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The golden rule is to start with what you know and work backwards. Take out all the old photographs, birth, marriage and death certificates, and other mementoes that you have in your possession, and interview the older members of your family. Make sure you write everything down with a note of where the information came from, for some of the clues will not be obvious at first sight. You might hear a romantic tale which turns out to be nonsense, but you will usually get some worthwhile leads. Joining the appropriate family history society (there are local ones all over the country) will put you in contact with fellow enthusiasts and point you in the right direction.
The information on an ancestor's gravestone may explain relationships and the age at death will tell you the year they were born. But you will be lucky to find early tombstones, for only the rich were buried inside a church and many ordinary folk were interred in unmarked graves in the churchyard. The records of the public cemeteries which started in the nineteenth century can sometimes be consulted at the site but many have been deposited at the local record office.
It is now time to visit your local record office or reference library. They will usually have microfiche copies of the indexes of births, marriages and deaths registered in England and Wales from 1837 to the present day. Or you can see the original indexes in the Family Records Centre in London. The Scottish indexes (from 1855) can be seen at the General Register Office for Scotland or on the internet. Having identified an ancestor, you can then purchase a copy of the certificate. A birth certificate will record place of birth and the names of parents, a marriage certificate the names of husband and wife and their parents, and from 1866 death certificates give the age at death, all of which are pointers to further research.
The Family Records Centre and the General Register for Scotland also have microfilm or microfiche copies of the national census returns from 1841 to 1891 and local record offices and reference libraries have copies for their own districts. These returns give personal details of each member of a household and from 1851 they give exact ages and places of birth. The 1881 census is the easiest to use as it has been indexed and is available on CD-Rom and microfiche. A census is taken every ten years, but the pledge of confidentiality that is made means that we cannot see the personal entries until 100 years have passed. When the 1901 census is released on 2 January 2002 the Public Record Office will make it available on the internet.
Getting back further than the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign is more difficult. Parish and nonconformist registers are our major source and most have been deposited at the appropriate local record office. The system of registering baptisms, marriages and burials began in 1538, but few registers survive as far back as that. Gaps are sometimes covered by the copies known as Bishop's Transcripts and many early registers have been published. From 1 January 1813 the Church of England registers follow a standard format, but in earlier times they vary considerably in the amount of information they give and become increasingly difficult to read. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) have indexed many registers and have made them freely available to anyone in the form of the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which is generally accessible at record offices and also on the internet.
Wills are another major source in national and local record offices. During the Middle Ages only the richer people made wills, but from the sixteenth century onwards ordinary farmers and craftsmen, and even some labourers, bequeathed their property in this way. Wills were originally proved by the Church but in 1858 the State took over responsibility.
These records are our starting points, but many other sources help us to fill out the picture. Record offices and reference libraries have a huge range: commercial and trade directories, newspapers, estate rentals and surveys, manor court rolls, enclosure and tithe awards, apprenticeship and freemen lists, taxation returns and information about the less fortunate members of society in the poor law records.
For many family historians, identifying the origin and meaning of their surname is the ultimate quest. The five Surnames, Genes and Genealogy programmes are designed to show you how to do just that.
For more on getting started in family history, see:
Books and magazines
Origins of surnames | The Black Death | The distribution of surnames | Tracing your family tree | DNA