Building Your Family Tree

The Way of The Buzzard

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How to Begin Building your Family Tree - lesson 1: How to begin.

Ancestor Masterclass 

Module 3: Building Your Family Tree

Lesson 1: How to begin

Video 1 3.1.1 Introduction

Now I imagine that you have been keen to get to this Module, as this is where we really get stuck into things. So far, I have spent quite a bit of time setting the scene, and in the last Module I shared some theory which lies behind what we are doing. I talked about how ancestral patterns get passed down the ancestral line, and the relatively new science of epigenetics. I shared ways in which we can go about healing the ancestral line, and gave an overview of how I see this work being an essential part in global awakening as a light is shone on the trauma which collectively humanity has endured, and how ancestral healing links to global healing and a shift in consciousness.

In this Module we are going to cover what you need to know to begin to build your family tree.

Now it might be that you already know the stories which you are looking to be healed, and that you do not feel you need to go through the process in this Module. And that is absolutely fine. Go ahead and move onto Module 4, and begin to work with these.

It might be that you have a genealogist in your family, and are going to work with them and go through their research. Again, that is absolutely fine. If this is the case, I would recommend that you bear in mind this Module and come back and watch it if at all you feel drawn to. It might be that you want to build on their research. The quality of a tree is only as good as the information which is put into it, and I have seen many factually incorrect trees online, and so for this reason I would advise that you watch these lessons to see if you can pick up any pointers. There are some useful tips in here to bear in mind.

OK, let’s get started. This Module is designed for people who don’t know the stories in their lineage and are looking to hunt them out. We are fortunate nowadays as so much of the documentation you need is online. It is possible, and actually in most cases, very easy to go back at least four to five generations for very little money and very quickly, without having to leave home. With a little bit of effort, you can give names to many generations of ancestors who stand behind you.

Researching a family tree is one of those things that so many people mean to get round to, but never quite get around to doing it. If you are starting out, the kinds of questions that I expect are running round your head are, where do I begin? What are the basics that I need to know? So, I will begin with just that: going through the basics, including the kinds of tools which are available and how to use them. I will explain how to gather some preliminary information to begin to build your tree. And I will give you some top tips which I have gleaned over the years, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

I will just add a caveat though, that this course is a ‘starter-kit’. If you are the type of person who needs a really thorough step-by-step guide and some hand-holding, you might need to invest in a more detailed, in-depth course, either online or in-person local to you. So just bear that in mind as you work through the material.

So, without further ado, let’s get cracking.

Video 2: 3.1.2 The tools out there

Let’s begin with looking at the genealogy tools which are out there. I’ll start by explaining how it all works.

There are a number of companies who over the years have worked through the hard copy official records and digitalized them. This is good news for us, as before the time of computers and the internet, if you wanted to research your family tree you had to travel to where the information was kept, and wade through it all yourself. You may still need to do this as you progress with your research, but you won’t need to right away, as so many records have now been digitized. They are held online by a number of companies, and I will talk through the top three in a moment.

Let’s first talk about each of the records: the paper trail that your ancestors left behind them that is available to you now.

Firstly, there are the censuses. Every ten years, since 1841, a full census was taken of everyone in England, Scotland and Wales and. From this we know where each person in that household was born, how old they are, what they do for a living, and what their status was in that household, for example if they were the parent, grandparent, child, a lodger or servant. The 1841 census has a little less information, but still a lot and they go right up to 1921. The government holds onto the census information for 100 years before they release it. So, the next census records that will be released will be the 1931 census, released in 2031.

When you build your family tree, you will begin with looking at the census records. All the family tree company databases have all the census records except the 1921 census record, which is only available in FindMyPast.

Then there are the civil records: the birth, death and marriage certificates. From the year 1837 all births, deaths and marriages had to be registered officially with the government. All these records have been digitized.

All the genealogy companies have all of these records in their databases.

Then there are the parish records. These are recorded by the church, and are local records. Now this is where it gets different. As not all genealogy companies hold all the parish records. Different companies will hold different parish records depending on which ones they arrange to get digitized. So, this is important to bear in mind, firstly when you are selecting which company to register with, but also when you come to doing your research. As when you begin it might be that some of the parish records aren’t on line yet, but they will come online eventually. For example, thirteen years ago when I began building my family tree, the Westminster parish records weren’t online, but they came online eight years ago. So, when I was asking questions early on years ago, I got different answers to eight years ago, because there was a new set of documents I could look at. Of course, it is possible to view parish records which haven’t been digitized yet, but you need to travel to the place where they are held and spend several hours scrolling through microfilms.

Then there are all kinds of other records, which as you go deeper into your research you will most likely draw on some of these. They are less complete. They include for example military records, wills and probates, newspaper articles, shipping emigration and immigration lists and so on. I won’t got into any more details right now about all of these records, but I will later on in this module. The reason why I wanted to set it out here now is because it is useful to know as you choose which genealogy company to subscribe to. So, I will talk about that next.

