Do You Want To Trace Your Family Tree?

Start building your family tree with these easy tips…


Laura Berry, genealogist on TV’s Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC), Find My Past (Yesterday), So You Think You’re Royal? (Sky), and Tracing Your Roots (BBC Radio 4). She is author of Discover Your Ancestors’ Occupations (S&N Genealogy, 2015) and has her own genealogy research company,

Miriam Silverman, genealogist and family historian at

Where do I start?

Talk to as many relatives as you canand gather as many original birth, marriage and death certificates, or old documents like passports or ration books so that you have some facts to work with. Double-check facts though. People don’t always remember accurately. Create a project board. Pin photos, marriage/birth certificates, postcards, etc on a board to piece together a story. Invest in a software package with a template to help create family trees – RootsMagic, £18.40-£49.95; or Family Historian, £35.99. The genealogy sites below also have free templates and tools.

Any apps to use on the go? acts like a mobile scanner for copies of documents, and has Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to search for keywords.

Which are the best websites to use?

The three largest, and– all provide access to census returns and the General Register Office’s index to civil birth, marriage and death certificates, which will take your research back to the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign. All offer a free 14-day trial, providing basic information, but you then subscribe for more detailed, in-depth coverage. Subscriptions from around £10 per month. There’s a lot of overlap between these websites, and no single site is a one-stop-shop. It’s worth trying them all and taking advantage of the free trial periods they offer. If you have got Scottish ancestry then sign up to 

Which facts do I follow first?

You can go in all sorts of different directions but, for example, your great grandmother’s birth certificate should tell you her parents’ names and address, the father’s occupation and mother’s maiden name – using this information, you can then look for them living together on the census and see if you can find their marriage in the General Register Office index. If you order a copy of the marriage certificate from, that will tell you the bride and groom’s fathers’ names and occupations, and so you’ve added another generation to your family tree. Their careers may provide clues too – there’s lots of information online now about merchant seamen, for example. The National Archives has subject specific research guides to point you in the right direction. 

How do I start adding colour?

The is a government-run archive that holds over 1,000 years of history. It has official documents on everything from towns and cities, plans and surveys, to workhouse records, medical histories, courts, police, wars, industry and education. It’s free but not everything is digitalised yet. For a fee, it will send you photocopies of the records you want, and has a fascinating collection. 

I’ve hit a brick wall… now what?

If you really get stuck, and now offer DNA testing to establish your ethnicity and exactly where you come from. Order their kit (£79 and £54 respectively), spit saliva into a test tube and your DNA will be analysed against 700,000 markers. Your results can be compared with other website members who have had DNA tests to check if you’re related. Not ready for the DNA test quite yet? The Society of Genealogists ( also offers a free telephone helpline: 0207490 8911 to help with more leads. 

Dig into your ancestor’s military past 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission casualty lists are at together with World War II prisoners of war records. Service records aren’t open to the public but you can apply for them at The £30 fee is waived for surviving spouses. Also look at and the Imperial War Museums site at 

Any skeletons in the cupboard? allows you to search 2.5 million crime records dating between 1770 and 1934. Documents include prisoner mugshots, court papers and appeal letters and even the addresses of spouses and children, physical descriptions including colour of hair, eye colour and distinguishing features such as pock marks and scars. The National Archives at Kew holds lists of all individuals held in prison, whether they were awaiting trial or had been convicted.

What can I do for free? A
huge ongoing project, transcribing census and parish register indexes
from 1837 to put online. It gives birth, marriage and death indexes for
England and Wales. This continues where the Freebmd website stops. Most parishes kept records going back as far as the 1500s. Provides a fascinating insight into the life of the poor in the 1700/1800s. Gives a free guide to and history of registers. It sells parish records on CD for around £9.95 each. Details the movements of regiments and units during the First World War. Regional papers have been scanned and indexed. Partnered with archives all over the world.

Can I pay someone to help me?

The National Archives has a list of freelance genealogists it has vetted. There are also directories of professionals at the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives ( and the Association of Professional Genealogists ( Rates vary enormously, but expect to pay £20-£40 per hour.

“I discovered I’m a cousin of Queen Anne Boleyn and Elizabet Fry”

Susan Sutton, 61, from Coventry, is married with 

three adult children. 

“When I started out, I thought all my family were of fairly humble, if worthy, origins. I knew my ancestors on my father’s side, the Burlinghams, helped build the world’s first Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale in Telford, which I’m very proud of. I’m also related to the two families (The Gurneys and the Alexanders) who started Barclays Bank although, sadly, my family aren’t very rich! Then, more interestingly, by following my family’s Quaker connections, I found I’m third cousin (six times removed!) of prison reformer and philanthropist Elizabeth Fry, who appeared on the back of the five pound note. Even more excitingly though, I found I’m related to Queen Anne Boleyn. My great-grandfather x14 on my father’s side, William Gurney, born in 1480, was the great uncle of Anne Boleyn, who married Henry VIII and was beheaded by him. That makes her my second cousin, 15 times removed – tenuous of course, and I’m still verifying it all, but I’m telling everyone I have aristocratic roots!”

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