Documents and Records

I assume you have already read the First Steps page, and that you are now champing at the bit to get under way!  As I’ve said before, start with what you know. Your family tree needs to have a firm foundation, so start noting down all the details off of every document you find. By record, and I don’t mean just a letter here!  

A document can be

  • a Government certificate (birth, marriage or death – these start around mid 1837)
  • a notice from a church directory (e.g. baptism, marriage or burial)
  • record from a school, exam result, scholarship
  • reference from an employer
  • passport or document of travel
  • Government listings from periodic census
  • Correspondence
  • Wills
  • Deed polls
  • Military records
  • Periodic directories (locations and contact details of trade, location
  • Newspapers, magazines and certain legal notices (missing persons, court records, police periodicals

. . . . . . . and that’s not a complete list!

When you have made your choice of a family history software programme, spend some time reading the details your software has provided. When you au fait with the basics of it, create a new family tree file.  Hopefully you know (or can easily find) all your own details, (full names, aliases or nick-names, birth-date, birth-place and so on). Get used to the format of details as every person record you add will need the same basic information. Genealogy computer programmes utilise linked record sets, e.g one table for the storage of place names, another for the different types of records, and so on; these linked sets of records, however, need only to be created once.  You may well have to add to these sets as you find information from many different places.

One of the paper records I keep are full birth, marriage and death certificates. Even now I do not have every certificate for all those in my tree, however it’s pretty important to have them for your most important and direct members. I try to make it a habit to order a certificate when I can afford it, and I have a list that I update of ‘needed ones‘. You can order and purchase birth, marriage and death certificates online in the UK from the Government Registry Office

There are also faster and cheaper e-mailed electronic record documents  available, but beware some of those documents will only give basic details. Original certificates are a great source of information, and can provide lots of details apart from just the name of the specific person. Details like the names of parents (including maiden names), occupations, places, names of witnesses at marriages etc, could well provide a vital clue to enable a record to be identified and linked to others.

Apart from the bare bones, on both of the programmes I mentioned earlier, a person record has an area for comments in text files as well as a library or store for images.  Jot everything down as you go; it’s well worth it, and save photos and image files also, they are a priceless resource.

Once you have your own record set up, set up similar records for each of your parents, as well as your siblings. These show not only their own specific details but also their relationship to you (father, mother, brother, sister etc).  With the combination of these details you will then have built a family record.  Don’t worry if you haven’t got every detail stored away, you can always return and add additional information.

Get your immediate family information whilst you can, believe me, I wish I had!  There are just so many things that I had wished I had asked my parents whilst they were still alive.  If you can, ask if you can see and take copies of their certificates.  If the originals aren’t available for you to sight, then (in my experience) sooner or later you will need to buy them.

There are many families who kept some actions/relatives/activities/ skeletons in cupboard hidden, and I’ve discovered a few “family secrets” during my genealogical endeavour including a grandfather who I assumed had passed away before I was born (as I and my two older brothers had never met him), whereas he didn’t pass away until I was nearly seven years old.

Sometimes facts materialise after the person(s) concerned have passed away. For example I recently watched a TV programme where an elderly chap had been clearing out his much older sister’s home after she had passed away. The house had also been his and his sister’s grandmother’s home, where he and his sister had been brought up. When he went up into the loft for a look he found a very old and rather battered writing slope. He opened the box carefully to see if anything was still in it, and to his utter astonishment discovered a series of old documents and he discovered that the lady (who had just passed away) who he thought was his sister, was in fact his mother! She had been an unwed mother, and as such in years gone by, she would have been ostracised as being guilty of appalling behaviour. So the story the chap had been given (his parents had both deceased) was a fabrication, but at least he had the real truth, and prized that slope and it’s contents.

Other invaluable “documents” are photographs, as they can provide a huge amount of information. Sometimes the names of the people in the pic are noted on it (front or back), although they alas may just say ‘Aunty Lil’ or ‘Uncle Jack’ – but may well turn out to be a great clue in the future. Sometimes the photo may be a “photo card” – photo one side, and pre-printed details to send it as a postcard. These were quite common between WW1 and WW2.  If they have a Photographer’s name and address on them, and in that case by searching Victorian Photographers for the of your photographer, it may give you the date and the location when it was taken.  Look carefully at the style of clothing, there are on-line researchers who may just be able to give a clue regarding the date the clothing was in vogue.

An ever present stumbling block are the names that are shown, for a person’s official name (at baptism) may differ from the actual name of the sitters. In my family, my father’s name was James Henry, and his father (my grandfather)’s name was James. Whenever that grandfather filled in a form he showed his Christian name as ‘James Henry’! That is incorrect, his birth name was “James”. Because there were two ‘James’ in the family home, my father was always referred to as ‘Hal’ (Hal is a familiar abbreviation for ‘Henry – my dad’s 2nd name) and his dad was always called “James”).

Another “fly in the ointment” with familiar names are “Johns”. These were routinely referred to as ‘Jack’. In many many cases one of a person’s names could well be registered because it was a father / grandfather / mother / grandmother’s 1st first or even family name. On occasions you may come across a relative who has a first or second given name that is their maternal mother’s family name which would otherwise die out on her marriage.

Do not take for granted that the data on a birth or census record or any other document as gospel! My grandfather (one of the younger children in his family) on the 1881 census is shown as ‘daughter’. The Government census taker had put the ditto mark (“) under gender – from an older sister who was on the line above!

Yet another hassle is spelling on any historic document. Many even up to the 1900’s, were unable to read and/or write. I could list dozens from my family trees where relatives. Such as :-

  • Many made a mark (e.g. X) as they were unable to write & thus sign their name so irregularities in the details could easily occur
  • Some who signed (or gave their mark instead – X) on a record where, as they were unable to read, were not able to verify that their name was spelled incorrectly
  • It took me ages to find a distant cousin’s birth record where the mother (who was unable to read or write) gave her maiden name instead of her husband’s surname for her new son
  • Phonetic spelling! With those who were unable to read, some names recorded on documents are totally wrong. e.g. Hines / Hynes / Heinz, Hart / Heart, Smith / Smythe, Finck / Fink / Finke
  • Preservation of personal safety if a person’s surname or Christian name bore a resemblance during warring times to other countries / religions e.g. from 1800’s to end of WW2. Many examples exist for those who anglicised their German, Jewish or Irish surname / Christian name.

Once you have exhausted all your living direct relatives, you’ll then be ready to start the next stage – and start searching for records of historical relatives who have passed away.

I’ll talk about that next article.

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