There are many websites which will help you in your research but only a few, such as FamilySearch and FreeBMD, are truly free (their databases are also accessible from the subscription websites). FamilySearch have bulked out their content by linking to the subscription websites but you need to pay for that information of course.
Subscribe to the genealogy website that best suits your needs, which may unfortunately mean subscribing to more than one. While all the major website have the same basic databases (birth, marriages and deaths, and censuses), each has a different collection of more specific sources of information, such as military history, passenger lists, directories, and a host of obscure material. The two websites that I use – Ancestry and Find My Past – have rather different search engine with the latter, in my view, being much superior. Both will allow you to do a general search across all the databases in one go, but be prepared to sift through a lot of information!
Some websites allow you to build an online tree but you may find it better to buy and install one of the many software programs designed for the purpose so that you have control over your own data on your home computer. Family Tree Maker (FTM), one of the oldest and most popular programs, synchronises with Ancestry which is an added bonus as you can show your tree to other members (and non-members) while maintaining it on your home computer. It will also upload any photographs that you have attached to the people in FTM.
You may find it more convenient to split your tree, as I have, into (for example) your mother’s and your father’s families. You can have more than one tree on Ancestry, as well as on other genealogy websites. You can make your Ancestry tree private and share it with selected people, or you can put it on show for all to see. Be aware that if you make it public other members can copy your photographs, unless you change the settings, and they will undoubtedly plagiarise your research. Neither bothers me particularly, except where members have linked my family to theirs incorrectly.
Ancestry’s attempt to make things easier for inexperienced members has resulted in the search capabilities being dumbed down somewhat and the various features, although intended to help, have made the website very frustrating to use at times. This is why I prefer Find My Past, but I often carry out the same searches on both. I believe, for example, that the census were transcribed independently by these two websites so you may get different results. Both websites offer a means of correcting obvious errors, the vast majority of which have come about by records being mis-transcribed. In fact, this is probably the main reason for not being able to find someone and it requires a bit of creative thinking to work around this.
Evidence of a link between a person on, for example, a census return and someone in 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. Parish officials relied on phonetic spelling of surnames (and even first names) which led to a lot of variations which need to be taken into account when searching. Furthermore, linking families even within the same parish, let alone different parishes, is virtually impossible with any degree of certainty. Things become even less certain if the surname is common.
Not everyone was a church-goer in 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 living in the town. It is therefore reasonable to assume that many parents did not have their children baptised in infancy, which has proved to be the case in my own research; I have also found baptisms of older children and even adults. As for marriage, don’t assume that every couple with children were actually legal married: cohabiting was rather more widespread than one might think.
As a result, while the majority of citizens were dutiful in having their life events recorded in parish records and/or in the official state records, many did not. One can’t help but think that the hard lives they 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 easily trace your ancestry if they were wealthy. The poor didn’t get a look in in those days.
Furthermore, illegitimacy was widespread. Marriage while pregnant was very common (you can work the dates out yourself) because engagement was often taken as a sign by couples that they could begin having sex. This is the reason why breach of promise (a man breaking off an engagement) often resulted in him being sued in court by the woman (it did not work the other way round).
When it comes to the parish records, you start to see generations of the same family in the same (or adjacent) village, with the same parents, occasionally family group baptisms, ages at death, fathers’ names against child burials, that kind of thing. All of these can guide you in making links between people but approach with caution.
Buying UK certificates is pretty straightforward (NEVER buy them from Ancestry as they make a huge mark-up) and now that most of the birth and deaths have been digitised the cost has come down so long as you are happy to receive a monochrome version as a PDF. If you try to buy from Canada or Australia you will realise what a relative bargain the UK certificates are. If you’re just trying to verify dates you could try checking parish baptisms which sometimes give the date of birth, or the death index which often do the same, or the probate records which usually give the date and place of death. Of course, parish marriage records always give you the exact date and many of the original records (which are exactly the same as the ones you can buy from the GRO) are available online.
Personally, I like exact dates but if a person is only peripheral to my family history the quarter and year from the BMD indexes will suffice. However, BMD certificates and wills can often provide some useful information, such as parentage (birth and marriages) and offspring (wills). Wills are particularly cheap and worth buying.
The perils of Ancestry!
A 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.
Many of the errors are generated by the Ancestry website itself. The US-centric website uses drop-down lists of towns and cities which include others with the same names in the USA and elsewhere. A moment’s inattention or a shaky mouse cursor will transport your ancestor to a completely different part of the world. The US-owned FTM has an inbuilt database of international place names with every UK village, town and city having the county (written in full) as well as the country (England, Scotland, Wales). If you accept what’s offered you get a very long string of text which will not display well if you decide to print out your tree. For example, ‘Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland’ seems rather unnecessary unless your geography is particularly bad. You can retype place names with, for example, just the short form of the county name and omit the country. Thankfully, FTM remembers what you have written for next time. FTM also cannot take into account the many changes to counties that have taken place over the years, so manually typing some locations becomes a necessity. Personally, I use the location as it was at the time the event took place; eg, Lewisham, Kent (it’s now in London).
Ancestry’s ‘Hints’ system is probably the main source of the misinformation as members are only too happy to accept what are often wildly off-beam suggestions. You generally find that the hints are censuses and births, marriage and deaths, which are easy to find yourself and, in fact, it’s better to do so. Occasionally, it comes up with something useful because it searches across all of its databases. My advice would be to tread very carefully and not to accept what the Ancestry website throws at you, bearing in mind that all the suggestions are based on artificial intelligence, matching names, dates and places which themselves are often incorrect. Furthermore, if you do look at the ‘hints’ you find yourself embroiled in a cacophony of buttons and you are expected to click to tell Ancestry if they’ve got it right. All in all, a very frustrating feature which is no substitute for an intelligent human brain!
Another annoying feature of Ancestry (you can tell I’ve spent far too long on the website!) is that if you do have an online tree (whether created there or uploaded from FTM) you will find that it tries to autofill in the search boxes using details from your tree. My advice is not to let it do it as it will restrict the results considerable.
Public trees on Ancestry allow other members to save information and photos to their own trees. This is often done with little attempt to check its relevance, simply taking the details at face value. This is particularly true of the pre-1837 records but I would be cautious about the authenticity of photographs as well. I have seen the photograph of my paternal grandmother, Nellie Coppard, copied from my tree and attached to a completely unrelated person with the same name.
As a result, Ancestry in particular (I have no experience of other genealogy websites with regard to online trees) is full of the most dreadful misinformation which is a real shame. In addition, there are often multiple versions of the same trees at different stages of development (one member has 24 trees like this), and a large proportion of the trees have been left untouched for many years as members have lost interest or have died. Ancestry does not appear delete inactive members.
All in all, Ancestry is a bit of a shambles but there are some very well researched trees with lots of images of various kinds. You can contact other members, although Ancestry’s messaging system is unreliable as the website does not regularly verify the email addresses of its member (or lapsed members) and as a result you often don’t get a reply.
Don’t be put off by my gripes – genealogy is fun and rewarding so have a go and see how you get on. Feel free to get in touch if you need any advice.