- All family trees start with the oral family history and traditions together with photographs. (While we are talking about photographs... Memories fade and, as our older relatives depart this world, their memories die too. If you are aware of any old photographs within your family ask around and see if you can get all the people on them, and the places, identified. I am so glad that I bullied my mother into sitting down and going through all her old photos and writing on the back the names of the people in them. Even then, there are gaps - faces smiling out of pictures; faces who once were important to the person who took the photograph.
Then there are documents: birth, marriage and death certificates (BMD), letters, wills, accounts, address books, birthday books are all invaluable primary sources of information. Of course, some of these things may be important or precious to the people who have them. Ask to look at them and take notes, keeping a careful record of where you got the information from, or you might ask for permission to photocopy them or scan them into computer files.
Family anecdotes and tradition can all be useful and are worth recording. For example, Sheila told me that Mum had told her that Dad's mother was born on Southampton docks! Absolutely true, as it happens. But the anecdote helped to focus the search. In fact, her father was the caretaker of a shipping line office located in the dock area. Don't forget though that family anecdotes may be embroidered over the years or have a degree of wishful thinking in them: 'Grandpa used to day that his much insisted that we were related to the Duke of X' is unlikely to be true.
- The next step is to find some way of organizing all the evidence you have collected. I acquired a copy of the Family Tree Maker program and have found it excellent. Most of the pdf files on this website have been created by that program based upon the information in the database.
- You will now want to extend your search and the best way is to search online. There are a large number of genealogy web sites; some of them free, some of them need a subscription. A subscription is worth it. The amount of material online is huge and, even though coverage is not 100%, can save a huge amount of time and money traveling to local record offices to see the original material. I have used the following Internet sources regularly:
- Ancestry (subscription) gives access to birth, marriage and death records, census, military records, some parish records and other miscellaneous information such as old telephone records. Ancestry also has Welsh, Scottish, Irish and American records (we do have some ancestors who went to the USA - Tom Bradshaw's brother, to mention only one. Ancestry also give access to other peoples family trees (see below).
If you are using Family Tree Maker, Ancestry can automatically import its information into the program on demand.
- Lancashire Births Marriages and Deaths. Many other counties have online access to similar information. Although the information accessible is limited, it does provide an easy means of getting a copy of the certificates.
- Free BMD gives access to BMD records for the whole country.
- The 1911 Census website provides almost complete access to the census at a small cost.
- The official government records only started in 1835 and censuses only started in 1841. With exceptions due to the world wars, censuses have been performed every 10 years since. However, recent censuses are not available to the public until 100 years after their collection. The most recent available is the 1911, which is accessible online. Recent BMD records will have to be obtained, for payment, from the Register Offices, but even that can be done online.
- When is comes to early records, before official government records, it will be necessary to start seeking out things like old parish records. These are more than likely to be held centrally in a local town, city or county archive. I have not done any of that for our tree, but I get the impression that it is a worthwhile activity. At these early times the population was relative immobile. Whole generations of extended families (for example, the Chowns family) remained within a small geographical area and can probably be researched by a single visit to the appropriate archive.
- One of the advantages of a subscription Ancestry is access to other people's Family Trees. These people voluntarily make their information available and again Ancestry can transfer selected data into Family Tree Maker. These public trees can be a blessing or a curse. They have enabled our tree to be extended by some two or three generations on some branches without any effort at all. However, in my experience, these trees seldom have sources quoted or attached. You are totally at the mercy of the researcher. For example, there are two particular trees that contains considerable amount of information on the Chowns family. Both of them claim that Ruth - our Ruth - died on the 26th July 1921 in Stanmore, New South Wales, Australia at the age of 64. I think not! We have photos of Ruth clearly in her 70's in England and Sabina's Birthday book has Ruth's death as 18 May 1935 at age 79. The owner of one of these trees claims to have taken her information from UK Parish Records and the other from a 'hand-written family tree' handed on from a sister. It may be that you will find a dozen family trees all giving the same information - but it is more than possible that eleven of those trees has simply taken information that ultimately came from one single tree, mistakes and all. So, Beware!!
You can only construct a valid family tree if all the information you have can reliably be related. This can sometimes be difficult. A few warnings..
Finally... Be very wary about getting involved with Family Trees at all!!
- Censuses are great. There's loads of information and you can follow a family from one generation to another quite easily, but... Until recent times, the census must have been conducted by people going from door to door filling in the form. There are many errors in the information - names mis-heard or mis-spelled (Gilmore, Gillmore, Gilmour, Gilmoor, for example). Ages may be a year or two out. After the census the forms were then transcribed to record books, during which transcription errors are possible. So, don't take ages too literally and, if you can't find the person you are chasing in a particular census, try a different spelling.
- The online BMD records only provide, apart from the entry record identification that you can use to get an actual certificate copy from the General Record Office, an image of a page of a book in which were listed, quarter by quarter, all the births, or marriages or deaths, within a particular year, together with place of registration and the record identification. The place of registration will not necessarily be the place of birth.
- Don't assume that because you can't find a record online it doesn't exist. You may just need to look elsewhere or alter your search parameters. If you can't find someone in a particular census, don't assume that they have died since you last saw them. They may not have answered the door on the night of the census.
- If you take information from other peoples family trees treat it with suspicion. Check as far as you can that the information is consistent with your own evidence before you add it in to your tree. Be very, very wary about automatically allowing Family Tree Maker to import from public trees available on Ancestry. Import them as a separate tree if you must, but be very careful about merging them with yours. (I have spent a considerable amount of time sorting out problems caused by doing just that.) Be aware that there are people who are more interested in getting names on their family tree that the accuracy of the information - ancestor hunters! One of the public tress with Chowns information on has over 4900 persons in it.
It can become an obsession. It can change your way of life. One of the problems is that as you piece together the facts, stories about your ancestors begin to form in your mind (How did Ruth Chowns, living in the depths of Buckinghamshire, come to meet Samuel Adams, from Northamptonshire, and end up marrying in London? for example.) and you spend lots of time trying to fill in odd details to flesh out the story.
You have been warned!