The first thing that you need to decide when embarking on creating your family tree is which company to go for to hold your tree in their software for you. There are lots to choose from, and I haven’t looked at them all by any means. There are comparison websites that you can use to help you decide. There are articles and websites that compare the main ones. Either google ‘comparison of family history databases’ or follow the links beneath this lesson.

Genealogy Explained: Ancestry vs FamilySearch vs MyHeritage, vs FindMyPast.

Family History Daily: Ancestry vs MyHeritage vs Findmypast: What’s the Difference and Which One is Best?

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine: What is the best family history website?

There are two main services which these companies offer. The first is access to their online databases. For a small monthly subscription, you can search their databases. They have a free level, which means you can search their database and get some top-level information. But in order to see the document sitting behind this high-level information you will need to subscribe. Each genealogy software company will offer different levels of subscription, depending on the type of records you would like access too. The basic package is generally for the UK only, and then you work up from there to the top level which is access to global wide records.

The other main service they offer is to hold the information you gather and input to create your family tree. It is possible to hold this on software you buy and upload to your computer and I know people who have done this, but this hasn’t been my way. I like the functionality you get online when your tree interfaces with the online datasets. I will explain what I mean in a moment.

Now, what is useful to bear in mind is that when you make a decision as to which company to go for, this doesn’t necessarily need to be fixed. You can export your family tree file and import it into another software system. You can also unsubscribe and your family tree data remains intact and there for you to view at any time. You just need to subscribe again when you want to do some research. So this makes it nice and flexible. You will find at times you will have periods where you do lots of online research and then you need to put it down for whatever reason. At this point you can unsubscribe and then re-subscribe at another time.

Some also have a free trial period too to take advantage of, including Here is the link to start Ancestry’s free 14-day trial.

So, with that explained let me share the three big ones I have used in the past and am currently using two of them in slightly different ways.

I keep my family tree research in one place, This is the site which holds my family tree. I begun using this around fifteen years ago, and over the years I have been able to subscribe and unsubscribe without losing my data. The level I am currently subscribed to costs me around £14 per month. Some years I have chosen to stop paying, because I go through periods of stopping working on my family tree. So I simply cancel my subscription and all my data stays there, and I can view my tree. So I like this flexibility.

The reason I like is that is very widely used, and so I can look at other people’s family trees to help me with my own research. When I am researching, I can view other people’s trees and see if they have made any discoveries which I haven’t yet. I can contact people – distant, distant relatives – and ask them questions.

However, one of the downfalls of, in my opinion, is that the search function isn’t as good as some of the other companies. When I type in a search term, I am presented with lots record, which you scroll through, and I don’t particularly like this. There is another genealogy company I like whose search database I find much easier to use: FindMyPast. With FindMyPast, you can enter in the same search criteria and it is much more selective of the documents it shows you, and the display format is easier to read. I find this really helpful.

The third large genealogy company is The Genealogist. This is a British based company, has an even more powerful search functionality. I have in the past used this in place of Findmypast in the past. The main difference is it possible to search phonetically, which means it is much better at picking up typos within the records, which is helpful.

It is also worth noting that it is possible to export your family tree from one software system to another. So, whoever you choose to go with, its good to know that you don’t have to stay with them forever if you find a different provider you prefer in the future.

In this course, I am going to use to build an example tree as a demonstration, which I will abbreviate to Ancestry.

It is also worth mentioning here that some companies hold important useful databases which others don’t. So, it may be that you need to subscribe temporary to the one which holds the database you need. For example, only Findmypast and Ancestry hold the 1949 Register database. This is a useful database that holds information of every household at the time of the second world war. It is useful because with census records, we need to wait 100 years for the data to be released, which is a couple of generations ago. But with the 1949 Register we can get back to just one generation very easily. So, if you are someone who can’t easily access the names of your grandparents, then this is a great database to use and one that you might need to draw upon.

This brings me on to the topic of the next video, which is how to go about gathering some basic information so you can begin to enter details into the software and start to create your family tree. I will see you in the next video.

Video 2: 3.1.3 How to begin - speaking to relatives/ checking the 1947/8 database

The first thing you need to do is gather together some data to enter into the family tree building software.

The information you are looking for, for your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents is:

  • Names 
  • Birth dates
  • Where they were born
  • Where they lived
  • Names of any siblings
  • Their occupation

It is likely that your information will be patchy in places, but the chances are you will have enough to begin to build your tree, at least up one line, your mothers or your fathers. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t able to get all the information you need right now. The important thing is that you get enough to get started. Once you begin, you will improve your skills as you go on, and over time be able to fill in the blanks no doubt.

