There are several websites which can help you in your research and some of these allow you to build an online tree but you might find it easier to install one of the many software programs designed for the purpose. Family Tree Maker, one of the most popular programs, synchronises with Ancestry.co.uk which is an added bonus.
One word of warning if you are starting out researching your family history. One of the downsides of letting everyone loose on the public records and allowing them to create online family trees is that the level of proof required by many amateur genealogists is pretty low. Several Ancestry members have freely admitted to me that they have linked people from my tree to theirs simply because the names were the same.
Ancestry members also save information and photos from the trees of other members to use in their own with little attempt to check authenticity, simply taking the information at face value. This is particularly true of the pre-1837 records but I have seen Nellie Coppard’s photograph from my tree added to a completely unrelated person with the same name.
As a result, Ancestry in particular (I have no experience of other genealogy websites in this regard) is full of the most dreadful misinformation which is a real shame.
Evidence of a link between a name on a census to your family needs to be based on clear facts or some very strong assumptions. This is particularly tricky when it comes to parish records prior to 1837 when formal recording of births marriage and deaths began (and that did not become compulsory until 1875). Parish officials relied on phonetic spelling of surnames (and even first names) which led to a lot of mistakes. Furthermore, linking families even within the same parish, let alone different parishes, is virtually impossible with any degree of certainty.
Not everyone was a church-goer in 18th and 19th century England. Indeed, if the whole population of Brighton turned up at the town’s main church on a Sunday in 1841 they would have found it very crowded (the census showed that there were 46,661 people). It is reasonable to assume therefore that many parents did not have their children baptised and this has proved to be the case as you see quite a few baptisms of older children and even adults.
Therefore, while many people were very dutiful in having their life events recorded in parish records and/or in the official state records, some did not. One can’t help but think that the hard lives many of them endured meant that registration was not at the top of their list of priorities when trying to survive. Records before the 19th century are particularly patchy and you can only trace your ancestry if they were wealthy. The poor didn’t get a look in in those days.
Illegitimacy was widespread, much more so that one might think. Marriage while pregnant was equally common because engagement was often taken as a sign by couples that they could begin having sex, which is one reason why breach of promise (the man breaking off the engagement) often resulted in the man being sued in court by the woman (it did not work the other way round).
Ancestry’s attempt to make things easier for inexperienced users has resulted in the search capabilities being dumbed down somewhat and Find My Past has a much better search tool. Both websites have the basic databases – censuses and births, marriages and death – but they have different sets of other useful sources of information, such as military and immigration records.
Both websites offer a means of correcting clearly erroneous information, the vast majority of which have come about by records being mis-transcribed.
When it comes to the parish records, you start to see generations of the same family in the same (or adjacent) village, the same parents, occasionally group family baptisms, ages at death, fathers’ names against child burials, that kind of thing. All these can guide you in making links between people but this should be approached with caution.
Ancestry is not all bad by any means. There are some very well researched trees with lots of images of various kinds. You can even contact other members, although Ancestry’s messaging system is rather poor and you often don’t get an answer.