Beginning Your Family History


This short introduction provides a brief overview of the records and processes which are used to establish a pedigree in England and Wales. Tracing families in Scotland and Ireland is based upon similar methods and records but there are also many differences which will not be addressed here. Tracing a family history requires gathering evidence, evaluating and corroborating facts from different sources and finally setting down relationships which have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Research progresses backwards in time from the present day and from the known to the unknown. You can find more information on beginning your UK research in the GENUKI pages

Before You Begin

Before you begin your research it is worth bearing in mind that you may discover information which you would rather not have known. This might include bigamy, illegitimacy incest, suicide or criminality including offences of a violent or sexual nature. If such discoveries might cause you extreme distress then it is perhaps better that you do not start. If you do make such discoveries then even if they do not distress you, they may very well distress others, particularly if they are more closely related to those involved. Treat all such information with sensitivity when discussing it with other family members.

Please also be aware of the need to treat information about living people with caution. Not only is there potential to offend, but if widely publicised, particularly online, it may be used by criminals to effect 'identity theft'. One of the most common security questions used by financial institutions is "what was your mother's maiden name?' Publishing even a pedigree with minimal detail may hand the answer to a fraudster. In general, a good rule is to publish nothing online relating to persons or events within the last 100 years.

Commercial Databases

Many of the basic resources which you will require (as well as many specialist records) are available online through commercial databases. These require payment of a subscription. The principal databases are Ancestry and Findmypast. You may be able to access one or both of these free at a local library or record office. Both are available at Manchester Central Library (visit our help desk for more information).

Family Sources

The starting point is invariably your own knowledge, however limited. You may have a rich fund of information passed down by parents or grandparents or as little as the knowledge of your own identity. From this you can sketch a pedigree representing the family so far as you know it. The next step is to interview family members, most obviously the elderly whose memories might be expected to go back furthest, but not ignoring younger members who may have details not known to you or which you have forgotten. Their information may allow some further branches and details to be added to your pedigree.

Alongside recording family memories you should begin to collect documentary evidence. Most families have copies of birth, marriage and death certificates, baptismal certificates, WW2 identity cards, receipts, letters, photographs and many other items. Originals or copies should be collected together and the information they contain added to your growing pedigree. Photographs can be a particular challenge and may need to be "hawked around" the family to identify the subjects.

Bear in mind that memories can be imperfect. Dates and relationships can become confused. Do not accept stories at face value. They may contain a germ of truth but often change in the telling. Be particularly cautious of reputed connections to prominent families. As information is collected it is useful to feed it back to other family members since it may jog memories and produce further information. (Find out more about this topic)

Civil Records

Births, Marriages & Deaths - Once family sources have been exhausted, the next step is to use the records of civil registration of births, marriages & deaths to verify the relationships in your pedigree and to work backwards to earlier generations. The process depends upon using information from a birth certificate to identify the parents' marriage and then having obtained the marriage certificate to use this information to identify the births of bride and groom. The process is then repeated until the birth or marriage falls before civil registration was introduced in 1837. Death certificates will often not be needed to establish the line but occasionally can prove vital so should not be neglected. Registration records are kept by local registrars with copies held by the General Register Office (GRO). National indexes are available on microfiche at local record offices and libraries. However, the most convenient way to access the national indexes is by using the online databases provided by companies such as Ancestry and Findmypast. There are also free web sites which offer access to the Birth, Marriage and Death indexes such as FreeBMD. Of particular interest to local researchers is the online index to the original Register Office registers in Lancashire at (Find out more about this topic)

The Census - Once the line being followed has been traced to people alive in the 19th century you have the additional benefit of the returns of the censuses held every 10 years from 1841 onwards. A 100 year closure rule applies so only those up to 1911 are currently open to the public. The returns provide snapshots of households as they were constituted on census night and are valuable since they may show siblings of the direct ancestor and more distant relations such as grandparents or cousins. For each person details are given of age, occupation and birthplace. Copies of the returns for local areas are usually available on microfilm or microfiche at record offices and local studies libraries. The most convenient way to access the full census returns 1841 to 1911 is to use the online indexes and digitised images of the original returns on commercial web sites such as those prvided bY Ancestry and Findmypast. A substantial portion of the returns for Manchester for 1851 was damaged during storage. This has been transcribed by the Society. Visit to learn more.  (Find out more about this topic)

