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Wednesday, 3 October 2023

First steps in researching your family history

Find out how to start researching your family history. The General Register Office (GRO) can help you get the information you need, including birth, marriage and death certificates, to build your family tree.

Why use the General Register Office (GRO)?

The General Register Office holds the records of every birth, marriage and death registered in England and Wales. You can order these certificates from private companies, but they charge more and just use the GRO. So it’s cheaper and quicker to order direct.

Use official government records for your family research

Starting with yourself, note all the dates and events you are certain of about your immediate family and work back generation by generation.

Birth, marriage and death certificates will give you vital information to help you continue your research. For example, a mother’s maiden name shown on a birth certificate will help you find a marriage certificate. The marriage certificate will usually provide you with the names of both the father of the groom and the father of the bride. You can then use this information to search the next generation in your family tree.

Census records can help you piece together your family tree but certificates will provide you with more detailed information such as a full date of birth, place of marriage and cause of death.

Civil registration started in July 1837. To trace back further you will need to look at parish records which are available from some websites, local churches or archives offices.

Online advice from the General Register Office

The General Register Office has produced a guide on how to use its services to research your family history. The guide provides a full introduction to family history research using birth, marriage and death certificates to piece together your family tree.

Talk to your family to help build your family tree

Ask members of your family about what they can remember and make notes or recordings (using a dictaphone or video camera) of what each person says to make comparisons. Ask more knowledgeable relatives to go over their memories more than once. Nobody recalls everything of use in one sitting.

Search for as many family records and as much memorabilia as possible. Look in your attic and ask your elderly relatives if you can look in theirs.

Ask elderly relatives to identify people in old family photographs – writing names on the back. You can then use this information to order a certificate from GRO and piece together your family tree.

Show your certificates to elderly relatives, as they may jog a series of fresh memories.

Get help and advice about researching your family tree

You may want to join a local family history society where you can share your experiences and get help with any problems you have. Use the link below to find your local group.

You could enrol in a family history course. Many adult education centres run these courses and they are inexpensive and extremely helpful.

You can keep track of your research by formally recording information as you find it and keeping files of the documents you have collected.

Don’t despair if you can’t find out much to start with - the minimum of information you need to get started is your own place and date of birth.

Additional links

Order certificates online

Apply for birth, marriage and death certificates

Access keys