thorn or Thornton. Please be prepared to accept different spellings of names. It saves a lot of searching. Smith could be Smythe, or Smyth. I found one JONES family misdescribed as JAMES. Wildcard use may vary for each site. Do check.
    Family History Societies
    Most Family Historians started exactly as you are now. They made the same mistakes as you have or might in the future. Do any of your friends research their family history? Family History societies are generally helpful folk who are happy to offer advice or help if you are struggling. A few pounds spent on a subscription may save you hours of research. Go to Devon Family History Society - you may be surprised at what you can find free to visitors. Then as a member you get:
    • Members’ Area Benefits
    • Add all your own Member’s Interests online and search the names that Devon FHS members have posted.
    • Free – ALL Devon marriages 1754-1837
    • Free – Selected Historian articles
    • Free – Devon Monumental Inscriptions and Photos.
    • Free – Devon Documents
    • Free – Devon Strays
    • Free – Devon Coastguards
    • Free – Devon Parish Maps to print
    • Free – Methodist Ministers’ Obituaries
    • Free – Miscellaneous Data Sets
    • Discounts and Special Offers
    • Material continuously added.
    Other county societies have similar records which may also be only available to members.
    Pedigree charts
    Visit Devon Family History Society Takes you to the Devon FHS Home Page. Select Free to Visitors Choose Pedigree Chart (another way of saying Family Tree) or My Family Tree

    Both are free pdfs available to download, print and fill in as you start your own journey into your past.

    Download and print the one page - Pedigree Chart - shown in the background or The booklet - My Family Tree - shown here as a collage from several pages. 32 pages printed intially for youngsters but so useful for starters of all ages.

    First Learn to Search Follow the above guide to find your own details, then those of your parents.

    Previous slide
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    Similar guides in this series include How To… Uncles And Aunties and How To… GRO Search.

    The Devon Family History Society would like to thank our member Peter Blackaby for producing this guide.

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