Wills - From 1858 onwards, wills were proved by local civil probate registries. Before 1858 some 300 ecclesiastical courts were responsible for probate (see below). It should not be assumed that simply because your ancestor was not wealthy he did not leave a will. He is more likely, however, to have left a will if he had an estate worth bequeathing. Even if he did not leave a will, it is possible that Letters of Administration (Admons) were taken out for the disposal of his estate. The value of wills is that they can provide evidence of relationships which may not be immediately obvious from other sources or can corroborate information obtained elsewhere. Administrations are usually less helpful since they provide details only of the people involved in administering the estate rather than those who inherited its assets. Occasionally, nevertheless, several family members may be identified and it is sensible to obtain copies of letters of administration where they exist. Indexes to wills and administrations are held by many local libraries and record offices and the indexes to 1966 are now available on the Ancestry web site but a complete free index is avaiable on the Probate Registry web site. (Find out more about this topic)

Ecclesiastical Records

Parish Registers - If you have successfully negotiated the civil records to ancestors born or married before 1837, your attention must now turn to baptism, marriage and burial records kept by the Church of England (and many nonconformist denominations). These were introduced in 1538 but few survive from this date and the majority date from about 1600 or later. The process of tracing families is much the same as when using civil registration records but since the information recorded is usually much more limited, the process is potentially more problematic. Original registers are usually deposited at county record offices. Many baptism and marriage records have been indexed by the Mormon Church and a copy of their International Genealogical Index is held by this Society. The index is also available on line at the church's web site The Lancashire Online Parish Clerk web contains many records of local relevance. Registers for many Anglican churches in the Manchester Diocese are also available on the Ancestry web site. (Find out more about this topic)

Marriage Bonds and Allegations - Most marriages followed the reading of Banns in the parish churches of the bride & groom for three weeks in advance of the marriage. This process could be , and was frequently, bypassed by the parties obtaining a licence. This would involve them swearing an "Allegation" that there was no reason (such as a prohibited relationship e.g. uncle and niece) why they should not marry and entering into a "Bond", usually with others (perhaps a parent) to pay a substantial fine if the allegation was subsequently proved false. The licence then allowed the couple to marry, usually in a specified church. Licences seldom survive but the bond and allegation will often be found in the Diocesan Record Office (usually, but not always, within a County Record Office).

Wills - Before 1858, probate was administered by a confusing hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts administered by archdeacons, bishops and archbishops or their representatives. There is no difference to the content of wills from this earlier period but locating a will can be more difficult. Because of the limitations of the parish register information and the absence of census records before 1841, wills assume a greater importance than for the later period. Wills for this period are usually deposited at Diocesan Record Offices and some indexes have been published. Searching for a will before 1858 can be a complicated task and the inexperienced should seek guidance from someone with an understanding of the system. (Find out more about this topic)

Memorial Inscriptions (Gravestones)

In addition to civil and ecclesiastical records, you may be fortunate enough to have records of your family literally "carved in stone". The value of memorials is that in addition to recording the date of death (and often of birth) of your ancestor, they will frequently record his spouse, children, parents and other family buried alongside. They may also record those buried elsewhere, possibly overseas. Memorials begin to appear in any number around 1600 but it is not until the 19th century that they appear in quantity for the less wealthy. Many memorials have been recorded by family history societies and this Society holds a substantial collection for burial grounds in the Manchester area. This has now been digitised and a database containing over 400,000 names is available in the member area of this web site. (Find out more about this topic)

Other Sources

The sources discussed so far provide the backbone of records used to trace the lineage of an English family but there is a vast number of other sources which can be used either to make up for weaknesses in the main records, resolve anomalies and ambiguities or to investigate more fully particular aspects of your ancestors' lives. Some examples include Poor Law administration documents, records of military service, medical and clerical registers and school and university alumni books. The civil and ecclesiastical records discussed above can provide the skeleton of a pedigree but it is usually these other sources which put flesh on the bones.
(Find out more about researching army ancestors in World War 1)
(Find out more about researching army ancestors before World War 1)

Getting Help

These notes are an overview and not a handbook. Your first step should be to read a good introductory book such as "Introducing Family History" by Stuart Raymond which describes the research process and sources in more detail. This is available from the MLFHS Online Bookshop. There is considerable value in taking a beginner's course. These are often given by further educational colleges and bodies such as the WEA and a comprehensive six lecture course is regularly organised by this Society. Membership of a family history society is strongly recommended. This will provide you with the opportunity to meet and share your problems and knowledge with other family historians. If your family lived in the Manchester area then Manchester & Lancashire FHS membership will provide particular benefits. Even if they did not, you may still find membership has a lot to offer.


Given reasonable luck you should be able to trace your family back at least to 1800 and possibly to the earliest period for which statutory records exist in the 16th century. Just occasionally you may be able to trace them back even further. However far you get, you will find the search absorbing and may turn up some interesting and unusual details about your family. If you are thinking of starting then remember that the older family members are not immortal and unless you record their knowledge, it may pass away with them.

[Amended 19 November 2018 - John Marsden]