Beginners Notes

How To Trace Your Family Tree
(England & Wales Sources)
updated July 2015

Where do I start?

1) Collect all available information from family sources:

a) Write down everything you know and interview other members of the family, especially the older ones. Don't forget other branches of the family - now is a good time to re-establish contact with elderly aunts and long lost cousins. Make a note of everything and who told you about it, even if you doubt its accuracy or it seems not to be relevant. There is often a grain of truth in family legends, and sometimes a seemingly useless bit of information will fit into the jigsaw later on. Try to find out from older family members the occupation of their parents, grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Sometimes the greatest breakthroughs are made through sibling rather than direct lines. It also helps to know the religion of your ancestors, especially if they were non-conformist.

b) Gather together all the documentary evidence that you have in the family. Ideally there will be a family bible or an old photograph album with names and dates (now is a good time to write names and dates in pencil on the back of your photographs to benefit future generations), but the following can all prove invaluable for getting you started:
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Old diaries or letters
  • Newspaper reports, obituaries
  • Wartime medals or anything with an ancestor's regimental number
  • Inscriptions on family silver, trophies etc.
  • Old press cuttings or scrapbooks
If possible find out where your ancestors were buried and note down the monumental inscriptions. Include all people buried in the grave, even if the surname is different.

2) Contact others who may be able to help you:

a) Join your local county family history society.  There will always be experienced family historians willing to put you on the right track, and you may even meet someone researching the same name or area.  If your ancestors came from another part of the country, join the family history society for that area as well.  A full list of societies affiliated to the Federation of Family History Societies is available from your local branch secretary.  You will receive a journal which will give you interesting articles about the area in which your ancestors lived and worked, and you will also be able to find out through the "Members' Interests" section whether anyone else is researching the same name.  It is surprising how many distant cousins you make contact with once you start researching your family history.  Through your local family history society you will also have access to a library and bookstall, as well as to various indexes and genealogical aids.

b) Join a beginner's class in family history if you can.  Your local authority will probably be running one in your area starting in September.  This will give you basic information and advice as well as introducing you to other beginners for moral support.  Family history is one of Britain's fastest growing hobbies.

c) Consider taking out a subscription to a family history magazine; they print helpful articles and items of information, and some run a genealogical helpline.   You can also advertise the names you are researching in their "Readers' Interests" section.  These magazines are published monthly and can be found in most newsagents. There are several such magazines published in the UK as well as many online magazines and blogs.

NB. Many researchers now use email as it is the easiest and cheapest method of communication. but if you are sending a postal enquiry to a researcher who has advertised an interest in a particular name please remember to include a stamped addressed envelope (SAE). When writing to overseas researchers include two International Reply Coupons (IRCs) if possible. They are generally available at main Post Offices, although they are no longer available in all countries due to declining usage.

Which Line Shall I Trace?

Everyone has 4 grandparents and 8 great grandparents and so obviously the further back you get the more names you will be interested in.  It is wise to set yourself an objective from the start and decide which lines you are going to concentrate on.  Unusual surnames are clearly easier to trace than Smith or Jones, but it is wise to start with the family about which you have the most information or else a family that lived locally, where the records will be easier to consult.  If your ancestors were spread about all over Britain and the colonies and you have limited time and money at your disposal then it might be a good idea to embark on several lines.  This way you will not lose heart when you have to wait a long time before you can go and find a particular piece of information.  While you are stuck on one line you might make great progress with another line.

Now I'm Ready To Start, Where Do I Find The Information?

1) Civil Registration Certificates

Civil registration started in England and Wales in July 1837 and it is possible to get copies of birth, marriage or death certificates for £9.00 each from the General Register Office and £10 from local registration offices.  Always make sure you purchase the full birth certificate rather than the cheaper abbreviated one which is also available.  It is not possible to consult the actual registers, but the indexes are available on line free at

and on subscriptions websites such as

Your local libraries may have free access to one or both of these.

The indexes are separate for births, marriages and deaths and are arranged alphabetically for each quarter (March, June, September and December).

Once you have located the entry you want you are ready to order the certificate. The cost of a full birth, marriage or death certificate is approx £9.00. 

Certificates can be ordered online at and payments can be made by credit or debit card.  If you wish you can download an application form and pay by cheque.

Certificates can also be purchased from the local Registrar of Birth, Marriage and Deaths and some counties now have an online ordering service via the website:

If you are lucky you will be starting your family history while your parents are still alive, and they will quite possibly have kept you grandparents' death certificates or even their marriage certificates. If the worst comes to the worst and you have no knowledge of even your parents, start with your own birth certificate and work backwards. 
  • A birth certificate will give you an address, the names of the parents, the mother's maiden name and the father's occupation. 
  • Marriage certificates give the date and place of the marriage, the age, marital status, occupation and address of both bride and groom, as well as the name and occupation of their fathers.
  • Death certificates give you the age at death and after 1969 date and place of birth are given as well as the maiden name of a married woman and husband’s name if a widow.
2) Census Returns

Together with civil registration certificates, the census returns are probably the most useful way of helping you to trace your family back to about 1800, after which things become more difficult.  A census has been taken every 10 years since 1801, but it is only since 1841 that individuals have been listed by name.  Information given on census returns is secret for 100 years, so at the moment the 1911 census is the latest available for public view. 

The subscription websites and are the easiest way to find ancestors on the census since they are now searchable by name or address. A free website also has an increasing amount of entries for 1841-1891 censuses

Glamorgan FHS operates a search service in our Census Indexes.  Full details of search services and publications are available from the secretary and in the journal.

3) Parish Registers

Prior to 1837 the church registers for baptisms, marriages and burials can provide much useful information, but some registers have not survived and some clerics were more diligent than others in the way they recorded these events.  Most county record offices have a large number of parish registers available for inspection, often on microfilm.  Some now have digitised copies which can be accessed online in the archives.

Glamorgan registers which are not held in the record offices in Cardiff and Swansea can be located at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

The Glamorgan Family History Society also has a database of its parish register indexes which can be accessed at the Aberkenfig Resource Centre.

Parish Register transcriptions are also for sale – see the Shop section of this website.

There are many online transcriptions to Parish Registers but you should always, where possible, check the original sources as well.   Try a Google search for the Parish where your Ancestors lived to see if there is a transcription or an index online.  County Archives, Family and Local History Societies may also have online catalogues of their publications.

Other useful websites:

Trade Directories –

Useful background information on parishes –

National Library of Wales (Pre 1858 Wills) –

Glamorgan Archives –

West Glamorgan Archives -

Family Search (IGI) –

National Archives (Kew) –

Archives Wales –
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