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Beginners guide to family tree research

Archivist Catherine Clark explains how to start-out when researching your family tree.

JUDGING by the number of emails and telephone calls we have had since the beginning of the year from people new to family history, we reckon the New Year – not to mention the new decade – has prompted researchers to get cracking.

Or maybe Santa was kind, leaving subscriptions to family history websites in your stocking!

Whatever the reason, there seems to be plenty of people embarking on family history research from scratch, so we though we would run over some of the basics to help get you started.

First it’s a good idea to check with relatives – someone might have already made a start on the family tree – but in any case you need to start by gathering as much information about your family as you can. Begin with yourself and work backwards, trying to compile details of dates and places of birth, marriage and death of relatives known to you and other members of your family. You might find that old certificates of birth, marriage and death help or that older family members recollect some details.

Birth, marriage and death certificates have only been around since mid-1837 and only available to buy, not to consult for research purposes. They are available from the local register office where the event was initially registered, or online. If you want to buy a Whitehaven District certificate the helpful team from the Register Office at College House on Flatt Walk will be able to help. Email whitehaven.registeroffice@cumbriacc.gov.uk for further details. To buy birth, marriage and death certificates for the whole of England and Wales online go to www.direct.gov.uk/gro.

Record offices and larger libraries have the indexes for birth, marriage and death certificates for England and Wales, and give you the volume and page number, year, quarter and registration district – all of which are necessary to order a certificate. The index is also available on some paid-for family history websites and free at www.freebmd.org.uk but beware – transcribing all this information is a volunteer project and it is not yet complete.

As you go further back you will need to consult church records, so it is helpful if you can find out what denomination your ancestors belonged to, and in which parish or parishes they lived. Church records for the old county of Cumberland are freely available to view at Whitehaven Record Office and Local Studies – mainly on microfilm.

These records will give you the baptism, marriage and burial dates of your ancestors, and in the case of baptism records the names of parents – often both but sometimes just one! In any case there’s usually enough to help you research the next generation back.

Census returns can give you many clues about the past. We’ll all be filling in lengthy forms later this year about everyone in the house on ‘census night’, and that will give the government important statistical information to help plan future services. The personal information is kept confidential for 100 years.

The census has collected full details about every resident of England and Wales since 1841 every 10 years, with the exception of the war years, and those from 1841-1901 for Cumberland can be seen at Whitehaven Record Office. Use these in conjunction with church records to see the family make up, where they came from and what occupations they chose to pursue.

If you were lucky enough to be given a subscription for a family history website for Christmas you might be a little overwhelmed at the number of sources available, what they show and how to use them. On-line tutorials can help. Try the BBC’s pages for a start at www.bbc.co.uk/familyhistory and follow the Getting Started links. Or you could check out the information on our website (www.cumbria.gov.uk/archives) and follow the ‘family history’ links.

That should be enough in the early stages to get you started and get back several generations quite swiftly. Once you become familiar with record offices, what they have and how to use them, there will be no stopping you! See you soon.

Your local Archive: Cumbria Record Office, Scotch St, Whitehaven. See the website www.cumbria.gov.uk/archives for further details.

By Alan Cleaver
Published: January 13, 2011


Have your say

Forgot to post my e-mail address:


Posted by Tom Brew on 4 June 2013 at 01:16

Would like to make contact with BREW family. My line goes as such
John Brew & Eleanor Corlett - their son
John William Brew & Jane Cain - their son's
John, Thomas, William and Francis
William is my great grandfather, married to Catherine Cunningham.
Thanks for reading...Tom

Posted by Tom Brew on 4 June 2013 at 01:15

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