Getting Started – Part 1

We have received a number of letters since starting the Group from people saying that they have always intended to research their family history, but were unsure how to get started. This article is based upon the advice we have sent in reply to such enquiries, and is published here in the hope that it will help a few more Lin(d)field descendants to start researching. It refers to the records in the United Kingdom, though the general principle applies in most countries which keep public records.

At risk of stating the obvious, the first stage is to collect all the information you can from members of your family; obviously, the older they are, the further back they may go. However, the most lucid recollections may not come from the oldest people. In some ways, this is the easiest stage, though the recollections of old people may not be as reliable or well ordered as the public records! You may also find that someone has an old family bible containing details of marriages and baptisms. This can save you a great deal of time in research. When talking to relatives about the family, it is worth trying to keep some structure to your notes, so that you can see when you have missed some vital detail. A good way to do this is to use one of the standard forms, which have spaces for all the vital dates and places for each generation. You may find it helpful to use a tape recorder, though some people are inhibited by being recorded.

The basic data you are trying to collect for each individual comprises the full name (and any nickname), the date or year and place of birth, and the date and place of marriage and death. If you can find the maiden names of wives this is very valuable in identifying the right people in the records, particularly if a lot of your ancestors were called John! It is useful to know where people were buried and the names of the churches in which they married. People tend to remember the occupations followed by their ancestors and these are also worth recording, both for identification and also to add some interest to the story. One thing that you cannot find in the public records is the wealth of anecdotes that old people recall about members of the family. Some of these stories are handed down over many generations and may be lost if we do not write them down.

You may find that birth, marriage and death certificates are kept and are handed down with other family papers. If you can borrow these and make copies, this will not only give you an authoritative record but will also save you about 8 a time for copies supplied by the record offices. You may also find that relatives have kept newspaper cuttings relating to members of the family. Malcolm Linfield has given examples of the details we can find from newspapers in his article in this issue. These may range from reports of weddings and engagements to articles about relatives who have achieved some distinction in their work or sporting activity. Photographs tend to survive rather better than most records and it worth copying them if you can. There is a laser copying process now which produces a very good copy of a photograph for under 2. Always try to find out who all the people are in the picture – our ancestors often failed to write such basic details on the back of their pictures.

This first stage will normally allow you to produce a tree of the last three or four generations, probably with a few gaps where dates or places are uncertain. The next stage is normally to obtain birth and marriage certificates for the earliest generation, which in turn will give some details of the generation before. Birth certificates, for example, will normally give, in addition to the date and place of the birth, the name of the father and his occupation, the name and maiden surname of the mother, and the address of the informant who will usually be the father or mother.

There are several ways to obtain copies of birth and marriage certificates from St. Catherines House. You can do this by calling there yourself, and looking up the year in question in the indexes, in which case you can then fill in a form requesting a copy of the relevant certificate. (The indexes are arranged alphabetically by surname in each quarter of the year.) Alternatively, you can search the indexes on microfilm at one of the Family History Centres operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). You will need to make an appointment, usually about a month in advance, making it clear that you wish to search the St. Catherines Index. There is no fixed charge for non-members of the church to use the facilities, but a contribution towards their funds is usually expected. If you are making a search of the St. Catherines Index, we would be very grateful if you could note all the Lin(d)field entries in the period you are searching, rather than just those of immediate interest to you.

Having found the birth, marriage or death that you are seeking, note the reference and quarter of the year in which it occurred, and you can then order the certificate from the General Register Office, Smedley Hydro, Trafalgar Road, Birkdale, Southport, PR8 2HH. This currently costs 15, or 12 if the full index reference is supplied. A cheaper method is to write to one of the researchers who advertise a courier service to St. Catherines House; this usually costs around 8 for each certificate. A number of such advertisements appear regularly in journals such as Family Tree Magazine.

Armed with the names and, hopefully, the address of the parents, you will normally want to establish their ages in order to find the records of their births. A useful source for this is the census data, which is available for each census from 1841 to 1891. (The census was carried out every 10 years from 1801, but 1841 was the first to require the names of the people in each household.) The 1841 census gave the actual ages of children under 15, but the ages of adults are approximate, being rounded down to the nearest 5 years. Subsequent censuses gave the actual ages, as stated by the head of the household, the relationship of each person to him, the occupation and, most importantly, the place of birth of each person. From these details you can establish where and when the parents were born and possibly how many other children they had and their names.

Since children usually left home to find work before they were 20 years old, it follows that many children only appear with their parents in one census year. If you are trying to draw up a complete tree, as opposed to tracing your direct line only, you will therefore need to look at all the available census data to get a complete picture. Bear in mind that the census only records those who were living at the address on the night in question; children were often in service with other families or staying with relatives and it is worth checking other households in the area, particularly families of the same name. The census returns are now only available to the general public on microfilm. They may be inspected at the Public Records Office in London, and at the County Record Offices, and are often also available at public libraries.

The census may allow you to deduce the date of birth of an ancestor born before 1837, when the registration of births became compulsory. In that case, the only record may be of the baptism, for which you will need to search the parish registers of the area in question. These are held by the County Record Offices and can be inspected by the public. This may be fairly straightforward if your ancestors have remained in the local area, but can necessitate a lot of travelling if they did not. Fortunately, copies of many of the records are also held by the Society of Genealogists in London, and non-members can use the facilities for a charge of about 8 per day. If you are searching a wide area for a particular birth or marriage, the International Genealogical Index (IGI) is an invaluable aid. This is published on microfiche by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and is available at their Family History Centres and in many public libraries.

If you have managed to trace your branch back to the first half of the last century, you will probably have connected with one of the branches which we already have on record. If so, we may be able to put you in touch with other members researching the same branch. In any event, it is always worth sending us the details you do have, before starting out on a lengthy search. One member who wrote in recently was surprised to find that we were able to extend her tree back a further 200 years! In the next part of this article, I will try to cover some of the other records that are available to help the family historian.

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