Expert Advice: Tracing your Family Tree

Thanks to popular programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, millions of us think about our ancestry each year, with ONS data revealing that since the launch of the ‘find my past’ website in 2002, it has received over 386 million page views from people looking to trace their family history.

Tracing a family tree can be an incredibly rewarding; you may find out that you’re related to somebody famous, or you may be able to resolve some long-held myths about the family. You never know where your family’s roots will lead in your research and the search itself can be both intriguing and enlightening. It will always provide you with an interesting story to tell.

Tracing a family history can be a challenge though, so to help you with your research, we contacted professional genealogist Tony Griggs of Mr Genealogy, who has helped over 200 clients since 2013. Here, he’s answered a few questions to help teach us how to trace your family tree online. 

Interview with Tony Griggs

Could you tell us anything about the history of family trees?

Ancient family trees were drawn up for very practical purposes, for example to show descent of land or to document the right to use a coat of arms. 

During most of history, it was only really felt important to document the ancestry of royalty, the aristocracy and gentry. Much of the genealogy prior to the 1900s was done by antiquarians focusing on the prominent local families.

Now, we are more interested in claiming descent from our genuine ancestors, however humble their true origins, rather than a project of vanity to falsify descent from someone of royal blood.

“Don't think that you can get back to Charlemagne or an ancestor who came over with William the Conqueror; most people who claim that are wrong.”

What are the benefits of tracing your family tree?

You’ll get a number of benefits when you trace your family tree, including: 

  • Gaining a sense of who you are and where you come from.
  • Finding biological relatives for an adoptee.
  • Passing on knowledge to your children/grandchildren/future generations.
  • Finding living relatives to exchange information about, reunions etc.  
  • Learning about history and what life was like for your ancestors.
  • Visiting places where your ancestors lived.
  • Enjoying the process itself, problem solving and putting the pieces together, (re)discovering something that people once knew but was then forgotten.

“Do be prepared to open Pandora's Box as you get to see the full breadth of human nature – in other words there might be a few skeletons in your family’s closet that you uncover along the way.”

What approach would you recommend for someone looking to trace their family tree?

When you trace your family tree online, start by documenting what you know for certain and move one stage at a time. You shouldn’t accept family folklore as gospel until you have seen the documentary proof.

Don't accept online family trees at face value, some of them are very good, but some are complete fiction. These were generally compiled by other amateurs, sometimes without any idea of what they were doing. If several trees agree, it doesn't mean that they are correct, just that one has been widely copied.

At the most extreme, tackle it like you are the judge in a criminal trial: is this enough evidence to prove that these records relate to the same person, or could it be someone else with the same name?

Don't think that you can get back to Charlemagne or an ancestor who came over with William the Conqueror; most people who claim that are wrong. It is very normal to not be able to truthfully trace a particular family in the British Isles back to someone born before the late 1700s.

“Don't accept online family trees at face value… some are complete fiction.”

What research/processes are involved when tracing your family tree?

The basic process in the British Isles should be to start with a full birth certificate, which will name the parents, including the mother's maiden name. A search can then be made in the index of the General Register Office (in England/Wales), the National Records of Scotland (Scotland) or the General Register Office Northern Ireland (in Northern Ireland).

When the marriage is found, a copy of the corresponding marriage certificate can be obtained. This will give ages of the bride and the groom, along with the names and occupations of their fathers (and mothers in Scotland). Then, the search can be made for the birth of the next generation, again using the indexes. This main process is repeated back to the first ancestor born/married after 1837 (1855 in Scotland/1864 in N.Ireland).

To help with this process, the Victorian Census returns, which have been taken every ten years from 1801, can help with ancillary information, or to help narrow down where someone was born. Census records and the index to births, deaths and marriages are available online, but for England and Wales and more recent events in Scotland and Ireland, the original documents still need to be ordered from the relevant organisations.

Before the early 1800s, you have to turn to different records, for example parish registers, probate records, poor-law records (to name but a few). Many indexes of these are online, and some images of the original records are too, but it may be necessary to visit an archive that now houses the records to access the originals. Other sources, such as newspapers, can be used to add the story about your ancestors to the basic tree.

Many people have put their trees online with sites like Ancestry, Findmypast, MyHeritage etc., but be careful about blindly accepting the information they contain, as it might not be correct. Use these sites more for the original records they contain rather than the work other people have done, which may be wrong. 

Do you have any notable stories from those you've worked with?

I have had my fair share of scandals and criminal ancestors. Do be prepared to open Pandora's Box as you get to see the full breadth of human nature - in other words there might be a few skeletons in your family’s closet that you uncover along the way.

I have had a fair share of rogues, many of whom had more than one family. One who had also changed names and deserted from the army was reported in a newspaper as having tried to travel from London to Liverpool on the night mail train, not in a carriage or wagon, but on the buffers of the engine! He got drenched when the train took on water from a trough between the rails, frost bitten from being soaked and then exposed to the cold-night air (it was January) and finally nearly suffocated from smoke when the train went through a mile long tunnel. The reason he gave for such drastic action... to get away from his mother-in-law.

I traced one client's ancestry back to early Victorian Whitechapel, only to discover that they were associated with Ikey Solomon, widely believed to be the inspiration for Charles Dickens' character Fagin from Oliver Twist, and had been implicated in a theft of £4,000 of gold dust from Falmouth Docks.

I also helped a client to collect the relevant records so that the Commonwealth War Graves could correct the very scant information they had on his great, great grandfather, who was killed in action whilst fighting in WW1. In the process, we discovered that the soldier's brother had also died in the conflict, and on the 100th anniversary of his death, the client travelled to the cemetery to lay a wreath in honour of his ancestor and his ancestor's brother.

Additional Benefits for our Residents

If you’re a resident at one of our developments, tracing your family tree can also offer other benefits; it’s a great way to help tackle boredom in retirement and getting someone else to help you can be a great way of making a new friend. Plus, when your family and friends come to visit you, you’re certain to have plenty of new discoveries to talk about.

If you’ve already started to trace your family tree and have any interesting findings or top tips you’d like to share, be sure to let us know on Facebook or Twitter