Let me give an example. When I begun to build my tree, I spoke with both my grandparents. They told me the names of their parents, and uncles and aunts, and where they lived. This was enough for me to get going.

I tried this out recently with Jason’s mother and father, to begin building their tree. They could tell me the names of their parents, and a few uncles and aunts, and that they all lived in Chorley. This was sufficient to get me started, without having any information about birthdates, or the names of their grandparents.

I have included a template which you can use at this stage, to gather information from your living relatives. It is likely that you will be going back to them at some stage with some more questions, so be sure to write down everything they say.

So that said, what if you don’t have any living relatives to ask, or you don’t want to ask? Well, there is an easy way around this, so long as you have an idea about where they live. As have mentioned before, in the anticipation that there was going to be a war, the government in 1949 undertook a nationwide survey of who lived where, and how old they were. This database is held in FindMyPast and Ancestry. So, it is a great one to draw from if you don’t have very much information going back very far.

And remember, if you have lots of gaps, it is good to start with what you do know. Just to get started. You can cut your teeth then and learn how to build your family tree, before you start on those lines where you have less information.

We are coming towards the end of this lesson, which is designed to give you the basics so that you can get started.

So, your first task is to decide what genealogy company you are coming to subscribe to and build your tree in. I will be demonstrating how to build a tree using Ancestry.

The second task is to write down what information you can find out from family. Decide on who you are going to approach for information, and get armed with the questions you are going to ask. They might be your mother, father, grandparents, uncle, aunt, cousin, brother or sister and you might meet with more than one person to build up a more complete picture. It is worth remembering that it is likely that this will be the first of a few conversations, so don’t worry about missing things out. This is all about getting started. Download the question sheet I have prepared as a guide, and arrange to meet your relative.

If you don’t have anyone you can meet, then write down what you do know, and subscribe to FindMyPast or Ancestry and start to look through the 1949 database, which I will demonstrate in Lesson 2 of this Module.

In the next video I am going to share a little about how you can go about storing your information. So, I will see you there.

Video 3: 3.1.4 Storing your information

Now, if you have carried out the steps I outlined in the last video, you will already have started to collect information on pieces of paper. Now this is my number one tip to do at this stage: buy a folder with dividers! Well, I would recommend buying two folders, one for you mother’s line and one for your father’s line. I recommend doing this at this stage, as it won’t be long before you have lots of notes, and so it is good to have them all in one place.

Also buy an A4 notepad. Here you can write your notes and then file them in the appropriate parts of the file.

It is good to do this now, before you really get started.

Also create a special ‘Family Tree’ folder on your computer too, one for your mother’s line and one for your father’s line.

I have two folders, one for my mother’s line, the Liversidge Line, and one for my father’s line, the Riley line. I set these up right at the start, and I was jolly glad I did. Because information amasses very quickly, especially if you start to visit local records offices. I have a clear plastic wallet for every person in the folders, which is labeled.

Another way you could store information is alphabetically. And I am sure there are other ways too. So, think about how you would like to file the information you gather that makes sense to you. You decide what works best for you and set the system up. You can always change it further down the line if you think of a better way of filing things. But the important thing is to get started.

Video 4: 3.1.5 Lesson Roundup and intro to next lesson

So, that completes this lesson. You now have enough information to get started, by choosing where you are going to build your family tree, gathering some basic information about your family, and setting up a place to store information you gather, both in hard copy in a folder, and in a new folder in your computer.

As a reminder of your actions,

  1. Decide on which family member you are going to meet up with and arrange a date to go and visit them.
  2. Print out the checklist and take this with you.
  3. Buy two A4 folders, and subdividers, and an A4 note pad. 
  4. Go and meet with your family member and find out as much as you can about names, birthdates, locations where they lived, and what people did for a living. 
  5. And if you don’t have any relatives to ask, write down what you do know – the names of your parents and where they grew up as children, and the names of your grandparents and any uncles, aunts and great uncles and aunts. 
  6. Decide on what genealogy service you are going to use to store your information, and as your main research tool. Take out your subscription. Maybe just going for the basic low cost one for now. If you need to upgrade then you can do this at a later date if you come across a record which you would like to see but it isn’t part of your current package. It is really easy to upgrade.

That completes this lesson, which contains enough steps to get you started.

In the next lesson we are going to begin the incredibly exciting and rewarding process of building your tree, so I will see you there. There is a lot to get your teeth stuck into, so come armed ready with the information you have gathered.

How to Build your Family Tree - lesson 2: How to begin.

Ancestor Masterclass 

Module 3: Building Your Family Tree

Lesson 2: Building Your Tree

Video 1: 3.2.1 Entering in the information you have gathered

By now, if you have followed the steps in the previous lesson, you will have subscribed to an online genealogy tool, have some preliminary information gathered about your ancestors from living relatives, or your own memory, and also have a place to store information on your computer and in a file.

