Research Your Ancestry and Build Your Family Tree Online

If you have ever typed the name of one your ancestors into Google, you may have been surprised at the number of relevant websites that pop up in the results pages. But then where do you go from there?

There are many free and paid for genealogy sites (see the links below) – it’s just a case of choosing the right one(s). You can find free information online but you might also want to get used to the idea that that at some point you are going to have to pay if you want to make serious progress.

Record research will be based initially on Births, Marriages and Deaths certificates and Census Returns, followed by parish register research and when you weigh up the costs of buying copies of these online against the time and expense of travelling to various records archives, there really is no contest.

Database research online literally takes minutes. When I started my family history research, it took months even years to fit in the visits that I needed to make, and whilst this was a very enjoyable activity, I didn’t really have the time.

Free Family History Records

Let’s first look at some of the free resources available to the family historian:
Ongoing project to transcribe the Civil Registration indexes of births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales. They welcome donations.
This is the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which has a huge database of material which is still be collected world wide. When I started, it was only accessible on microfiche at local centers (eg libraries) but is now available online.
Connecting and sharing website for genealogists.

These websites have searchable indexes but there will be a charge for viewing and/or downloading any material. FreeBMD’s indexes are accessible from within FindMyPast and Ancestry which is useful for ordering certificates directly from your index searches.

Using Paid For Databases

Whichever provider(s) you choose, check first what records they hold. They should have births, marriages and death certificates and census records at the very least. Check also that you can order digitised copies of the original certificates – transcriptions can be prone to errors.

Look at and compare their pricing structure. Although they will usually charge a small monthly or larger annual (best value) subscription fee, they may also have credits system (or other payment arrangement) where you purchase a number of credits and ‘spend’ them on records and documents. Free trial periods are common, so give them a try. Many also provide a free family tree builder.
Massive database of UK and international records. Different pricing levels: Essentials (UK), Premium (more than one billion UK records), Worldwide (more than 15 billion international records).
US version – Pricing levels are U.S. Discovery (U.S. records), World Explorer (U.S. and international records), All Access (includes all Ancestry records,,, Ancestry Academy).
Over 4 billion records, and 11 million newspaper pages. Claims to have the largest online collection of Irish records and UK parish records and the most comprehensive archive of British military records.
Three pricing levels – Free (start your family tree and connect with others researching the same family) Pay as you go, Subscription.
More than 100 million records including births, marriages and deaths indexes for Scotland. Credits payment system.

What Records Do Online Databases Hold?

The databases above have a huge variety of record types, eg records include:

Births, Marriages and Deaths
Parish records
Education and Work
Military, armed forces and Conflict
Newspapers and periodicals
Census land and survey records
Directories and social history
Institutions and organizations
Travel and migration

More records are being made available all the time on these databases as the process of acquisition and digitization continues. As I write this, FindMyPast releases new records every Friday! Visit these websites and see just how comprehensive their records are.

Other Online Resources

Please look on our resource page to find other useful genealogical links for your online research.

How Obituaries Can Help You to Fill Gaps in Your Family Tree

Obituaries have been written for people from all walks of life. Don’t assume that because you don’t know of anyone in your family that had money or a title, that they won’t have had an obituary.

Whilst researching my family history, my father revealed that his grandfather (my great grandfather), Stephen Clayson, was a lifeboat man operating out of Margate late 19th century through to the early 20th century and had apparently been given an award for bravery.

There was no apparent written or other documentary evidence of this held by my family so I did some digging. I first wrote to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to ask if they could confirm what I had been told. I received a letter in reply that stated that my great grandfather had received the Silver Medal for Gallantry in 1905 for the rescue of four persons from the ketch “Malvoisin” of London on the 15th January of that year (I subsequently learnt that one of my cousins has this medal).

This having piqued my interest, I promptly visited the life boat station in Margate and was surprised to see a picture of my great grandfather on the wall of the boat house. I now have a copy of that picture.

At about the same time, I was corresponding with the husband of a Clayson who was also researching the Clayson family tree and who drew my attention to my great grandfather’s obituary in a local newspaper, published in 1937.

There was a wealth of information in the obituary and I paraphrase it below:

“Coxswain from 1905 till 1925, second coxswain for seven years previously and a member of the crew since 1883.

