Since about the age of 12 I’ve had an interest in family history. Back then, my father helped me meet many elderly relatives to talk to them about the ‘who’ and the ‘when’ (I think he was just as interested as me, but let me do the recording).
When I lived in England in the 1980s I was able to complete a tree for the Simpson family that took me back to 1541 in Oxfordshire. The family line comprised generations of farm workers, with only the man who emigrated to New Zealand bucking the trend and becoming a carpenter and cabinet-maker.
Back then, such research had to be carried out at St Catherine’s House on Holborn in London (Somerset House records, so useful to detectives like Miss Marple, had mostly moved there in 1970) or, for pre-1830 birth, death and marriage (bdm) records, at the county archives. Typed transcriptions of Oxfordshire parish records and other historic documents were in Oxford, a good excuse to spend a few days there. All of the bdm records were in bound volumes, large and small, that users had to locate on shelves and search on reading desks. The hand-written St Catherine’s House ledgers were organised by quarter for each year for each type of record, while the parish records ran year by year with all the record types in together.
St Catherine’s House closed to the public in 1997 and the records moved to The National Archives in Kew (usually closed Sunday-Monday).
The England and Wales bdm records can now be searched online and ordered as pdf downloads sent by email which you can then save to your hard drive (paper copies are still available to be ordered too but are more expensive). See the General Register Office website for England and Wales (which includes links if you want records from Scotland or Northern Ireland). Registration is required, but the site is free to search.
UK Wills and Probate records is a free website with an easy search function. Records start in 1858 and many, even into the 20th century, include date of death, address of the deceased and names of executors (and sometimes their relationship to the deceased).
Census records for England (my primary country of research) have been kept from 1830 and, back in the 1980s, were available on microfiche but are now scanned or photographed and available digitally. They are released 100 years after the census was taken so many family historians are looking forward to 2021 when the 1921 records become available for the first time.
Census records are invaluable for cross-checking the number of children in a family – for instance, if a birth record has been missed, it becomes apparent; ditto a death record for a child. They also give revealing insights into a family’s circumstances – the kind of work the adults had (anyone over the age 13 was generally working in the middle and lower classes), where they lived, and who was in residence on census day (which can help tracking down a marriage or a death, establishing relationships or even why you haven’t been able to find someone’s birth record, generally because they were born outside the UK).
Not all census records are the same. Some are quite basic, while the 1911 UK census, for instance, took information on the family home, including how many rooms it had.
For reasons unknown, New Zealand destroys its census records after the statisticians have combed them. Which means that, sadly, my farming grandfather’s report on his stock numbers that culminated in and 50,000 bloody fleas has been lost to posterity!
New Zealand has a searchable bdm online, including still births, but because of privacy restrictions, you don’t get everything. Restrictions vary from 50 to 100 years ago.
In 2020 much of this information is now available online and can be done from home, albeit at a price. However, if you don’t fancy stumping up for one of the web businesses, such as ancestry.com or findmypast, there are alternatives.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church) runs the free Family Search website, which is a good place to start. It doesn’t have all the records the paid websites have, but it has plenty to be going on with – bdm, census, even some passenger lists. It also offers a place to build your family tree as you go, although I would suggest that new users check to see if anyone has been over the same ground and the work is already done.
When libraries open again in New Zealand, you’ll find that, in city libraries at least, they have free-to-access institutional copies of ancestry.com, findmypast, etc. A family history centre at a Mormon Church will offer the same.
Records on the paid sites, though, are still far from complete. However, what they do almost always have is a view of the original record – and it’s vital that you look at it. A highly respected local genealogist told me that, besides volunteers in English-speaking countries, transcribers used by paid sites are often in India or China, so have English as a second language, or are prisoners in the US! I have found some laughable errors in transcriptions.
Family Search covers the UK, the US and Australia pretty well, Canada and New Zealand less well, and you might strike it lucky if your ancestors emigrated to or worked in South America, India or Hong Kong and China.
Google can also be your friend. Since lockdown began I have found the transcription of a 1721 English will (which gave me another generation of names in this elusive family); a list of headstone inscriptions at the English cemetery in Livorno, Italy; family memorial inscriptions around the UK; and a long and detailed obituary for a horticulturalist ancestor of my husband. The Gentleman’s Magazine (scanned issues from 1731 to about 1922) has coughed up such gems as an 1820 descent in a diving bell by a woman I was hunting.
The other big win was finding an email address for a man who has done a detailed family tree for one of my husband’s families. Kevin was only too pleased to send the extensive document for sharing.
So, where do you start? With a guaranteed name and a date and work your way out, in ever-expanding circles, from there. Hopefully, you won’t run into the situation I experienced where my great-great-great grandfather Brown had very kindly given his son two distinctive first names but was, however, himself called James Brown … and lived in London! End of the road on that one.