Researching your family tree for free – getting started

Many people assume that you must buy a subscription to one of the genealogy websites in order to start researching your family. You don’t have to spend much to get started. All you need is a pencil, paper and an eraser which you may have already.

Sketch out your family at the bottom of the sheet; add your parents and your partners (if applicable). Add your siblings with lines joining them all together, to each of your parents. You can add your two sets of grandparents and join them all together as per the diagram below.

The next step is to talk to your parents and grandparents and record their history. You will be shown old photographs and documents so try to copy these. Some will talk freely and some will be reluctant to talk – you just have to be a good listener while giving gentle prompts. You may be told things that they don’t want other family members to hear about so be aware that some memories may not always be happy ones.

You may not know your grandparents or you may want to go further back in time. You can use FreeBMD to find any birth, marriage or death from around 1975 back to the September quarter 1837. You will see a reference against these records from which you can order certificates from the website; these are around £11 but you only need these to prove a difficult connection. Be aware that in the 1840s there was a scandal when some unscrupulous registrars were found to have made up birth & deaths in order to obtain a bonus. This scheme was discontinued when it was found that there had been almost a doubling of false registrations. The first case of false recording occurred in 1846 and we assume that after this date the malpractice stopped. FreeBMD have another facility for limited parish records and census returns. Type FreeBMD into any search engine and you will find the site.

Another free site is the General Register Office (GRO) where you can find the mother’s maiden name against births from 1837 to 1934. There are some mother’s names omitted and you have to register but it is a great tool for finding the children of a married couple.

The other free website is FamilySearch and you have to register your details. These same BMD records are available, in additional to census and parish records. Be aware that some of the submitted family trees lack rigorous construction. You can submit your own family tree on this site but deceased ancestors are available for everyone to see and modify.

Another misconception you may come across is that you must have a program to record your family names, especially if your tree starts to grow. You can use a simple spreadsheet available on most computer Microsoft Office packages. You can even do a family tree diagram in Excel with a bit of practice. Alternatively, you can simply draw your names out on an A3 sheet which will cost almost nothing. The most important thing is to interview all your relatives and record as much of their memories as possible before they disappear forever.

Finally, and most important of all, record your sources of information. So many family trees in FamilySearch and Ancestry have no sources and you need to treat these with caution.