How to trace your family history
Where do you begin?
Who can help?
When you start to trace your family history you need to begin at home. Write down what you already know, note the details from certificates or other documents that you may have in your house and talk to your relatives. Many family "legends" may be true or have a grain of truth in them and can help to "put flesh on the bones" of your family tree.
Start with your own birth and then add the names of your parents and the dates of their births, marriage, and deaths (where appropriate). Use a large piece of paper and work in pencil so that it will be easy to make alterations and additions. Continue with your grand parents and use the same formula to work back through your ancestors. When you have done this there will be two main sources of information, the Register Office and the Record Office.
The Register Office deals with civil registration, births deaths and marriages from 1837 onwards. It is advisable to obtain a birth certificate for the main person in each generation.
The Record Office is an archive. Amongst the many classes of documents held there, there are three which are important to new family historians, parish registers from 1837, censuses from 1841 and wills up to 1858 (with probate copies from 1858).
'Civil Registration' (the issuing of birth, marriage and death certificates) began in England in 1837 and in most cases, it is possible to obtain copies of relevant certificates from your local register office. For people who where born in Leicestershire, certificates can be obtained from the Leicestershire Registration Service (www.leicestershire.gov.uk/registrars), based at County Hall. There is a charge of £7.00 (payable to Leicestershire County Council). If you are unsure of precise personal details, consult an index of all births, marriages and deaths recorded since 1837, held at the Family Records Centre in London. A copy of these indexes on microfiche is held by the Leicestershire and Rutland Family History Society (www.lrfhs.org.uk) at their library in Leicester.
Before 1837, the crucial events in a person's life were recorded mainly in the registers of the parish church. Although churches still continue to record the baptisms, marriages and burials of their members, before 1837 these registers were the only source for this information. The keeping of these records began in 1538 and Bishop's Transcripts, contemporary copies that were sent to the Bishop's court began in 1598. In cases where the early registers have not survived, these transcripts can help to fill the gap.
The date of a child's baptism will only give you an approximate age as baptism could take place at any age although most take place within a few months of birth.
The date of a marriage however, is precise and after 1837 will mirror information given in a certificate obtained from the Registration Service. Before 1837 the parish church was the only legal place in which to marry. If you fail to find a marriage, it may because your ancestors did not marry.
The entry in the burial register rarely specifies the date or cause of death but the date of burial will be within a week or ten days of the death. In more recent registers, an age at death is given although the accuracy of this is dependent on the reliability of those giving the information. The level of information provided in a register, depends upon the priest in charge. It should also be remembered that many people were Non–conformist (i.e. they belonged to other denominations other than the Church of England) or it is possible that they did not go to church at all. They may not have been baptised or legally married but they would have to be buried.
The census has been taken every ten years in Britain since 1801 (except 1941) but it is only since 1841 that the information contained within them has been of any use to the family historian. The first four censuses were mainly headcounts and most of them have not survived. Personal information has been included since 1841, but only from 1851 has the birthplace of individuals been recorded and their relationship to the head of the household. The censuses in Leicestershire for 1851, 1881 and 1891 are indexed making it easier to find a specific person. The 1901 census was released on-line with a free searchable index. Indexes are being created all the time and other censuses are being released on the Internet.
Wills can provide important information to verify family relationships and as such are very useful to family historians. Before 1858 wills were proved in the Archdeaconry Court and many of the early will also have accompanying inventories. Such inventories can provide a snapshot of the life of your ancestor at the time of his death. Wills were written mainly by men, widows or spinsters. A married woman could only write a will with the permission of her husband. From 1858, wills were proved in a secular court and have been kept at The Principle Registry of the Family Division. They can also be accessed locally through the Probate Sub-Registry. Probate copies from 1858 to 1941 are held at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland
- Leicestershire Records Office
The archive office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland.
- National Archives
For 1901 census and a range of useful leaflets that can be downloaded free of charge.
- General Register Office
For information about civil registration and on-line certificate ordering from the General Register Office.
- Leicestershire Registration Service
For information about ordering certificates from a local register office.
- Researching your family history
Information from Leicestershire County Council on how to research your family history and learn about making your family tree