In this lesson I am going to walk you through building your tree, including how to enter in the information, the kinds of records which are available to you and how to draw on other people’s research to help you.

The first thing you need to do once you have subscribed to a package is to click on the ‘start a new tree’ button.

Ancestry has a really easy walk step-by-step interface to enter information about your immediate family.

The first person you will enter is you, and then your parents and if you know them your grandparents’ names.

If you are married and female, then enter your maiden name. Then enter in your parents’ names, and their birth dates and places, if you know them. When you are entering in the names of female relatives, always use their maiden name. And it is OK to estimate the birthdate if you don’t know this exactly.

Then enter your grandparents’ names, dates and places of birth, if you know them.

You see here, in this example, I have created a tree with just my fathers name and place of birth, my mothers name and place of birth, and my mothers’ father and mothers name and approximate year of birth.

You see, now Ancestry is doing some work for me. It is suggesting a match for two potential great grandparents.

At this initial stage, you are on the Ancestry ‘onboarding process’. They will start to suggest matches for potential family members. Go through this step by step, but only accept their recommendations if you are absolutely sure that what they are suggesting is correct. You will eventually come to the end of their onboarding process.

Later in this lesson I am going to take you through the main functionality of Ancestry once you’re through their onboarding process.

But now, before I do that I want to hold building the tree right there and talk about the different records which are available to search. I have already touched on this in the previous lesson, but I want to go into more detail here now. So, I will see you in the next video.

Video 2: 3.2.2 The kinds of records which are available to you

There are four main types of records that will get you started in tracing your ancestors and building your family tree. They are: census records, birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. I will describe each in turn and what information you will get from these documents. 

Census returns

The first census was taken in 1801 but it wasn’t until 1841 when names, addresses and occupations were recorded.

The census was taken every 10 years, and so we have nine census available to us from 1841 to 1921. 

In the census record we have the following information:

  • Household address
  • Name of each resident
  • Each resident’s relation to the head of the household
  • Occupation of each resident
  • Age of each resident
  • Birth place of each resident

In this example, I can see that my great-great-great grandmother Catherine Riley was living at 2 York Cottages, age 32 years old and working as a house servant.

Birth certificates

Since 1837 it was a requirement by law to register every child’s birth. A birth certificate includes the child’s name, date and place of birth. The father's name (if given at time of registration), place of birth and occupation. The mother's name, place of birth, maiden surname

In this example I can see that George was born on the 21st March 1856. He was the son of James Riley and Eliza Riley, formerly Kirk. His father James Riley was a shoe maker. They lived at 11 Lisson Street in Marylebone.

Death certificates

Death certificates are often overlooked in the family historian's research, however they can unlock secrets of an ancestor's life. They will provide details of how, where and when your forebear died, while the name of the informant could shed light on previously unknown relationships.

The information found on a death certificate is: the name of the deceased. Sex, age and occupation of deceased and possibly their home address. The cause of death. The name and address of informant and possibly their relationship to the deceased.

This is the death certificate of Emily Charlotte Riley, who died on the 6th April 1850 in the Workhouse on Poland Street. She died aged 15 months. She was the daughter of Catherine Riley. Cause of death was Hooping Cough 8 months certified.

Marriage certificates

A marriage certificate contains the date and place of marriage. Names, ages and marital status of bride and groom. Occupations of bride and groom. Addresses of bride and groom at time of marriage.

This is the marriage certificate of George Riley, aged 22 and living at 39 Mount Ash Road in Sydenham and Mary Ann Dupoy, aged 20 and living at 7 East [illegible] Road. They were married on 21st October 1876. George was a carpenter. Both their fathers were deceased. Georges fathers name was William John Riley who had been a publican. Mary Ann’s gather was called William John Dupoy and he had been a painter.

Other records

There are many other kinds of records too. One key information source you are likely to use are the parish records. These contain the same information as the civil records for births, deaths and marriages. They are useful because sometimes people didn’t register the birth of their child, as there was a fee involved, and so they aren’t in the civil records. But they did usually get their children baptized. They sometimes include additional information the isn’t in the civil records, such as the name of both the mother and the father on the marriage record, not just the father. So, they are worth looking for.

Other records include criminal records, military records, poor law records, newspapers and magazine, wills and probate records, tithe records and emigration, immigration records and photographs. As you progress with your research you may well make use of these.

There may well be other sources I haven’t mentioned here, but these are the ones I have used. What you will find, when you hit a brick wall, is that it will push you in a certain direction to find other sources of information which may well lead you to uncovering that information you are looking for. Give it time, have patience and reach out for help from local family history groups and online chat forums such as

In the next video I am going to demonstrate how to search for a records and attach it to a person in your tree. This is how you build your tree.

