Aside from me, what else did I know about my family? Very little, as it turns out. My interest in family history came too late to be able to talk to my grandparents, so the things I know are either what I remember being told as a child, or passed down from uncles and aunts.
The sum of my knowledge was that I knew my parents birthdays, their marriage date and my grandparents names.
The first goal is to get into the “golden period” between 1840 and 1911. From there, census records and parish records open up a lot of information. But how do you get there if your grandparents weren’t born before 1911?
As it turns out, it’s not all that difficult, it just takes a little longer to get there, and potentially costs a little bit of money for certificates.
Some quick tips regarding BMDs (Births Marriages and Deaths):
I’m performing these searches on the ancestry.co.uk site. If I was lucky enough, theses records would probably be available in the free www.freebmd.org.uk project, but be aware that site is work in progress, so hasn’t recorded all BMD records yet. You may need to do your BMD searches via Find My Past, Ancestry.co.uk or one of the other subscription sites to ensure the reason you can’t find someone is simply because FreeBMD hasn’t transcribed that set of records yet.
Also remember that these subscription based sites can be accessed for free via the national archives, and probably other locations around the UK courtesy of the Family History Centres, though doing this means you don’t have the tools to easily link records to your tree like you can when you use your own subscription.
From The Beginning
Let’s start at the very beginning, with myself, and pretend I don’t know my parents birthdays, my mother’s maiden name, my parents’ birthplace or year of birth, even after asking all my family members.
A quick BMD search for my name and birth year gives me my mother’s maiden name (these were recorded in the indexes from 1911 onwards, which is very handy for locating people born after the 1911 census).
Finding My Parents:
So, armed with my mother’s maiden name, I can now look up the marriage record, which I presume is sometime prior to my birth. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
I find the record easily enough as there was only one entry for my mum’s name + maiden name marrying someone with my father’s name.
I also now know their middle initials, which is very useful.
So, the next step is locating the birth of each of my parents, which, as you can probably guess, is achieved by doing the same thing I did to locate myself, except this time I have no year of birth to work with, so it’s going to be a bit trickier. If you’re lucky to have some unique names then you should be able to find who you’re looking for.
Sadly I don’t appear to be able to confirm my parents without taking a gamble on the birthdates and birthplaces. They look like good matches, but I don’t have solid confirmation that they are my parents.
At this point I have to purchase the marriage certificate, which lists their ages, and their fathers’ names.
As it turns out, the marriage certificate is enough in my case. I now know their year of births, I’ve been able to confirm with more certainty that I have my parents birth details, meaning I now have my grandmothers’ maiden names to go along with the fathers’ name from the certificates.
However, if this hadn’t been enough, I’d probably have to start making educated guesses based on the information I do have, and order potential birth certificates to find the one that matches based on the father listed on the marriage certificate.
Further to this, it may be that I have to find the marriage of this person’s parents (my grandparents, see below) in order to confirm they match the names on the birth certificate. Sometimes you have to go back a further generation before you can confirm the details. There may be a few possibilities that you can only rule out once you know the mother’s full name. Just make notes of the possibilities to check out and go through them until
Some more tips:
- Unique names are easier to find. Look for middle names/initials if you have them, anything to distinguish one Andrew Johns from another.
- Try to limit your dates as much as you can realistically. If you have a marriage date of 1976, for example, they are not likely to have been marriage before age 16, so calculate and filter your results accordingly, e.g. before 1960.
- Not everyone moves that much, so you can usually assume that if the marriage was registered in a certain town, it’s quite likely that one or the other parents was born in that same town.
The mother’s name listed on the marriage certificate may be different to her maiden name if she was marriage previously.
- Make a note of other information, occupations can be passed down from father to son, witnesses may be unknown now, but further research may reveal them to be relations of some sort. Useful for cross referencing later.
- Remember, these tips are general rules of thumb. If you can’t find something that matches, widen your criteria. It could be that dates were wrong, transcription errors on names/initials, or that people moved.
Bonus: Finding siblings
When looking for people born after 1911, once you have the maiden name of a mother, you can then locate other children born to that mother and father. e.g. in my case, I could search for my siblings by looking for other children with the surname JOHNS whose mother’s maiden name is the same as my mother, perhaps over a 10-20 year period in a particular town.
Remember it’s possible that they will move towns between births so don’t rule out everyone just because it looks out of place. Similarly, don’t automatically assume they are related until you cross referenced with other research.
This also works for parish (baptism) records which usually lists the parents full names.
Finding My Grandparents and Great Grandparents
Returning to the goal of reaching the 1911 census, I can now find the marriage records for my grandparents, using the same approach I used to find my parents, though this time I only use the bride’s maiden name and the groom’s full name. In doing so I discover the first names of my grandmothers.
Again, the next step is to use these details to try to locate birth records for each of those grandparents.
I rinse and repeat the above steps, as they are all born after 1911, which allows me to eventually track down the names of my great grand parents, who I know will be alive prior to 1911. I’ve reached the threshold – the hard part should be over now, at least until the early 1800s, as I now have access to census records, and probably parish records.
Note: I didn’t actually do the above steps in my intial searches, as I knew my grandparents’ names, and due to some family photos which listed their names, also knew at least on one side, the names of my great grandparents, which meant I had a headstart on that branch. Also, one of my grandparents had an interesting problem to solve, which I will describe in more detail in the next post.