Starting your family history journey is a doddle, says Who Do You Think You Are? genealogist Laura Berry
1. What Do You Think You Know? Write it Down!
The most important step before you even begin searching through records is to write down what you already know about your family history – just put a question mark next to any facts that you're unsure of. Draw a simple family tree, with your name at the bottom and your parents, grandparents and great grandparents above. It doesn't matter if you don't know that far back, but try to include dates and places of birth, marriage and death if you can. This will give you a clear picture of where there are gaps in your knowledge. Do you know the women's maiden surnames? What about the men's occupations? All this information will help you to identify the right people in documents when you start to search for them.
2. Put Your Relations' Heads Together
Now you can show your first tree to your nearest and dearest to see if they can fill in any of the gaps. Talking to older relatives could help you to push your tree back another generation. Ask what they remember about loved ones who are no longer with us – not only is oral history the best way to conjure up a picture of your closest relations, it can be great for directing your first lines of enquiry too. Are there any family rumours that could be interesting to investigate? Any children born "on the wrong side of the blanket", any criminality, or aristocratic connections? Did anyone fight in the First or Second World Wars or spend time abroad? Make clear notes and consider recording these conversations so that you have a record of everything.
3. Search Around
Dig out your own family archive, even if you only have your own birth certificate. Whilst visiting relatives ask if they have hold of any old family documents and see if they're happy for you to make copies of them. This can be done quickly and easily using a smart phone or digital camera. Locating original birth, marriage and death certificates will save you from paying for duplicate copies from the General Register Office later down the line. Things like national identity cards, driving licences, passports and letters are unique artefacts that can tell you a great deal of information. Pay particular attention to ages, addresses and occupations, and add any new facts to your family tree. Get copies of any old photos so that you can put a face to a name, and don't forget to see if there are any giveaway clues written on the back of the picture.
4. Get Organised Now
You'll soon find that you're swamped with information about multiple people in your family tree, so it will really help in the long run to settle on a method of recording and easily updating your findings right from the start. Creating an online family tree with Findmypast is a great way to stay on top of your research. Once you've added the names and dates from your written family tree to your online tree you can then add extra facts to each person's profile, like their occupations and addresses, and upload notes and media files including digital photos of the documents you've already unearthed. Hints will start to appear next to the names on your tree – these are records that have been found that might relate to your family, so you can start reviewing new documents right away and attach any correct entries to your ancestors' profiles.
Next week, we'll explore the vital records you can use to trace your roots back to the Victorian period.