There is a wealth of information that can be tapped into in order to help us discover our ancestors and to aid in 'bringing them to life'. This information comes in many formats, from a range of different sources and various organisations, but all can be useful and some will be vitally important. The list given below, which includes a short description of each resource, is by no means exhaustive, but are some examples of the types of records I will be searching and referring to when carrying out family history research.
The term family records refers to all the documents, papers and memorabilia that a person may have in their own home or that have been given to them by a family member or even inherited from a deceased relative. Often these records will divulge enough information to allow a skeleton tree of the immediate family to be drawn up, even possibly going back a couple of generations. Some of these family records may be official documents, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, military service and probate records which will help with names, dates and factual events. Other records may be of a more personal nature, for example private letters, school reports, inscriptions in family bibles and diaries, all of which can help illustrate an ancestor's character and give us an insight into their personality.
Birth, Marriage & Death Certificates
Birth, marriage and death certificates are official documents from the General Register Office and are the products of the civil registration system which commenced in England and Wales on 1st July 1837. Civil registration required every birth, death and marriage to be registered within each registration district. The genealogical information included on these certificates cannot be understated as it is this data that can help connect people to events and ultimately to other people within the same family thereby enabling a family tree to develop. The variety of information on the three types of certificates can help verify relationships between people, inform us of the names of children and show when and where our ancestors died. However, civil registration was not made compulsory in England and Wales until 1874 so up until that year there may be some gaps in the level of registration, but certificates are still one of the main sources of researching family history during the 19th and 20th centuries. Civil registration is used in one form or another in the vast majority of countries but it was introduced in Ireland in 1864 and in Scotland in 1855.
Census returns have been carried out in England and Wales since 1801, although the first census of any real use to a family historian is that of 1841. The census is a snapshot in time taken on a given night every decade and records every household and establishment with details of the occupants living or staying there on a particular night. The only time a census was not taken was in 1941 during World War II. The census was implemented to enable the government to use the statistical data so it could respond to issues relating to population trends, health, employment, housing, immigration and education. Censuses were not carried out for the convenience of the genealogist but the information they can provide us with about our ancestors makes them one of the primary sources of research today.
Church of England parish registers record baptisms, marriages and burials that occurred within a particular parish. They are the main source of research prior to civil registration in 1837 and began as early as the 16th century. Parish registers also exist from other religious denominations, including Baptists but those of Jewish and Catholic faiths are referred to as non-conformist records. Information in the C of E registers can vary from parish to parish, particularly in the early days and gaps in entries can be the result of a number of reasons, not least a forgetful or ill clergyman.
The majority of people will have at least one ancestor who served in the armed forces; army, navy, royal marines or royal air force, whether it was during civilian times or at times of war, including the two world wars and further back to the Boer War. Various documents can be searched to find more information about an ancestor's armed service career, including attestation papers, individual service records, discharge papers, medal and casualty lists.
Newspapers, both national and local, are an extremely useful resource and can be incredibly detailed at times. Not only do they record national events which can help to set your ancestor's life into an historical context but they can record personal notices of birth, marriage and death, particularly of more prominent people. Obituaries can give a great deal of information as can results of coroners' inquests. Other events including accidents, fires, epidemics, shipping and mining disasters and criminal trials; in fact any story that has a human emotional element to it is often recorded and many ancestors can be found in the middle of events that have long been forgotten.
Wills are documents that set out a person's wishes as to how they want their estates disposed of after their death. Not only can Wills help to establish years of death, they can help confirm relationships with family members and give a greater understanding of an ancestor's financial status at the time of their death. Wills were mainly written by the rich and professional in the earlier days, but by the 17th and 18th century many people who were not so wealthy were leaving Wills, including farmers, shoemakers and butchers and are therefore a valuable research tool.