Video 3: 3.2.3 Adding information to your tree

Please watch the screencast demonstration.

Video 4: 3.2.4 - Searching the databases

I am going to share a few tips now to bear in mind as you search the databases.

Firstly, be mindful of how many variations of spelling a name can have. This can be due to typos by the person who transcribed the dataset from microfiche onto the computer. Or it can be because of an error made by the transcriber who took the census information and entered it into a ledger. Or it can be down to the person who collected the census information directly from your ancestor. Or it could have been your ancestor themselves who spelled their name differently as this did change over time. Or it could be that they couldn’t write, and so said their name but had a strong accent and the name was spelt phonetically. All these potential reasons for error. So, be broad with the spelling of the name if you need to, if your search doesn’t show results.

Secondly, be flexible on the dates. For example, with a person’s death year, often relatives didn’t know their exact age, and so this can be a few years out.

Use different search engines. This is why I subscribe to two services when I get really stuck into a phase of family tree research. The second database I subscribe to is FindMyPast as I find it so user friendly in the way they display the results.

The census records are your way of quickly building your tree.

In a single census record you can see where they are born and how old they are, so this way you can confirm that it in fact the correct person.

You can see the names and ages of all their children.

You can see what they did for a living. This information is so useful when we come to Module 4 which is creating the story around them.

You can also see who else lived on their street – you might recognize some other family members as often family members lived close to each other.

For example, you might find a housekeeper or servant in once census that then became a wife.

In the next video I will explain how to order a document.

Video 5: Ordering documents and checking them

Watch this screencast ‘Mod 3 Lesson 2 Video 5 – ordering documents.

At stages in building your family tree you will need to buy certificates, in particular marriage certificates. Marriage certificates are a crucial way to confirm a maiden name.

It is possible to order certificates through Ancestry, however you will pay a hefty premium for this. It is much cheaper to go via the Governments General Register Website or GRO website.

Here is the link:

At the time of creating this course it costs £11 to order a certificate hard copy in the post. Sometimes, depending on the certificate, you are able to opt for an electronic version and receive the PDF via email which is quicker and cheaper, at £7 per certificate. It can take up to 2 weeks for a hard copy to arrive by post so this is always the better option if it is available to you.

You will need to find the certificate reference number to place your order. I’ll show you how to do this now.

Go into the persons profile and find the ‘event’ you would like the certificate for. In this case, it is the wedding certificate of Freda Slaughter and Clifford Liversedge. Click on the ‘fact’ and it will link to the ‘source document’.

The source document includes the Registration date, Registration quarter, district and the Volume number and Page number. These are the details you need. If you want to be extra sure of the details, click on ‘view image’ and cross reference, in case there have been any typos in the transcribing.

You will need to register, which is free.

Then click on ‘Order a Certificate or PDF’. Go through and answer each question.

I have a top tip. When you order a certificate, keep a note of what it is that you ordered and what you want to check on it. As if you order several at once, two weeks later when they arrive it can be easy to forget your line of enquiry as to why you ordered them! I have found this a few times.

There are a couple of no cost ways of getting this information. If these events are recorded in the parish register, and if this is available online, and if a scanned image of the original document has been uploaded. So, there are a few ifs here! But I have managed this a number of times in the case of the marriage certificates, which has saved me having to order them. This is also the case for baptism records and occasionally burial records.

Or, there are places around the country where the certificates are held. For example, my nearest one is Southport. You can book to go and visit, and then look at the certificates without having to pay. I have never been to one of these, as I always order them online. But you could save up a list of certificates you want and then visit one of these centers. 

Video 6: Using other people’s research

Watch this screencast: using other people’s research.

Now you won’t need to spend very long on Ancestry and go back very far to find that there are other people with the same ancestry as you who have created their own family trees. It can be incredibly temping to just copy their information over to your tree. But, don’t do it until you are absolutely sure that their research is accurate.

There are people out there who are researching their tree who just want to gather names for the sake of it. They haven’t put any time into considering whether the dates match up, the locations, or the jobs. What happens is one person finds a document and then other people see it and take that as correct. You can quite often come across eight plus people who have all assumed that it is the correct document and drawn from this. The most common mistake is wives, but there are others too. Let’s take the wife example here:

Going back to my four-times great grandparents, Samuel Eddison, lived in a village close to York in the 19th century. If I were to go into other people’s family trees, I will see that two people have his wife, my four-times great grandmother as Sarah Porritt and one person has her as Sarah Needham. It would be tempting to think that the Meade family tree has her incorrectly entered. Yet, when you click on the marriage details, it doesn’t make sense that Samuel married Sarah Porrit, as the wedding took place in Dewsbury which was 26 miles away from where they lived in Tadcaster. This was a very long way back in the mid 1800’s.

