A question I am often asked is how do I trace my UK family tree? Taking the journey into the unknown territory of the past is a mixture of exhilaration and tedium. You will meet with misspelt names, birth dates that vary from one census to another, missing ancestors and be led down blind alleys. But when you finally meet up with that elusive ancestor the joy of success will spur you on with your research.
Like every good journey it starts with the first step, so buckle up your genealogical seat belt and I’ll guide you through the first important stages. First find any birth, marriage and death certificates, correspondence, insurance policies, ration books, etc. These will be of great help to you as you start your research. Anything that will give you details of your parents or grandparents. Gather up as much information as you can and jot it all down to start your tree.
Lay the tree out as the youngest first and work back. You can download blank family tree charts on our site if you wish, then start completing your family tree as far back as you can. Keep detailed notes on each person. You will thank yourself for this action when you find that you are retracing back and forth to verify information. I can’t stress this enough, you must be sure that you have the correct records for your ancestor, not somebody else’s.
It is quite an easy mistake to follow the wrong family back through the centuries as names can be similar and sometimes the same. I found that my great, great, great grandfather had a ‘detail double’, with the same name, the same year of birth and the same place of birth. It took 2 months of research into each one, retracing details back and forth to tie in the right man! I almost felt I could claim the other man as an ancestor, I knew him so well in the end!
Your initial aim is to collect enough verified information to take you back to 1911, at which point you can delve into the world of census records and begin to unlock the doors to your past. Within the census your ancestors will come alive for you. Don’t worry if you can’t find any certificates lurking in drawers or boxes, armed with only your parents’ names you may still be able to trace back through the years, although you will have to buy birth and marriage certificates.
I managed to trace my family tree knowing only the names of my parents and their dates and places of their birth. I needed to buy my parents birth certificates so that I could find out their parents details, thus keeping the trail going. To overcome this type of problem I recommend you sign up as a member of a genealogical website, and then start searching their records.
My first search was my father’s name, date and place of birth the results showed all the possible matches with my dad at the top of the list. I clicked on the link and it took me to the registered GRO entry for his birth, which in turn gave me the index reference details:
- Surname at birth:
- Qtr: (the year is broken into 4 quarters)
Every event of birth, marriage or death registered in England and Wales is allocated a reference by the General Register Office. Next I went to the GRO website ( ) and purchased my dad’s birth certificate. I repeated the same process for my mum.
By supplying the index reference the correct entry can be located by the GRO and the certificate will be sent to you. You can also purchase certificates from registration offices, but if you want to research online without having to travel miles then the internet is the way to go.
I sat back and waited for the post, it took about 7 days for the certificates to arrive. I opened them with anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed. I had in front of me the full details of my grandparents, their names, addresses and occupations. I used this information to find their marriage, which in turn gave me their father’s names and this was all I needed to take me back to the census records and from there fly back in time to meet my older ancestors.
This completes the first article on how to trace your family tree. I will be publishing further articles on how to use birth, marriage and death certificate information and how to use census records found online.