How much do you already know

First clues - a bible, letter, diary and photo

Every journey begins with the first step and for the new family historian that first step involves finding out how much you know right now, before you go chasing after information far afield.

Write down as much as you know about your family: your own date of birth, and where you were born; who your parents are; when they got married (and where if you know), details of any siblings (brothers and sisters) that you have, and when and where they were born.

If your parents, or your grandparents, are still alive then ask them what they know about family members and try to find out who is the keeper of the family documents — birth, marriage and death certificates, old notebooks, a family Bible — in fact anything that provides any sort of information about any member of the family, including wartime ration books, service records, discharge papers, etc.

One of the best sources for such documentation can be a younger brother or sister of your parents or grandparents. An aunt or great aunt in particular could well have stayed at home to look after parents and might have inherited all the old papers and photographs. Try and track down any member of an older generation than yours and ask them if they have any such papers.

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on this type of documentation (and promise to give it back or take care of it for later generations) then you will probably find you have a mine of information.

A full birth certificate will give a date of birth, a place and name both parents as well as giving the mother’s maiden name. From this, if you know whether the birth certificate applies to an older child or a younger one, you can track down an approximate date of marriage.

A marriage certificate names both bride and groom, gives addresses, sometimes ages, occupations and names of both fathers and occupations as well as identifying witnesses who may well be related.

A death certificate can provide details of age, place of birth, address and even the name of the person who provided the details for the certificate, and their relationship.

Don’t despair if you cannot find any of these certificates. They can be obtained via local registry offices or the Family Record Centre in London by post or internet. What you will need is some of the dates, however, and there are other ways to track them down.

Although the full birth certificate is the best one to have a short birth certificate (often used when it was necessary to prove a date of birth as it cost less than the full certificate) can at least provide a date and place of birth and registration.

Even if you cannot find a birth certificate at all you might find a baptismal certificate which will give a close date (except for adult baptisms) and often names people other than parents — for instance the godparents — who might be related.

A marriage certificate might not be available but someone may have kept a wedding invitation, order of service or even the printed card that was often sent out with pieces of wedding cake and gave the name of the bride and bridegroom, the place of marriage and the date.

Instead of a death certificate there may be an order of service, a funeral or memorial card or a copy of the death notice (and if you are very lucky an obituary) from a local newspaper.

Obituaries are very useful because they normally print a list of mourners (including relationships where appropriate) and a list of those who donated flowers.

This is where you might find a reference to a brother as Mr JohnSmith but listed amongst the floral tributes as “your dear brother Jackie” which ensures that if the affectionate family name crops up at any time you know who it refers to.

If you find a family Bible with details of births, marriages and deaths you can consider yourself lucky but take care.

If the details are all written in the same hand and in the same colour of ink it is possible it may have been copied from another source and mistakes might have been made.

Always find a way of double-checking the information, before you go too far up a wrong track.

Also check the date of publication of the Bible copy. If the birth, marriage and death details pre-date this then someone may just have written them in from memory.

Other sources of information include military medals which (except for those issued for the 1939-1945 war) have the name, rank, number and regiment inscribed on them; family diaries or letters; old household bills; bank account documents; even driving licences, insurance certificates and passports can be useful.

Whatever information you glean from these documents must be carefully noted down with details of date received, type of document and, if possible, who normally keeps the document.

The point about documentation is that it is the evidence you need to prove your family connections.

The initial ones you know about, but the higher you climb the further you are from personal knowledge and that is when the evidence will count.

This information puts you on the first rung of the ladder to take you up your family tree and soon you will be climbing along different branches and even checking out sub-branches and twiglets.

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