So, the Chloe and Taylor family tree are incorrect. This might not matter too much as we are so far back now, it is unlikely you will be able to go back many more generations without visiting the local archives. But if this error was further down the tree, say with your great grandparents, then you family tree will be incorrect for multiple generations going back, and that whole branch will be incorrect. This is why it is so important to gather the documentation yourself and not rely on drawing information from other people’s trees that you don’t know online.

In the next video I want to say a few words about confidentiality before I draw this lesson to a close.

Video 7: Confidentiality

Now I will say a word about confidentiality.

You can make your family tree public or private. If your tree is public, other users can see your tree and also your username or full name (depending on your account settings). If you make your tree private, no one can see your tree unless you invite them to view it.

As you begin to build your tree, in the initial stages I would recommend that you keep your tree private. This way you can safely enter in names, birthdates and birth places.

In Ancestry, by default your tree will be public. This is because they believe it will better help you find family members and share family history. This might be your aim, but I think it is best in the initial stages to keep your tree private.

The reason is this. To build your tree you will need to enter your details, and your parent’s details including name, place of birth and birth date. This information is typically what makes up security information for financial websites such as banks. If you make your tree private, you can enter all the information of your living relatives without the worry of their data being taken.

Once you have begun to add a lot of flesh into the tree, you might want to consider going public. When you do, you will need to remove all the details of the people who are still alive. There is an easy way to do this. All you need to do is change the name of the person to Living and remove their birthdate and birth place.

Video 8: Lesson roundup and introduction to the next lesson

And that really is enough to get you moving. You can spend a huge amount of time here doing this, and as you get more confident, then you will fly, I am sure.

The most important thing I can’t stress enough is accuracy. Don’t be tempted to hurry and just grab names for the sake of it. Take your time and be really sure you have the right person before you move on.

So, on the subject of top tips, the whole of the next lesson is dedicated to this. I am going to cover important things like referencing which might seem a bit boring but remember you are managing a huge dataset here, so you need to have some diligence with this.

Also, where to go to too get help, including some useful books I have found and drawn on over the years.

And I will explain how the local archives work, and when you might want to go and pay them a visit and the kinds of things you will find there which might help you.

So, I will see you in the next lesson. 

How to Build your Family Tree - lesson 3: Top Tips

Ancestor Masterclass 

Module 3: Building Your Family Tree

Lesson 3 of Module 3 - top tips

Video 1: 3.3.1 - Recap of last lesson and introduction to this lesson

In the last lesson I walked you through building your family tree, including how to enter in the information, the kinds of records which are available to you and how to draw on other people’s research to help you.

In this lesson I am going to cover some top tips. One of the key tips is how to go about finding help when you need it. I will explain the option of appointing a genealogist to research on your behalf, seeking help from local family history groups including online forums, attending conferences and also what books I have found helpful.

I will also share tips about visiting archives and the importance of referencing as you conduct your research.

Before I get stuck into the detail of getting help in this physical reality, I want to just bring in your ancestor ally as a potential source of help. They are alongside you, and although they are the expert in the Otherworld, they may be able to give you pointers as you do your research. You never know. So, it is worth checking in with them from time to time.

Video 2: 3.3.2 - Getting help

This video is all about reaching out and getting help when you need support. I will start with explaining the option of appointing a genealogist to do the research for you.

Appointing a genealogist

This is one way to find answers, as you are drawing on someone else’s professional expertise. I have tried this for one of my ancestors, and they came to the same conclusion I had, but I am glad I went down this route for confirmation.

It cost me £150 for the service, and there are different levels of service for different amounts, but it gives you a ballpark figure to work with if you are thinking about going down this route. You can find them by doing a google search which is what I did, as I was looking for someone who specialized in Irish records. You can also find a list of accredited genealogists here on this website

Local family history groups

Local family history groups are very helpful. You often don’t need to be a member to draw on their support. They are run by volunteers, and produce publications hold information on websites and some of them have their own centers. I have drawn on the help of the local family history center for Westminster when I was looking into the records of my great great great grandmother for example.

In my old home town of Chorley, there is a family history centre which is run by volunteers and also paid for by the local authority. I can book in a consultation session with one of the volunteers and go through with them what I am struggling with. I didn’t go for years as I thought they could only help with people who had family living locally in the Lancashire area, but this was not the case at all. They have access to all the national databases and they are on hand to help me should I need it. I have found it invaluable sitting down with someone who knows what they are doing and learnt a lot from them. So, look into seeing whether you have a similar kind of service near you.

There are also often local classes which are held locally, run by the local authority. These might be worth joining if you are drawn to, to drawn on the expertise of the trainer and also meet other fellow travelers new to genealogy so you can learn and research together.