During his twenty seven years as second coxswain and coxswain the Margate boats saved 367 lives.

Mr Clayson (who) was born at St. Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, was the son of a farmer.

At thirteen he ran away from home.

His widow declares that he became a local boatman after he was shipwrecked on the Margate Sands in 1878.

He won the silver medal of the Lifeboat Institution for intrepid service in rescuing the crew of the Malvoisin, wrecked on the Kentish Knock in a terrible gale in 1905. In 1919, Mr Clayson led another gallant rescue which earned him a medal from Sweden. This was from the Swedish schooner Valkre wrecked twenty miles of Margate.

He was in the lifeboat the night of the surfboat disaster of 1897, when nine Margate boatmen were drowned.

Mr Clayson leaves a widow, five sons and five daughters.

The principal mourners were Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Clayson (son and daughter-in-law), Mr. and Mrs. Percy Clayson (son and daughter-in-law), Mr. Philip Clayson (son), Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Clayson (son and daughter-in-law), Mr. Louis Clayson (son), Mrs G. Weston (daughter), Mrs. A. Somerset (daughter), Mrs H. Mears and Miss Mears (daughter and granddaughter), Mr. and Mrs. R. Foord (son-in-law and daughter), Miss Betty Cribb (granddaughter), Miss Clayson (sister), Mrs. Carrie Atkins (sister), Mrs. K. A. Jeffery (niece), Mr. E. Clayson (brother) and Mr. Ted Clayson (nephew) and Mr. W. Mackie, sen., an old friend.”

So we have Stephen’s birthplace, his father’s occupation, when he left home, his own occupation and length of service (as second coxswain and coxswain), where he lived as an adult, his part in maritime rescues, his siblings, children, grandchildren and in-laws (although not necessarily all of them).

I hope that this helps to show you just some of the information that an obituary can reveal about your ancestors!

Your Family Tree

To many people, producing the family tree is the main goal of ancestry research. This used to be my principal interest in researching my family history but this changed when I started to learn more about my ancestors as individuals.

Although you will discover much about your ancestry through civil registration, parish records and census returns, there will usually be much more information to be revealed with more in-depth research and this is what now fascinates me.

But back to the family tree.

When I first started my research, I had many rough drafts of my family tree to show different branches and generations of my family and used them as a way of recording information as I progressed. The idea was to that when these were confirmed and verified by further research, I would pull them together into one, two or three trees (depending on how big they were).

This has still yet to happen and the reason it hasn’t is because I will be uploading all my research on to a proprietary database such as Ancestry that synchronizes with software on my computer.

The beauty of this is that you can create a free family tree that is infinitely editable and updatable and will display or link to any information, documents, images or records that you have entered on the database.

Not everyone will want to do it this way. Many will wish to create their tree manually on paper or parchment, or even pay and artist or calligrapher to do it for them. It’s all a matter of personal preference.

To get your family tree started, first talk to your relatives and ask them for copies of any birth, marriage or death certificates. Also ask for any photos they may have of your ancestors – it always adds interest if you can see who you’re researching.

There may already be a family historian in your immediate or extended family and it’s always a good idea to ask your relatives if this is indeed the case.

Of course, any information compiled by anyone else should be checked and verified wherever possible.

Start your family tree with the information that you gathered, beginning with yourself, siblings, parents and grandparents and work your way back in time.

How to find the information for producing a family tree, using civil registration records.

1939 Register

The 1939 Register is of huge importance to the family historian. As you will know, the census of England and Wales is taken every 10 years and published 100 years later. The next scheduled release will be the 1921 census, expected to be available in 2022.

The next census to become available following the 1921 census will be the census of 1951. This is because the census of 1931 was destroyed during the war and there was no census taken in 1941. This means that there would be a significant gap in the records available to family history researchers if not for the 1939 Register.

The 1939 Register was taken as war became inevitable so that the British government could plan for the conflict as well as manage identity cards and ration books for the civil population.

The 1939 Register was taken over just one weekend and provides the following information:

Dates of birth
Marital status
If a member of the armed services or reserves

Findmypast has partnered with The National Archives to make this information available and is currently completing the digitisation of the 40 million entries of the register. It will be published online this autumn.

To find out more, including the publishing date, please sign up here.

Click here to find out more about the UK census online.


