Before you take out a subscription to a genealogy website or arrange a visit to a record office map out what you already know. Be prepared to take the time to learn as you go along. Start with yourself and write down all the key dates and events that you know about yourself, your parents, your grandparents and your wider family. Talk to relatives and find out what they can add but remember to treat everything you are told with a pinch of salt until you are able to prove or disprove it.
Identify what evidence you already have to substantiate the facts you have gathered. Maybe someone can give you a copy of a birth, marriage or death certificate. Maybe someone has a copy of a will or a newspaper cutting. Re-evaluate what you have learned in the light of any documents you have collected together. Now you can start to see the gaps and decide where you want to begin searching first.
You are strongly recommended to buy an up to date ‘how to’ guide to family history research. This will help to develop your understanding of the different sources you might use and how to access them. There are plenty of guides available online and from booksellers. Below are some of the most important records you will come across early in your research.
Birth, marriage and death certificates
The registration of births, marriages and deaths and the issuing of certificates began in July 1837. Records of these events were compiled locally and copies sent to the national General Register Office (GRO). You can order copies of these documents online for a fee.
To do this you need a reference number which you get from the GRO indexes. FreeBMD is a free website where you can try and hunt down a reference for your ancestor. Some subscription websites also have copies of the General Register Index, which you can search by surname.
Alternatively you can visit the register office that holds the original records and order a copy from them. The Sheffield Register Office is located at the back of the Town Hall. It holds registers for the registration districts of Sheffield, Ecclesall Bierlow and Wortley. The GRO reference does not work for orders from a local register office.
A national population census has been taken every ten years since 1801 with the exception of 1941. The records from 1841 to 1911 provide details by household of all the people recorded at a particular address on census night. The amount of details varies between censuses but from 1851 includes age, place of birth and occupation. You can search and use census records on a number of subscription websites.
Do not be disheartened if you do not find your ancestor immediately. Bear in mind that the search indexes are notoriously unreliable. It is easy to mistranscribe an unfamiliar surname written in faded pencil in an unfamiliar hand. It is also the case that the census is not wholly complete and some books are missing or illegible.
You may think that wills were for the wealthy but many ordinary folk left a will even when they had relatively little to pass on. From 1858 onwards wills have been proved in the Principal or District Probate Registries. A national index is compiled on a year by year basis. You can search the index online for free. There is a fee to obtain a copy of a will which may be ordered from the same website.
Before 1858 responsibility for proving wills lay with the ecclesiastical courts. Copies of many Yorkshire wills are held at the Borthwick Institute in York.
The recording of baptisms, marriages and burials in a parish register began in the first half of the sixteenth century but relatively few early registers survive. Sheffield Archives is the diocesan record office for the Sheffield area and many local original registers are kept there. Some registers have been indexed and some have been transcribed by our Society volunteers. All our transcribed records are available for purchase as a download from the GENfair website. Sheffield Archives provide a limited search and copy service for a fee.
Family History Society Membership
Join a local family history society. You will meet other people with similar interests and be able to take advantage of regular talks on different aspects of research and local and family history. This will help you to develop your expertise. Even if you do not live locally you will find that reading articles about local records and local history will help you to develop your familiarity with a place or part of the country that you may never have visited, but which was once home to your ancestors.
Genuki is a virtual reference library arranged by county and parish that will help you to identify what records exist for your place of interest and where you can consult them.
FreeBMD is a volunteer project that aims to transcribe and make available online the GRO index from 1837 to 1983. It is not complete but already contains millions of entries. FreeCEN and FreeREG are sister sites that aim to make census and parish register information freely available.
Family Search is the website of the Church of Latter-Day Saints based in Utah, USA. The Mormons have filmed a great store of records from around the world including many English parish records. Some of these, particularly baptisms and marriages, have been indexed so that you can search by surname.