Family history conferences

There are national family history conferences which you can attend. These are usually run by the main genealogy companies. I went to one run by The Genealogist and there were clinics where you could book in with an expert and get their views. The MOD was there and so I could speak with a military records expert. There were also the local family history societies there too so I could look at their publications and speak to them with my questions to get their opinion. I took a couple of documents I was struggle to decipher and a group of elderly women excitedly crowded around it to see if they could make out the text. I felt so supported and uplifted to see their enthusiasm for my record.

Genealogy database sites

In, and other genealogy websites it is possible to reach out and contact other ancestry members, who are in fact distant relatives of yours.

There is also the help center in the genealogy website you are subscribed to.


Then there are books. I have a general book: ‘Who Do You Think You Are?: The Genealogy Handbook’, which I have drawn on for an introduction into a specific set of records. It is always handy to have one of these by your side. There is also a great set of books called: ‘My Ancestors Were…Londoners/ Irish/ an Agriculrutal Labourer … and so on’ and I have read quite a few of these. They are very specific to a particular area of interest which makes them highly relevant.

Online chat forums

Another useful place to ask questions and find support are online forums. The largest is RootsChat:

Support at the archives

Another way is to ask for some help when you visit the archives. I have found this helpful over the years, as often these places, especially the larger archives such as the London Metropolitan archives, have volunteers working at them. The staff are also extremely knowledgeable, and can help you find useful documents, and I have drawn on them a lot in the past to help me read the handwriting of official documents.

Which brings me onto talking about the archives which I will am going to do in the next video. From this video you can see there are all kinds of ways to get support in this process.

You will draw on these most likely when you hit what in genealogy is often referred to as a brick wall. Each wall tests you and pushes your research skills that little bit further. The wall is usually there for a reason” there is a story behind it. It is so rewarding when you make a break through and so it is well worth seeking help when you do find yourself reaching a standstill whilst following a particular line of enquiry.

At some stage in your research it is likely that you will need to go beyond looking just at online records. There is a limit to what has been digitized and put online. You will need to pay a visit to the archives, which is the focus of my next and final video to this lesson. 

Video 3: 3.3.3 - Delving into the archives

When I first heard of the term ‘archives’, I had visions of dusty dimly lit basements full of heavy books and a lot of confusion. However, I was presently surprised when I went to one.

You need two forms of ID to join and get in. Your passport or driving license, and a recent bank statement or utility bill. Check with the archive center that you wish to go to, too be sure of what it is that you need to bring with you, as you don’t want to turn up and not get in because you haven’t got the right documents. Especially if you have travelled a long way, which you most likely will have done. Also, check what their opening times are. They do vary, and can often be closed on random week days!

At the archives, they usually don’t hold the original parish records, but what they do hold are microfilms. A photograph is taken of every page and then held together on a microfilm. You sit at a machine and then scroll through manually looking for the record you are after.

Archive centers hold local records which are often not online. They will always hold the parish records, many of which aren’t online yet as they haven’t been digitally transcribed.

There will be someone there to help you find what you are looking for and set up the microfilm.

You can take photocopies of what you have found. I would always recommend this over writing notes, as you will want to refer back to them over time, and you may miss something when you first look. For example, if you are looking at a register, it can be helpful to go back and see who else was being admitted/ discharged at the same time and the comments associated with it. Also, it may be that you cannot read some of the writing, and so if you take a copy, you can find someone who might be able to help you decipher what it says elsewhere.

Archive centers also hold a lot of information about the locality. Street names change and they will hold records of what they have changed from and too. So, you can pinpoint exactly where you ancestor lived.

They hold old maps and illustrations so you can get a feel for what the area looked like.

And they hold written accounts of what places were like. It really is a treasure trove of inspiration to help form your ancestor story, which is the focus of Module 4.

3.3.4 - Referencing

[show a screencast]

Before we move on to the next lesson I want to talk about referencing. It might sound a little dull, but referencing is an important part of your research.

The rule of thumb is, whenever you have a ‘fact’ you need to document its source. Ancestry has a good automated way of doing this, so you can always trace back the origin of each fact. When you come to embellish a person’s profile, you can add in your own facts manually, as shown here in this screen. For example, a person’s occupation is recorded on the marriage certificate along with their father’s occupation. This occupation information can be manually added as a fact within a person’s profile. If you do this, make sure you reference the source of this information, like this.

Now that brings us to the end of this lesson. We have walked through the different ways you can get help when it comes to breaking down brick walls and delving in deeper into your family tree research.

In the next and final lesson to this module, I am going to talk about some of the main pitfalls to avoid. So, I will see you there.

How to Build your Family Tree - lesson 4: Pitfalls to Avoid

Ancestor Masterclass 

Module 3: Building Your Family Tree

Lesson 4 of Module 3 - pitfalls to avoid

Video 1: 3.4.1 - Recap of last lesson and introduction to this lesson & Relying on other peoples research

In the last lesson I covered how to go about finding help when you need it. I covered different ways ranging from appointing a genealogist to useful books, from visiting local archives to asking questions in chat forums online.