New York Genealogical and Biographical Society eLibrary At Findmypast

Findmypast has announced that they have been working with the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to make the eLibrary of the society accessible through the Findmypast website.

Now available online, the eLibrary of the NYG&B includes the second oldest genealogical journal in the USA – The Record.  First published in 1870, it has for 145 years proved to be an extremely valuable resource for New York State families.

As well as The Record, other genealogical data is also available – census fragments, marriage and death information, registers of baptisms and diaries. More than 32,000 digitized colour images of various publications, records, inventories and books stored by the Society can now be explored using Findmypast’s search and viewer tools.

This is just the first phase of the project and more updates will be added in 2016.  The eLibrary collection accessible through Findmypast will eventually comprise of millions of USA records.

New Additions to Irish Newspaper Collection

Find My Past have announced the addition of nearly half a million articles and new titles to their Irish Newspaper collection.

They originate from the four provinces of the country and are of the period prior to, during and following The Great Famine (1805-1871), comprising of both national and local press.

There are now 9.7 million searchable articles in Findmypast’s Irish newspaper collection spanning 231 years of Ireland’s past (1719-1950)

Irish Newspapers Collection

BillionGraves and MyHeritage Joint Venture Records Gravestones Worldwide.

Billion Graves and MyHeritage have been working together on a joint initiative to capture images of gravestones worldwide and transcribe the information on them.

As any family history researcher who has spent time in a cemetery is aware, gravestones are highly prone to damage and erosion. Most of them have never been transcribed and their information needs to recorded before they succumb to the ravages of time and nature and become indecipherable.

Using the free Android and iOS app BillionGraves, users have been able to record and document gravestones and add them to a ‘free to access’ database. With MyHeritage now on board with its tens of millions of users, the collection and transcription of photos using the BillionGraves app is accelerating.

Following the announcement of the partnership back in February 2014, the President of BillionGraves, Hudson Gunn welcomed the MyHeritage user community support and their assistance in the preservation of this valuable family history resource.

The partnership has made the app available in 25 languages which adds significantly to it’s resource base. The CEO and founder of MyHeritage, Gilad Japhet, emphasised the importance of gravestones in providing information for the family historian and also welcomed the partnership initiative.

Free searches of an index of events dates (eg births and deaths) corresponding to the gravestone transcriptions are available using SuperSearch, the MyHeritage historical records search engine.

The BillionGraves website publishes records information on a monthly basis. June 2015 saw 497,368 new photos and 645,272 new records added to the database.


Getting Started – Searching for Births, Marriages and Deaths Using Civil Registration Records

If you’re only just starting out on your family tree journey, you might find this guide useful. The emphasis is on UK research but it is equally applicable to the US and other countries dependent on when civil registration began in your country and what information was recorded on birth, marriage and death certificates.

Birth Records

Civil registration began in 1837 and this meant that all births, marriages and deaths had to be recorded and certificates issued. This is invaluable for family tree research and along with census returns, will provide you with the information you need to trace your ancestry back to possibly the late eighteenth century.

For the sake of clarity, the emphasis of this tutorial is on tracing the male line but the methodology for tracing the female line is almost identical. The only real difference is that when tracing female ancestry, you will be searching for other surnames (maiden names) and not necessarily your ‘family’ (father’s) name.

Your Parents

Let’s start with you. Do you know who your parents are? If you don’t, you will need to apply for your birth certificate where at least one parent will be named. If your father’s name isn’t on the certificate (this is the more common omission), you will have to investigate further and this isn’t really within the scope of this guide. It may be possible to trace an unknown parent so don’t give up yet.

Ask your parents if you can see their marriage certificate – this will tell you who the bride and groom’s fathers were (your grandfathers) and what their occupations were at the time of your parent’s marriage. Of course if your grandparents are still around then you will know this anyway!

If your parents don’t have their marriage certificate, you may search for it online on any of the well known ancestry databases. You can search the indexes according to year date for free at FreeBMD’s and then, having found the entry, order the certificate.

Does your father have his birth certificate? If not, you should now search for your father’s birth date. If you have an uncommon name and you know his place of birth, this should be relatively straightforward. Search the 1837-1915 indexes transcribed by FreeBMD by clicking this link and then order the birth certificate.

