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Getting started in family history

Find out what your family were doing a century ago with these 5 simple steps

The Findmypast team
17 January 2020

Like most hobbies, family history research is easy (and very rewarding) when you know what you're doing. Here's the perfect place to start.

At Findmypast, we want to connect you with your family's amazing story. And with millions of online family records, an easy-to-use family tree builder and help at hand along the way, we'll be introducing you to unknown relatives in no time.

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Family history guru, Estelle Calfe is here to show you how she traced her ancestors all the way back to 1911 in just five simple steps. Follow Estelle's lead and you can too.

What is really important is that you know as much information as possible before you even start to search. It really helps if you already have names of parents and grandparents. It also helps if you know their years of birth (roughly) and place of birth.

"My top tip: Speak to as many of your relatives as possible to gather information."

What should you be asking your relatives? Try these 30 questions for starters.

If you are searching for unusual names, it will be quite straightforward, but if you are searching for a common name, it will be a big help if you have as much information as possible before starting to search.

The 5-step guide to getting started in family history

1. Find your birth record

Search for your birth in Findmypast's England & Wales Births 1837-2006, e.g. Estelle Howes born in 1968.

Findmypast birth record

For births after 1911, you'll see the mother's maiden name on the birth transcript. My mother's maiden name is Sadler.

2. Find your parents' marriage record

Use the information on your birth record to locate your parents' marriage record. In this instance, I found mine in Findmypast's England & Wales Marriages 1837-2005 by searching for a marriage between Howes and Sadler.

Findmypast marriage record

This gives me my parents' names, including their middle initials.

3. Find a parent's birth record

Repeat step one to discover one of your parent's birth records. In this case, I searched for my father, Richard W Howes. Knowing when and where he was born will help you find the right record. It's usually roughly 20 years before the marriage date.

Findmypast birth record 1939

My father's birth record gives me his mother's maiden name - Goldstein.

4. Find your grandparents' marriage record

Using the information from your parent's birth record, you go back another generation to your grandparents' marriage. In my case, I searched for a marriage between Howes and Goldstein.

Find grandparents marriage record

The marriage transcript will give you your grandparent's names.

5. Find a grandparent's birth and census records

With your grandparent's names, you should be able to find their birth records. As my grandfather was born in 1907, he can also be found in the
1911 Census. Again, knowing when and where they were born will help when trying to pinpoint these records.

1911 UK census

What were your family doing a century ago? Trace your family tree back to the 1911 Census and you'll find out.

Once you're back as far as the census, this is where the real fun begins. UK census records reveal fascinating details about your family like where they were living at the time, who they were living with and their jobs.

And there you have it, it's that simple. Following these five fail-safe steps will set you on the right course to discovering a rich family story that can be passed down for generations.