Formerly, researching your family history involved investing a lot of time and petrol money in travelling around the country to view official records and meet up with long lost family members. To some, this made the quest all the more enjoyable and you might still chose this approach but, if time is in short supply, using online services can speed things up substantially. See also: Genealogy software explained
You can use social networking sites to track down information on your family but here we’re concerned with online access to official records of various types. Some of these resources also allow you to compile a family tree online or collaborate with other family history enthusiasts.
Making contact with others is certainly beneficial and an online family tree will probably help in your liaison. However, in the main, online utilities for creating family trees are not nearly as sophisticated as dedicated genealogy packages that run on your PC and which are discussed separately later on. Here we will concentrate mainly on search facilities.
The most fundamental records that you’ll need to access are birth, marriage and death certificates, followed by census records. The indexes to birth, marriage and death certificates are freely available from FreeBDM although they are not yet 100 percent complete.
The indexes themselves contain very little information and are really only useful for ordering a copy of the certificates themselves which cost £9.25 from the Government Record Office.
Similarly, there's an initiative to provide transcripts of census records at www.freecen.org.uk. Also, at www.freereg.org.uk, are the partially transcribed parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials which provide a source of information before the introduction of national certificates of births, marriages and deaths in July 1837.
For more complete records in the form of parish records and gravestone transcripts, sometimes freely available, try local family history society websites - www.ffhs.org.uk will help you find the relevant societies.
To go to the next level of detail it would be worthwhile consulting local record offices which are able to provide information for those researching their family history. Here you’ll find records such as wills, census, parish and military records but what actually appears online will vary.
In many cases you’ll find online indexes and while these are useful in that you won’t end up making a wasted journey, viewing the actual records will often involve visiting the record office in person.
In addition to the basic records we’ve already encountered, here you can find records of immigration, military service, occupations, criminal convictions, prison inmates and much more. In the main, the free information online will take the form of indexes and you’d need to pay a fee to view the records themselves.
Moving on from these sources of free information, subscription sites providing online genealogical service are plentiful. At the most basic, these provide a one-stop-shop so that you don’t have to search out information on so many separate sites (those we just mentioned were only really a taster).
So, for example, on a single site you may find birth marriage and death certificate indexes (although you’d still need to pay the Government Record Office for a copy of the certificate), plus census, parish, military and perhaps even occupational records.
In addition, with the exception of birth, marriage and death certificates, some of the better sites are able to offer access to actual records as opposed to just the indexes.
A useful facility provided by Ancestry, especially if you’re just starting out, is the Ancestry Hints feature. Just start creating your family tree online, perhaps by adding details of yourself and the previous couple of generations, and Ancestry will search automatically through a whole range of records, showing what additional information is available for people already in the tree. While this will never replace the manual searching through individual types of record, it can help beginners by cutting out a lot of the hard work.
Online genealogical sites differ in the amount of information available and in their ease of use. They also differ in the availability of add-on features, say hosting family trees online or providing collaborative facilities. So, before parting with your cash, you’d be encouraged either to sign up for a free trial, if available, or read comparative reviews in the specialist family history press. While Ancestry claims to be the UK’s largest with 1 billion records for the UK and a further 11 billion worldwide, others sites to consider include Findmypast, Genes Reunited and Familyrelatives.
This article is part of a larger feature on family history. Go to the introduction to tracing your ancestors.