Your Grandparents

We can now repeat the above process for your grandfather. If your father was the first born, your grandparents are likely to have married within the 3 years prior to his birth. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a good place to start.

If he wasn’t the first born, then try adding 2 years for every birth of his siblings if you know how many siblings there were. Eg if there were 4 children, your starting point for the marriage date would be 8 years back from the birth of the youngest (last) child. If the marriage isn’t found, then try searching the 5 years prior to the birth of the first born. (Often when searching in an ancestry database, you will be presented with a list of names that match your search criteria and it is then a case of best match with full names and likely event dates. This can then be confirmed by additional information as you progress your researches).

The grandparent’s marriage certificate will then give you the names and occupations of the groom’s father and of the bride’s father – your great grandfathers. You should also now have enough information to search for the birth dates of your grandparents. Look for your grandfather’s birth date in the FreeBMD indexes and order the certificate. This will show his father’s details – your great grandfather.

Your Great Grandparents

Search for the marriage certificate of your great grandparents and then their birth certificate(s) using the strategy above and continue through the generations as far back as civil registration allows – it started in 1837.

A little tip. It is very tempting to go back as far and as quickly as you can as the sense of history spurs you on. This isn’t a good idea. Sooner or later you will get lost, hit a brick wall and be unable to get any further. If you are more thorough in your research from the start, this is less likely to set you back. Eg location at any given time is important, occupation, military service records, wills, divorces and subsequent remarriages – anything that builds a more complete picture of your ancestor(s) and how he/she/they lived will help to fill any gaps and give you clues to the whereabouts of ‘lost’ ancestors. A bit more effort now will be of great benefit in the future.

Census Returns

Once your research takes you back before 1911, search the Census Returns for additional information. The Census was taken every 10 years and the information not made available to the public for 100 years. The last census published (as I write this in 2015) was the census of 1911 and the next one (1921 census) will be published in 2021.

The first census of any real value to the family historian was taken in 1841.

The information in the later census’s includes current address, where born, who was in the dwelling, relationship to the head of the household and occupations.

One of the more frustrating obstacles to progress is being unable to ‘prove’ a birth or baptism. I found an entry in a marriage register (these were in use before civil registration) but was unable to find the birth or baptism.

I knew the locality of this ancestor but his baptism wasn’t there and even searching a wider area failed to find him. He had died after civil registration was introduced, so I was able to order his death certificate. This gave his age and therefore a clue to the year of his birth (it wasn’t unusual for them to lose track of their ages in those days). His wife was a witness on the death certificate. Although I still haven’t been able to confirm his birth or baptism dates, or place of birth, the death certificate has confirmed the information that I had found in the marriage register which helps. Either his birth or baptism weren’t recorded or I just haven’t yet found the Parish of his birth.

Please visit our Births, Marriages and Deaths page for links to database records where you can search for your ancestors and find their certificates. This page also details what birth, marriage and death certificates will tell you.

New Anglo Boer War Records from FindMyPast

FindMyPast has announced a new update to their Anglo-Boer War Records Collection which adds nearly 900 new records of British Army soldiers serving in the British Army at the time of the Second Boer War:

Anglo-Boer War Records 1899-1902 Update

More than 293,000 records are now held in the register and information in each record can include name, rank, service number, regiment and honours.

The First Boer War or Transvaal War – 16th December 1880 – 23rd March 1981 arose because of the British attempt to implement confederation over the colonies of South Africa. The ensuing revolt by the Boers was ultimately successful in that the British government gave the Boers self government of the Transvaal in the peace treaty of 23 March 1881.

The Second Boer War – 11th October 1899 – 31st May 1902 was a major international conflict fought by the Boers of the South African and Orange Free State republics against the forces of the British Empire, resulting in the two republics becoming part of the British Empire.

Irish Catholics Ancestry Records of 1700s – 1800s Now Online

The Irish Times reports that people who have Catholic ancestry will be able to search the entire collection of Catholic parish register records back nearly 300 years from today:

Irish Times 7 July 2015

Irish Times 8 July 2015

The collection consists of over 370,000 digital images of microfilm records and is believed to be a highly significant source of Irish family history. They comprise of the baptismal and marriage records of 1,086 Catholic parishes of Ireland and can be searched at the National Library of Ireland here: