Free resources for starting family history research

Today I've been updating a workshop for groups who are kicking off their family history research in England, and am sharing here some of the free guides and sources we explore during that session. Hopefully these will prove useful for family historians starting their research.

When you are starting out the Really Useful Information Leaflet from the Federation of Family History Societies is just what the title says. Many societies also produce helpful local publications, such as this one from the Manchester and Lancashire FHS, Beginning Your Research.

At the top of the list for free genealogy databases is Family Search. Together with billions of records, the Family Search wiki has research guides, including this one for research in England. For life events (births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials) a number of sites offer transcriptions and indexes, including UKBMD, FreeBMD, FreeReg. The sites are built up by volunteers and are not comprehensive, but the coverage is described on each site. A similar resource for the census is at FreeCen, but don't forget of course you can access copies of census records at your local archives. Also check with the archives for burial records, as well as these sites: FindAGrave, BillionGraves, and DeceasedOnline (you can search a surname for free but there is a charge for accessing records).

When you have a date range for a birth, marriage or death, the General Register Office is the official national index and site for ordering copy certificates for England & Wales. If you have an actual or likely date when an ancestor died check if they left probate records, which can be great sources for family information. Consult The National Archives guide for wills and administrations before 1858, and the probate service for post 1858.

The National Archives at Kew may take a little longer to get familiar with, but will be invaluable for your research. Find out more from their introductory guides. The British Library also offers a research reading list. Moving beyond the nineteenth century you will need to get to grips with using the rich resources of parish records. This introduction from Else Churchill, genealogist at the Society of Genealogists, and video lessons from FamilySearch are good starting points. If your ancestors were non-conformists then head back to The National Archives for their helpful introduction to these records.

Newspapers are a name-rich source of information for the family historian. You can search The British Newspaper Archives for free, and your local library will probably have a subscription so you can view the results, as well as copies of local newspaper archives, and one of the pay-for-sites, such as Ancestry, FindMyPast or the Genealogist.

What next?

Join the family history societies in areas where you are researching. They may have done important work for your research already by transcribing records - see this blog post for more information.

Take the plunge and visit the local archives for your areas (also check here for some locations). Archives may seem a little intimidating on the first visit, but staff are exceptionally helpful and expert on the materials they care for. Take time to walk around and orientate yourself as to where different collections are held - remember we're all beginners the first time we visit a new archive! Bookmark your local archive and family history centre websites, and get familiar with searching the catalogues. Supplement census information with records from rate books and electoral records at your archives. These may already have been digitised, for example, Manchester's records for rate books.

And finally remember to check if someone else has helped you by researching related surnames, at the Guild of One Name Studies, or in the Society of Genealogists' library (try the free surname search option).

As your research journey moves beyond England the following sites will be essential, but I would recommend the excellent series of Society of Genealogists' publications for detailed guidance.

Ireland & Northern Ireland: Irish Genealogy, National Library of Ireland, RootsIreland and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Scotland: ScotlandsPeople, and the National Records of Scotland

Wales: The National Library of Wales

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