Online research, part 2

Bennett, Christopher Aldridge Mahalath-Marriage certificate001

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I started off with a quick look at online websites so the logical next step is to cover the basics of what sort of records you can find.

The answer is “if you look long enough you could probably find pretty much anything”.

The best way to tackle it would be to start with the various sources that contain records of “events”, like a birth, death or marriage. Family documents that you already have and local newspapers are obvious places to get started.  Dig out all the documents you can find and collate all the dates against the events and you’ll soon start to get overwhelmed with information.

Nowadays all the national newspapers and many local newspapers have their own websites woth a searchable back-catalogue. This can be a great source for those little stories, so if you know a person lived in a certain town miles away from you, it’s still possible to search for them.

In this post I’ll be covering probably the two most important types of records you’ll be using – the Census and the Birth, Marriage and Death (BMD) registers. I will cover immigration lists and military records in future posts.

You’re probably aware that you can search the BMD records at your local registry office or county archive, who hold microfiche records of the entire national registers.

Alternatively, you can search the same records online, in the privacy of your own home and at your own pace, without having to worry about closing times!

A good starting place is the FreeBMD archive. As the name says it’s free to search and they have downloadable scans of the original document pages.

Keep your focus

I’m not the most focussed person in the world – I find that I tend to get easily bored when nothing seems to surface or I’ll get caught up in the excitement of a fruitful search.

So I speak from personal experience when I say that the only likely outcome of working without focus is is confusion. It’s much safer all-round if you take a logical approach to your research. To get your own handle on things try to keep your focus confined to a family name that you have the most information for, which in most cases will be your own and build from there.

Common surnames, such as Smith, Brown or Johnson, will be problematic simply because of sheer number of records with that name. Unless your family comes from a small town or village you will almost certainly have a long, painstaking search on your hands.

In these cases you might be better off researching a more unusual surname in your family, at least until you’ve become confident in using the tools at your disposal.

Also, perform your search in chronological order, working backwards from yourself.  Don’t jump from one generation to another two generations away – there’s no guarantee that the information you’re gathering will be correct. Searching for records without having the full details about the relatives in-between can be another source of confusion between people of the same name.

You need to be patient.  Take care to check and double-check the records for each person to make absolutely sure that you have the correct ancestor before moving on to the next one in line.

Birth, marriage and death records

You will at least be familiar with birth certificates because you will have your own, and you may well have a marriage certificate. Some of you will have death certificates of parents.

These are the official documents that record major milestones of everyone’s life. They can also be a great source of information for family historians because they are full of information about the person involved and even previous generations.

For example, if you check your own birth certificate you will see that it tells you both parents’ names and places of birth. In the case of your mother it gives you the maiden name. This information can be used to track down the parents in the Indexes and order their certificates to find out the same information for their parents … and so on.

Other interesting information can be found such as job titles, current addresses at the time of the event and, in the case of death certificates, the cause of death and the birth date. It may be that for whatever reason the actual birth date has remained elusive during your searches, so finding the death certificate can open up that line of enquiry.

The indexes go back as far as 1837. Before that the government didn’t keep national records.

Information prior to 1837 can be found in the local parish records and for many places that will still need to be done in person, although Ancestry are putting more local records online all the time.

Census records

In the UK we’ve been subject  to a Census that is taken every ten years.   The first one was taken in  1801 to give the Government up-to-date information on the changes in the population and its habits.

It’s worth noting that the first four were no more than statistical summaries and the information contained in them is not as much as can be found in the later ones.  This isn’t to say that you can’t get some useful information though.

In 1841 the census records were changed and ever since have listed every person in every dwelling over the whole country. Over the years more and more information has been requested, down to intimate details of peoples’ lives.

The records are kept private for 100 years, after which they are released to the public.

1911 census records are the latest to be made available and at the time of writing are just beginning to come online at You could also try 1911census. In both cases you’ll have to pay to view the records so you won’t know for sure if you’ve found the right record until you shell out your cash.

Most county archives hold microfiche copies of the censuses from 1841 to 1901, so you may be better off taking time to visit them if you can. This will allow you to view the records and, if you find the people you’re looking for, note down the reference numbers of the relevant pages, return home and buy your copies.

Information in the census

Columns for 1841 to 1901 are given below:

1841 – Address | Habited / Uninhabited | Names | Sex & age | Profession | Born in England / Born in Scotland, Ireland or foreign country

1851 – House # | Street | Name | Relation to head of family | Condition | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Blind or deaf & dumb

1861 – Street & # or name of house | Inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Blind or deaf & dumb

1871 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Imbecile or idiot / Lunatic

1881 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition as to marriage | Sex & age | Profession | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Imbecile or idiot / Lunatic

1891 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | # of rooms | Name | Relation to head | Condition as to marriage | Sex & age at last birthday | Profession | Employer / Employed / Neither | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Lunatic, imbecile or idiot

1901 – Street & # or name of house | inhabited / uninhabited | Name | Relation to head | Condition as to marriage | Sex & age at last birthday | Profession | Employer / Worker / Own Account | If working at home | Where born | Deaf & dumb / blind / Lunatic / Imbecile or feeble-minded

In 1841, adults ages were rounded down to the nearest five years.

The age column is useful information because it will help to narrow down that persons’ entry in the birth indexes.

All censuses contain a column to note peoples’ occupations. This is great for giving an idea of how your ancestors lived their lives. Some of you will find several generations of agricultural labourers (I did!), whilst others will find wealthier forebears living “on their own means”, with houses full of footmen and maids.

Be sure to read the full record for each person or you could miss a crucial piece of information.

Census tips

Start with the name, date of birth, and birthplace of one ancestor who’s likely to appear in the 1901 Census. It would be useful if you also know this persons’ parents or children so that you have a further point of reference.

When you find that person’s census page, look at the other members of the household. This will give you more names for your family tree, and more possibilities to follow up in other records.

Anyone that is over 10 years old in one census ‘should’ appear in the previous one so work backwards to track the changes in their lives. In particular, look for those you’ve found as adults, recorded decades earlier as children – they’ll probably be living with their parents, giving you another generation to explore.

Your ancestors won’t always be where you expect, though – if someone’s missing from home they may be in prison, with the Armed Forces, or living elsewhere with a new family.

It’s often these surprises that provide the best stories in our family history, and point you towards other records for further research.


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