Finding your Ancestors Tips and Hints

Finding and obtaining data regarding Births, Marriages and DeathsUK

To obtain a certificate of a BMD entry in the UK and / or many other countries you will need to specify the first and the family name plus the gender of the person. You will need to also advise which quarter (1st, 2nd 3rd or 4th) of which year the event was registered in.

1st quarter (1st Jan to 31st Mar), 2nd quarter (1st Apr to 30th Jun), 3rd quarter (1st Jul to 30th Sept) and 4th quarter (1st Oct to 31st Dec).

To get those details, consult one of the public registers of BMD’s, (my own preference is FreeBMD) or the GRO’s own on-line service.

The following is a step-by-step guide – Click on the FreeBMD link and on the home page click Search. Let’s assume you are seeking the birth entry of John Edward CHAPMAN, who you believe was born in 1916 in Colchester. So on the search form click on the Type varial box at the top and select ‘birth‘, then key ‘Chapman‘ into surname and ‘John E‘ in First name. (be cautious about putting in the middle name, as that detail was not recorded in the early years of compulsory registration in the UK) As you don’t know which quarter he was born, select ‘Mar‘ and ‘1916‘ in the 1st date range box and ‘Sep‘ and ‘1916‘ in the 2nd date range box. I would probably ignore entering ‘Colchester‘ in the box labelled District as towns and the county underwent periodic periodic changes to Towns and Counties; I would select the county only, ie. ‘Essex‘. So let’s see if our search is successful – click the ‘Find‘ button and you should see that there are only two named ‘John E Chapman‘ and only one was born in ‘Colchester‘. The entry given shows:-

Chapman John E Clarke Colchester 4a1591
and that, I believe that is the man.

In the third box you’ll see the name ‘Clarke‘ which is a bonus extra for you, as its the maiden name of John’s mother. (that detail was only added to the system around 1914). The last two boxes give the references for this specific birth entry, and if you were to order an emailed or a full (printed) certificate you would need to enter the Surname and 1st name, the District (Colchester), the Volume reference ‘4a’ and the page number ‘1591’ . The procedure is similar for other types of entries ‘marriages’ and ‘deaths’. See if you can identify John’s mother and when his parents were married. Practice with a person or two from your family or friends so as to familiarise yourself with this search system.

The Government Record Office (GRO) is the site you should go to order certificates for England and Wales. In Scotland the relevant body is Scotland’s People and although they are separate agencies they are not too dissimilar to the GRO.

Parish Registers (births, christenings, weddings & burials etc)

Parish Register records go back many decades and in some cases several centuries prior to 1837 when the GRO in the UK was established. The registers were maintained at Parish Church level and in many cases extracts of a church’s data was periodically forwarded to the relevant Diocese (in C of E).

The Mormon Church took on a massive task across the faiths in transcribing the parish register entries from the churches’ records (C of E and Catholic) to their own Database. Those database entries can be interrogated via the Mormon’s Family Search website. Be sure to search only the transcribed data, and not other records, e.g, details from an individual’s family tree.

Many parish records and the like are also available via DVD’s from Family History Societies (or FHS). The site “Parish Chest” has a large listing of CDs, DVD’s and other publications which have been created by volunteers of FHS; if your ancestors were residing in one village, town, area or county it may be worthwhile in investing in a CD or DVD for that location. These records can provide

  • Regional census returns
  • Parish Births
  • Parish Marriages
  • Parish Deaths
  • Parish Burials / Memorials / tombstones
  • Workhouse Registers

Many families in the past continued to remain in a village, town, or neighbourhood, so if your forebears lived in or around a county or district for a long period of time, it may well be worthwhile to join the local FHS. A directory of these societies is available online on the website of the Family History Societies Federation


Military and Diplomatic records (members of armed services) particularly overseas postings

