Researching your Ancestry

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Most people will begin their ancestry quest by simply mapping out all the family that they are familiar with - immediate family, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents etc. This was the way that I started myself - and very soon you'll be wondering where they came from and begin asking more probing questions....

If you're wondering just how to get further back in tracing your ancestry, then the best way to begin is to get all the information you can from existing older relatives. Not only will this make the task more fun, but your grandparents, great aunts and uncles etc. will probably relish the opportunity to indulge you in their childhood memories. Chances are that they will happily tell you tales that they wouldn't have dared tell their own children in years gone by! I often wish I'd begun my quest much earlier because my grandparents had died by the time I got interested in genealogy, and I know they could have provided so much help in my quest to find answers to so many questions. Not only that, but without the anecdotes and reminiscences of the older members of the family, all we really have is a bare family tree full of names and dates, but not an actual story of our family's evolution.

However.... no regrets to dwell upon; - I picked up snippets of information along the way from censuses and church records that indeed tell a tale in their own unique way - mistakes by clergymen in the baptism register and signatures by witnesses on a marriage record all add to the picture of life in centuries gone by.

The first step that yielded results for me was to use the certification system that's been in place since July 1837. If, for instance, you know when your grandparents were born but don't know when their parents were married, then you can do a search for that marriage certificate by looking for, perhaps, the five or six years or so before the first known child was born. One place that is now on the internet that might help (although their database might not yet be complete) is the "Free BMD" website: If they don't yet show the record of the event you're looking for, then you'll have to go to the nearest library where they keep the GRO (General Register Office) index to search through on microfiche. I spent much time at our library simply searching through the microfilms to find any occurrence of an "Orland" through the years, and making a note of the District,, Volume and Page numbers, plus the date, as I came across each one. Even if you find your name against family members who might not be directly related, there's no harm in making a note of the details anyway - it might be useful later when you have more information, or at least help in building the "bigger picture" of your family's movements.

Once you think you have found the correct record, you can either send away to the GRO for a certificate by filling in a request form, or now, you can order directly online at this page of the General Register Office Online website. You can also print out request forms for Birth, Marriage or Death certificates from that web-page.


Using these certificates you have to do a bit of detective work and a little simple maths too! (And you thought those days were behind you?) For instance, you might find the death certificate for a particular ancestor, and so from the age stated at death you can work out roughly when they were born. However, you have to be careful not to believe everything you see.... I've found a few errors in the reported age for some relatives! The same caveat goes for finding an age carved into a headstone; - only as recently as 1988, my granddad's age was incorrectly inscribed as 77 instead of 76.
From finding a marriage certificate, you might be lucky and find on there the names and occupations of both fathers - and maybe the correct ages of the wedded couple too if you're really fortunate. Sometimes, the age would simply state "Full", meaning over 18.... not always as helpful as you might hope! Many folk married quite young though, so in the 1800s when you're looking to get back one more generation, it might be a good idea to look for their Birth certificates around only 18 to 25 years before the date of the Marriage certificate. Even making a note of the names of the witnesses to a marriage can be useful; they might prove handy cross references when working out where your relatives came from. If you've read my "Ireland to Orland" page, you'll know that finding the birthplace of one wedding witness gave good backup evidence for proving where the groom came from.

For the 1800s generally, census data is a great source of information. Transcriptions of the 1881 census are free to search on the Mormon's (Church of Latter Day Saints) FamilySearch website, and much free census information for the UK has been put online by volunteers on the FreeCen website, but for total access to all records it'll be necessary to subscribe to one of the larger genealogy websites, like Ancestry or Find My Past.

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Beware of errors in their transcriptions though - it took me ages to find my great-great grandparents, William and Alice Orland and their son Herbert J. Orland aged 2. Somehow, our surname had been mistranscribed as "Bland"!! (Perhaps an ink blot over the "Or"...? We may never know.) So we have to use a bit of lateral thinking now and again.

The familysearch website is extremely useful though and will find many names from church records going back to almost medieval times. (Almost!) It's worth just typing your surname into the box to see what turns up. It might yield hundreds or even thousands of results and look impossible to make sense of, but in that case you can narrow the list down to a more manageable level by including a popular first name, like "John" or "William" to return a shorter list. From that, you might notice a pattern showing broadly where your ancestors came from. It was from doing this general search on that site that I saw a trend, with our family mostly migrating from Leicestershire to Northamptonshire around the mid to late 1700s and then to Warwickshire and other areas in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It can then give you an idea of which villages to look through to find gravestones of a certain era, etc. Luckily, our lot weren't too far away!

The internet not only provides a lot of data but is also a good place to find genealogy resources of all kinds - books, CDs, guides etc. A quick search on the Google website will reveal many thousands of websites providing or selling such things - and some are even free! It's easy to get carried away with the internet though, so don't forget your local bookshop or library which just might provide a vital piece of information to unlock your family tree.

Census Image

The Church of Latter Day Saints also provide very useful Family History Centres. Fortunately for me, there's one in Coventry only a couple of miles away from us, so I used to book a two hour evening session there once or twice a week. They're like small libraries and you can order microfiche and microfilms of virtually any church record in the UK and any census from 1841 to 1891. Finding your ancestors on a census is such a big help as you will usually see children with their parents, plus ages, occupations and place of birth given so you can see the whole relationship between family members. If you strike lucky, there might be another relative or in-law recorded as being with them on that census night which can clarify certain family relationships which weren't otherwise obvious and also maybe give the maiden name of the wife, too, if her parents happen to be there. As the microfilms are actual copies from the original church registers, you will also find yourself trying to come to terms with ancient handwriting and rather variable spelling. This experience will fill you with enjoyment and frustration in equal measure!

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Of course, out there in the real world are also churches and graveyards. Some churches still retain old records although most have now been safely deposited in the nearest County Record Office. Some churches have "graveyard maps" and index books which will help you locate a particular person's grave and many members of the clergy will be pleased to help you search for your family. It can become a game of hide and seek though at times - gravestones can be found under bushes and trees - and then there's the problem of reading the inscription! Not all gravestones weather well and some are, unfortunately, unreadable due to the surface completely flaking away after centuries of icy rain and bright sunshine. For partially readable stones, a piece of advice I've been told is to sprinkle flour over the surface which can clarify the shallow letters carved into the stone. It has to be worth a try.

Another tip that I've learned from experience is to read the inscriptions at mid-day when the sun is shining. It will depend upon the orientation of the stone, but many will have the sun shining straight across the face of the stone around the middle of the day, and this can cast the lettering into shadow, and so making the words stand out nicely.

So there we are.... a few ideas to get you started.... I'd nearly forgotten just how much stuff there was to look through. It's great fun doing this ancient detective work but it can also be very frustrating at times. Sometimes, information can arrive from the most unexpected source, especially since the advent of the internet. I've had people contact me who I certainly wouldn't have ever heard from if I hadn't made this website. Maybe that can be your next project, too? One last piece of advice is to make a record of everything you do or see and write down where and when you found it, too. In years to come, you'll want to make some sense out of those scribbled notes you hastily made which you understood while they were still fresh on your mind!

I hope you have some good fortune and enjoy this hobby. It's exciting when the postman drops a big envelope through the door containing an as yet unseen certificate which might just unlock one more generation of your family tree! This page certainly doesn't contain every possible technique for researching your family tree, but it covers the methods that I used to get back 300 years.

For now, good luck with your research, and all the best from me....

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