Top tips on researching the family tree

PUBLISHED: 16:23 01 October 2014 | UPDATED: 16:23 01 October 2014

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto


Researching the family tree can reveal some surprises, Claire Pitcher discovers when she meets some Berkshire experts. Here’s your guide to uncovering your own heritage

The BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ has returned to our screens and with the centenary of World War One on everyone’s minds this year, lots of us will wonder about our own ancestors and what part they have played in history, and not just in recent history. But where on earth do you start?

First, as Derek Trinder of Berkshire Family History Society points out, we need to understand the difference between ‘family history’ and ‘genealogy’: “Essentially genealogy refers simply to names, dates and places, and family history is taking that skeleton and filling in the detail about the lives those people lived.”

Most of us will have heard about the websites that can help, such as and which have opened the door for people to easily access historical information but, of course, there is a subscription to pay. “You do have to get out of your armchair and go along to your record office at some point,” Derek reminds us. “A lot of people think that it can all be done online. There is a lot there, but a tiny proportion of what’s available,” he says. Ultimately, the internet will never be the one-stop shop for tracing our family history because of the cost of indexing and digitising it all. Certain documents, whether because of their age or fragility, you will never find online.

Start at the start

Derek began looking into his family history about 20 years ago: “And that is the first lesson – start as soon as you can,” he says, “I wish I’d started sooner. You always reach a point when there is somebody who you wish you could have spoken to and they are no longer here to ask.”

The place to start is with you: “You know who your parents are, so work backwards from what you know to what you don’t know. Start with your birth certificate, which tells you where you were born, your father’s details (not always), mother’s details and mother’s maiden name,” advises Derek.

From your parents’ names you can go back, take your mother’s maiden name, then look for a marriage, if you find the marriage you can go back 25 or so years and find the births of those two people. If you’re lucky you can continue on back like that, identifying parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. This can continue more or less to the start of civil registration, which was in 1837 in England and Wales, 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland.

Consult the census

There has been a census in England and Wales since 1801, although the earliest ones, for the most part, tended to be purely statistical. The first one of general use for research was taken in early June 1841, in peak farming season. It did not always pick up every member of a local population, generally rounded down ages of those over 15 years and recorded only whether people were born in or out of county. Post 1851 and census records are more detailed. “It used to be you had to visit the Record Office to see them,” says Derek, “There was no index of people so you could spend all day looking at microfilm to find one name of interest. Now they are online you can type in a name and it frequently does the work for you. But not always!”

On the records

If you are going so far back there is no census or civil registration, parish records are your next port of call. “The registers kept by the church and other parish records are more comprehensive than you imagine,” reveals Derek. “People were more God fearing then, there was no social security, so the parish looked after those who lived there, but for those who didn’t belong you could be sent elsewhere with a ‘removal order’.”

Records such as these ‘Overseers papers’ survive from the 17th century to the early 19th century and can contain great detail.

Other records you can chase include Parish Registers (baptisms, marriages, burials), which are normally kept in the Records Office, although early ones could be in Latin. “There are also records of ‘Poor Relief’, and of everyone who paid the ‘Poor Rate’, from these you can confirm where someone was living at one particular time.” Add to these ‘Tax and Tithe Records’, ‘Military Records’ and many more and there are plenty of potential leads.

A helping hand

So there are a lot of sources to try, but if you hit an obstacle, or run out of avenues, your local Family History Society can help. Derek explains: “We have six branches across Berkshire who have monthly meetings. You can go along and talk to other family historians. We have a Research Centre too, next to Berkshire Record Office in Reading.” Visitors to the Centre can use the computers to access Find My Past, Origins, The British Newspaper Archive and Ancestry. There’s no need to go to London or far-flung corners of the country to see much of what you need. “The society offers plenty more resources, from old maps on CD to books in our library, irrespective of where your ancestors came from,” says Derek. Volunteers at the Centre can help you too, if you get stuck or have a question.

Start now

Every family has interesting stories, no matter how ordinary you think your ancestry might be. Derek has unearthed a lot of characters and stories about his family over the years: “There are people who went bankrupt, spent time in prison and someone who committed suicide. These stories are not necessarily interesting to others, but they are to me. They are part of who I am and what I am.”

For Derek, his historical tale will have many happy and unhappy chapters but, for him, it’s not just about his curiosity, it’s about recording the Trinder story for the future: “I would like to think in two or three generations time that they might be able and willing to tell their own children about our history. Knowing offers a sense of place and belonging.”

Footballing roots

Research in historic local newspapers revealed that Derek’s wife Frances’s great-grandfather was among those who established a football ground in 1904 at Loftus Road for the (then) prominent London amateur team, Shepherd’s Bush. His son played for the team for many seasons and is sitting on the grass on the left of the photograph. The team played in the Isthmian League until 1913/14. Today the ground is the home of Premier League Side Queen’s Park Rangers.

Military connections

On searching service records from World War One, Derek discovered that his great-uncle James worked with horses from an early age and joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (the best known QOOH member was Winston Churchill) before entering the Royal Household in London.

At the Royal Mews he worked as an outrider for some four years before setting up in 1914 as a riding instructor in Chelsea. Enlisting on 16th August 1915, his military service was very brief. While breaking in a horse at the Army Remount Depot at Romsey in Hampshire, he was crushed against a fence post and shortly afterwards died from his injuries in a Southampton hospital - a wartime casualty who never left the country.

Visit the conference

On Saturday, 18 October Berkshire Family History Society hosts a one-day conference at Theale Green School. If you are interested in discovering more about your family history then go along to speak to the experts, listen to talks and take part in workshops. Tickets are £37.50, which includes lunch. Go to for booking details.


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