  • The The National Archives (TNA) at Kew (near Richmond on Thames, Surrey), for an enormous range of British records covering over 1,000 years of the UK’s history including records from member countries of the British empire and commonwealth. Some available online and physical records for personal inspection at Kew. Some TNA records are no longer routinely available to be handled, although a number have been photographically scanned. (Transcriptions of these are available at (TNA) via the public area computers (only during public opening dates and times.) These scanned records include Medal Cards, some Army, Royal Naval, Merchant Naval and Airforce records. It’s worth noting that many records from periods during recent major wars were frequently on whatever paper / cardboard resources were available, and as such were not likely to be “long-lasting” especially with frequent handling.
  • British Army Personnel Centre Glasgow – for service records of veterans who served long enough to qualify for an Army Pension. Alas many WW1 army records were destroyed by German bombing raids during WW2. Many of these records have been scanned and are available at (TNA) public computers or via some commercial genealogy companies records.
  • The Imperial War Museum for a large range of military records, as well as help and advice, as to where and what with other bodies
  • The National Maritime Museum for Naval (Royal Navy & Merchant Navy) records, information, help and advice. A major project is underway currently with the NMM and TNA jointly to transcribe data from photographically scanned documents covering WW1 for the Royal Naval Personnel for WW1. Similar projects have been carried out for the Merchant Navy, but 70% of these crew lists have been transferred to the Maritime History Archive in Nova Scotia, Canada, 10% were retained at TNA, 10% at NMM and 10% dotted around at 40 different district offices. To get further information go to the Crew List Index Project (CLIP)

Newspapers (eg births, weddings, funeral services, court records, public notices etc)

The British Library has 300 years of historic newspaper records; that database is now managed by one of the commercial genealogical database companies and can be freely searched at The British Newspaper Archive, but if you decide to study a specific page or pages there you will need pay them a subscription. You can search by area, date and by subject, county/city or town/obituaries etc. The archive can be searched and accessed free of charge at the British Library’s reading room.


Census records (details of persons where they were on the night of periodic census (earliest principal one in UK was 1841)

A census has been taken in England and Wales, and separately for Scotland, every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941. The object of the census was not to obtain detailed information about individuals, but to provide information about the population as a whole; listing everyone by name, wherever they happened to be on a single night, was the most efficient way to count everybody once, and nobody twice.

The records of 1841 up to 1911 are available for scrutiny at TNA in Kew via their public computers as well as online on several commercial genealogical database companies. The records are for England, Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, vessels in English and Welsh ports and inland waterways from 1861 onwards and the British Army overseas (1911 only)

Later censuses remain in the custody of the Office for National Statistics and will remain closed to the public for 100 years after the date they were conducted.

Extracts from some census returns for specific counties or areas have also been transcribed via FHS’s (as mentioned earlier these are available via the site “Parish Chest” which has a large listing of CDs, DVD’s, downloads and other publications which have been created by volunteers of FHS). If your ancestors were residing in one village, town, area or county for a long time it may be well worthwhile to invest in a CD, DVD or download for that location.

The records that were completed during censuses (particularly the early ones) are not 100% reliable. As mentioned before, a significant number of the population could not read and or write, which led to misspellings of first and family names, their place(s) of birth, their ages and so on. Throw in the “phonetic” variations frequent in one of my family lines of Hynes and misspellings of Hines, Heinz etc abound!

Mistakes on an individual (household) return were transferred by census enumerators to the area or district records and the enumerators it would seem created additional mistakes (my grandfather was shown as a being “daur.” on the full return in 1881 – by the enumerator incorrectly using the ditto mark in the box for male or female (“) from the line above who was my great aunt). Ages are also generally problematic as the age in 1841 was rounded to nearest 5 years. Similarly occupation seemingly had to be one of the census’ listed occupations, rather than what an individual’s job actually was. Multi-occupancies of houses were the norm in many locations, as a whole family may live in just one room of a house, and thus individuals were missed of the record.

Having said all that, there is an enormous wealth of detail in the census records which gives us a pretty good time-line of our ancestors.

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