There are all sorts of places that you can find information about your family to help you build your family tree.  Here we have gathered together the best advice on where to start and where else to look.

Start with the family

Gather all the information that you can about your family members. Consult parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Record what they know about the family and construct your first family tree. A tip when visiting is to have a recording device with you to make sure that you do not miss any important information. Get copies of old photos, letters, diaries in fact anything that will help with your research. Then you can start consulting some records.

Births, marriages and deaths

These have been registered in England and Wales since 1 July 1837. To get the information about your ancestor you need to buy a copy of the relevant certificate and these can be obtained from the General Registrars Office (GRO) on line, or from the local Registrars Office where your ancestors were living. The GRO certificates are indexed to enable you to identify the particular one that you require. These are usually referred to as the BMD indexes

Census Returns

Census returns are one of the most useful sets of records for our research. Although the census for England, Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man commenced in 1801 and thereafter took place every 10 years with the exception of 1941, the earliest census to record peoples names was in 1841.  The returns are open to public inspection when 100 years old so currently we can also search the 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and the 1911 returns. They can be consulted on line for a charge, or free in the National Archive at Kew. In addition the censuses for the local area are normally available at County Record Offices. Using the Registration and Census records we can normally extend our family tree back to the early 1800s.

1939 Register

A recent addition to available records is the 1939 Register. This gives a snapshot of the civilian population of England and Wales just after the outbreak of the Second World war. The records were used to give population statistics and provide identification cards and later ration cards when this was introduced. The records are arranged and similar to a census providing information on families. Like the census records they can be consulted for a charge, or free in The National Archives.

Parish Records

To take the family back further than this, we now make use of early records of our ancestors baptisms, marriages and burials in their local parish church or non-conformist chapel. Many of these registers started in 1538 and if we are lucky and our ancestors remained in a particular parish for a few generations, we may be able to  extend the family back into the 18th and 17th centuries. Most of the original registers are now deposited in the National or County Record Offices where you can search for the members of your family. In addition many have now been transcribed and put on line on one of the many genealogical websites available.

Genealogical websites

These websites have much data of use to family historians. On some you can search and then download information at no cost, such as and www.familysearch.orgHowever most  will charge you a subscription to see and download what they hold. These sites all have copies of the BMD indexes, the census returns and a small selection of parish registers, in addition to other useful records. Three of the main sites are, and They each have some exclusive records which may be just what you need for your research. So you should look carefully at what data each has, before you subscribe to a particular site.


Wills can give you useful information about your family members, so when you have discovered a few ancestors it is worth checking whether they had a will probated. If they did , for a small charge you can get a copy. The Principal Probate Registry (PPR) was formed in 1858 and since then has produced an annual list of probated wills for England and Wales known as the National Probate Calendar. This is available in many record offices on film. All that you need to know is the year in which your ancestor died and then you can search the alphabetical list for that year to discover if a will exists. The index gives you the value of the estate and a paragraph on the content. has a transcript of the index and so this can be searched on line for a charge. You can obtain a copy of the will either by a visit or by post from  The Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London. WC2A 2LL. The current cost is £6.00.

Prior to 1858 wills were proved in various church courts around the country and if copies of these survive, they are usually found to be in the County Record Office, for the county in which your ancestor’s will was probated.