18 resources for family history beginners

The following post is taken from an email I put together a while ago for a friend who asked about the best places online to start his research without spending too much cash. I know many of the sites listed will be obvious to someone who has been involved in family history research for a while, but if you are just getting started have a browse, I hope you find something useful.

I should say, my family are from the UK and Ireland, and the sites do reflect that, but some will be of use if you are looking in other parts of the world. I’ve included a number of free to use sites, because they can be useful places to start to look especially if you only want to find the details you need to send off for certificates.

  • GENUKI is a UK and Ireland family history site full of useful links, mostly organised into counties, then sub-divided. It is a huge site, but worth looking around because it is packed with really helpful stuff. Read their beginners guide before you start, it is long but worthwhile because it is full of advice and tips about things you need to know.
  • Cyndi’s List is similar to GENUKI but has an international theme. There is still a lot of British and Irish stuff there, plus a range of other bits and pieces that you may find helpful for example: occupational information.
  • UK National Archives is the main repository for records, censuses, military information and pretty much everything else that is, or has been recorded in the UK. You can search for free, but there is a small charge to view most records. The exception is anything held on A2A (linked below).
  • Ancestry have some free searches, most you have to pay for, but you can find a lot using the former. At the moment the 1881 census for England and Wales is free, so are all the birth, death and marriage records from 1837 provided by the Free BMD. To search these go here. Remember, the dates given there are only the date of registration, and are divided into quarters. (You can also search this database at the link below, but sometimes it can become very slow due to the amount of traffic it receives.) You will be able to search the actual registrars transcripts, some later ones include such things as the mothers maiden name, or the name of a spouse, but not all. You need to be a subscriber to use these though. Ancestry also have wills, directories indexes from places such as universities and military records. Actually, they seem to add new stuff all the time so it’s probably not possible to include everything here.
  • Free BMD is a voluntary project to upload all birth, marriage and death records from 1837. It’s not complete, but more and more data is being added every day. If you find a marriage record using the search on ancestry, Free BMD can be useful for finding the spouse. They list all marriages in a district in that date period, so if you know that Fred Blogs married a Freda you can usually match them up. Even if you don’t know the name of the other person, you can at least narrow it down to a few potential candidates then use other records to find the right one. Once you have located the record you want you can use the link provided to send off for a full copy which will contain a lot more information for example: names of parents on a birth certificate, the name and occupation of fathers on marriage certificates.
  • Freecen is a sister project of the Free BMD working to compile a database of census returns from 1841 – 1891. Once again, it’s not complete, but I have found plenty of useful stuff there, and you get to see more info than you would on the Ancestry site which is really useful if you find you have several possibilities but need to see other information to be sure of a match.
  • Freereg is a similar project but listing parish returns (baptisms, marriages and burials. Some records are brief with little more than a name and date, others are more detailed and include similar information to civil records.
  • UKBMD has lists of local sites some of which have searchable databases. Plus you will find other useful info, some may not seem that important at first but as you progress it is helpful (and interesting) to know about such things as local industries, the location of churches and so on.
  • Family Search has a range of records, the 1881 census and a lot of parish records. Just be careful. They also allow their members to edit the database, so check the source. If it is from a parish register or some other official document it should be accurate. However, if it was supplied by a member be wary. Some of this info is wrong. It is free to use, and can be helpful, just make sure you check the source and then double check the data.
  • A2A is a database of directories, family documents, maps and other interesting stuff. It doesn’t have any BMDs or census returns, but it is handy. For example you might find a relative who worked in particular trade and want to know more, this would be a good place to look.
  • Historical Directories is similar but with an emphasis on trade directories
  • There is also BOPCRIS – that has mainly government archives.
  • And British History Online is another similar idea, but that allows you to bookmark texts for future reference. This is a great place to look for detailed county histories.
  • OldMaps is a good place to get a look at the layout of an area in the past. If you find a street or area that isn’t mention on a modern map, try having a look there.
  • Rootsweb has loads of mailing lists and message boards covering areas, surnames, occupations and more. It is worth subscribing to any relevant ones because the members are usually very helpful.
  • Rootschat is a family history forum with threads covering England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and their counties, plus occupations, surnames and other topics. Once again the members are friendly and will try to help you with any questions – in fact Rootschat offers a free look up service. (Both Rootsweb mailing lists and Rootschat are good places to go to learn more about your Irish relatives. I have found the online material to be less than helpful, and it’s been more useful to join a list and find people researching the same names or areas.)
  • The 1901 Census Decoder is a free programme which lets you search the 1901 England and Wales census – the idea is you can find all the member of a household before you send of for the record, sometimes people can end up on different pages, so you may not be sure you have found the family you are looking for.
  • The Parish Locator programme is also free and you can use it to find all parishes within an area. It also details parishes of different denominations.

That’s all! But if you have any tips or suggestions why not leave them in a comment 🙂

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