Tips and Tricks

If you get the genealogy bug, there are some excellent resources to get you started. Two of my books are “The Genealogy Handbook” by Dan Waddell and the “Who Do You Think You Are?” team, published by BBC Books and “Genealogy – Essential Research Methods” by Helen Osborn, published by Richard Hale.

Having said that, I have worked mostly by trial-and-error and here are a few things I’ve learned:

Family records

Start with what you know for sure. Thanks to my mum, I have got birth, marriage and death certificates, funeral and marriage announcements going back a generation or two. I am also fortunate in that some of our people are buried in Undercliffe Cemetery, the records being preserved in our local West Yorkshire archives.


For online searching, I have used, the government’s “partner” in keeping records. I have complained to the government that we are expected to pay this private firm for the information our ancestors were compelled to give. However, I have found that our local archive service has a corporate membership which is free for library members to use. Most places will, I think, have a similar arrangement (but that doesn’t make it right!).

Find My Past is another good genealogy website – in my opinion a little easier to search than Ancestry and a little cheaper. I recommend you use both sites and here are some others.

Online records

As you go further back, keep an open mind about the records you find. I have rejected one or two lines of enquiry, notably when I discovered the Berry connection. I had been barking up the wrong tree altogether, with much better evidence for the new line.

Marriage records after 1753 can be useful for working out ages. If your marriage record says “minor” or “with consent of parents” it should mean your ancestor was under 21 years of age. But be aware that boys could be married at 14 and girls at 12 until 1929 – yes, 1929!

At first glance, the index of civil registrations isn’t very interesting, just a list of names. But for marriages, you get a list of all the people on the original page. So the names of both bride and groom will be there and you can usually work out the bride’s maiden name if you know her first name.

Poll books, I think, are fascinating in themselves: as a Labour Party member, I am naturally interested in the political scene. But they also can give you a date of death, entered by hand next to the printed record. Presumably to prevent election fraud at the next election!

Local resources

Our Bradford library and West Yorkshire Archive staff are great: friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable and I can highly recommend that you start your own research with them or your local equivalent. The local studies section of the library has newspapers on microfilm, if your ancestors got themselves in the paper for good or ill!


Farther back, dates become confusing. In 1752 the calendar in Britain changed. Previously the year started in March, marking the Christian festival of Lady Day, 25 March. So the year 1751 only ran from March to December. From 1 January 1752 the calendar year was as it is now.

Take care, especially with records of Quakers (the Society of Friends), who objected to using those names of days and months which derived from “heathen gods or goddesses”. Not all the months are named after deities, but to keep it simple all the months were recorded as numbers: “the first month”, the 8th month” etc. Up to 1751, the First Month was March, from 1752 it was January.

As you go back in time, you may find the years are recorded as “the sixth year of Elizabeth’s reign” and so on. Much more on this in Helen Osborn’s book “Genealogy – Essential Research Methods”.


The census takes place every ten years and, at time of writing, there are eight available in Britain, from 1841 to 1911. (You may also find the 1939 England and Wales Register – not a census, but really exciting as it might have people in it that you knew!) In Ireland the census began in 1821.

The censuses are excellent records, by and large, and you will be able to trace the growth of your family as the decades go by. As they give addresses, occupations, ages and relationships, they give a real idea of the lives people were living. Remember, though, that the census only provides a snapshot of who was where on a particular night. I have come across lots of grandchildren, daughters and sons-in-law who might just have been on a visit that night but weren’t recorded as “visitors”.  or is where you’ll find them, and I recommend looking at the images of original records rather than the transcriptions. The forms are mostly written in elaborate longhand which needs a bit of practice to read, but it’s worth it. The people who completed the census weren’t always accurate and the people who have transcribed them weren’t either.

For example, look at the 1851 Bradford census for the Brickley family below. Two of the names were transcribed as “Pephen” and “Lothain” Far more likely to be “Stephen” and “Catherine”, I think!

1871 census extract
This information Crown Copyright, from

At least this entry has correct ages recorded – in the 1841 census, the age of everyone over five years old was recorded as a multiple of five, so it’s quite difficult to tie up with birth dates you might have already. The excellent “Who Do You Think You Are?” book explains that ages were rounded down so you have the latest date someone might have been born. Start with that year and work backwards.

If you can’t find a particular person, try looking for someone else who might be living with them – spouse, child, parent or sibling. This will often get you a census entry you’ve missed. Also (this is blindingly obvious once you realise it) you might need to look at the next or previous page!

Keeping records

Finally, keep track of who’s who! That sounds obvious, but you’ll find names repeated over the generations, marriages between people of very different ages, and if you’re like me one search will lead to another till you forget who you were looking for in the first place!

I keep all my names, dates and relationships on a spreadsheet but a looseleaf notebook will do. If you’re using a spreadsheet, be aware that Excel and probably others don’t recognise dates before 1900 as dates. For sorting by date, I have changed the “1” to “2” so “1857” becomes “2857” – it looks strange, but I know what it means!

Name your files logically right from the start – my images of documents, for example, have filenames starting with the year which helps, especially if you have ancestors with no imagination – I have four generations of Richard Savages, three generations of Henry Crickmores and six generations of John Leachmans! Incidentally, the right way to distinguish between them is to use a Roman numeral suffix, so the oldest generation is Richard Savage I, the second is Richard Savage II, and so on.

I suggest dividing your records into four, to start with – the ancestors of your four grandparents. Even if you know nothing about them, as was the case with one of mine, keep a file ready for later research. I prefer online filing, but there is also a good argument for paper files and folders.

There is much more on this in Helen Osborn’s book – I wish I had had it when I started my research years ago. “Wohl begonnen ist halb gewonnen” says the German proverb – “Well begun is half won”.

Have fun and do try to remember when it’s time to eat or sleep….