In this lesson I am going to highlight a few pitfalls to avoid. And the first is over relying on someone else’s research.

There are two ways in which you will most likely draw on someone else’s research. The first is from a family member, who has already researched your family tree. This is using research from someone you know

The second is drawing on research undertaken by people who are also researching your family lines, and have the data available to view on the genealogy website you are subscribed to, for example

The problem with both of these relying on data gathering which you have gathered, and you are trusting that these people have carried out the right checks to be sure that the people they have in their family tree are in fact the right people.

Let me give you an example. Remember earlier in this Module, I gave an example of how an assumption was made by one researcher, and then at least eight people copied this. So, at first glace it looks correct. Yet when you dig deeper, you see that it is in fact completely wrong.

So, it is imperative that if you are going to draw on other people’s research who you don’t know, to just use it as a point of reference, and make your own conclusions.

Let me give you an example of how I do this myself. Say for example I am struggling to find the next generation on. I can’t find a particular census record in 1841 which will lead me to the next generation. So, I click on the green leaf and go to other people’s trees to see what they have found. I have a good look around, and then if I can find the document, and I am happy that it is correct I save it into my own tree.

[run through an example of this].

The biggest risk you have with this is when it comes to the women in your family line. It takes a little extra concertation to find out what their maiden name is, and usually the only sure way to do this is to find the marriage certificate for the couple. Then you can match up the groom’s father with his father on the census record, and you can then be sure that the bride is in fact your ancestor and see her maiden name.

The other way, is to order the birth certificate of one of their children, and usually the mother’s maiden name is recorded on this. This is another way to check.

But don’t copy someone else’s assumption, and don’t guess yourself. It is too important, as frustrating as it is as you want to complete that section of your family tree.

I had a frustrating gap in my family tree for this very reason, for eight years, so I know how tempting it can be to jump to conclusions.  But I see it time and time again in Ancestry where people have just grabbed a name.

OK so that is all I want to say about using other people’s research whom you don’t know.

Let’s touch on using a family members research. This is a little trickier, as you don’t want to outwardly ask how careful they have been in their research. You can get a good idea though by how much they are able to talk about the tree, as it shows how engaged, they have been in the process and how much they have studied it. You could always ask to see records if you are in any doubt, if things don’t make sense to you.

But I would recommend if you are going to go back more than three to four generations to maybe pick this research up yourself. Look at theirs and draw from it and then build your own. It is possible that you will want to go back further than they have, as many people stop at around the fourth to fifth generation as it tends to get a little trickier the further you go back.

But if you do it yourself there is something about the nature of researching and enquiry which deepens the process for you. You will almost certainly want to go into the detail behind the data more than your family member has. Genealogists tend to focus on names, places and dates. From my experience they rarely start to question into the stories which lie behind all these names on paper. Yet it is the stories which are the key to this work, and so by picking this up yourself, you are going to unravel them in much more depth than if you simply chat with the family member and ask them questions.

I guess it all depends on how much you want to get out of this and how deep you want to go.

So, that is all I want to say about drawing on other people’s research. In the next video I am going to talk about the inevitable brick walls which you are going to hit and give a few reflections on these.

Video 2: 3.4.2 - giving up on brick walls

So, what happens when you hit a brick wall in your research?

Well firstly, what I have found is that where there is a brick wall, there is a story. Why aren’t the records easy to find

Also, a brick wall pushes you to develop your research skills and broaden your avenue of research. It can be tempting to simply stick to ancestry and the main records you find there. But with a brick wall this isn’t possible anymore. You will naturally need to expand your outlook in order to break through it.

I have given lots of tips in the previous lesson about reaching out for help, and I would encourage you to not give up when you do hit a brick wall.

One of the things which has helped me most is to visit the local archive center, as they have lots of records which aren’t digitized yet. You can speak with people and they will help you.

Let me give you an example.

George Riley was my great great grandfather. Everyone who was researching that family line on had got to the same place. They had found his census records from when he was in his twenties up until he died – there were five in total. They all pointed to him being born in Westminster in London, but I could not find a birth certificate for him, nor could I find any census for him as a child. If I could I would have found his parents.

All I had was his father’s name on his marriage certificate, and that his father was a publican. I stopped there for eight years.

Then, I decide to nail it once and for all. I decided to go down to the Westminster archives for two days and get all the help I could and focus on this one thing, to solve it.

It meant a lot to me as I had got all my great great great grandparents apart from his, and his were the ones I wanted most, as we wanted to trace our Irish roots.

When I was there, I had access to the parish records, which had recently been digitized and I saw just before I went down that he had a baptism record and I found his mother’s name. Catherine Riley. I also saw from that document that she at the time George was baptized was living in St James Piccadilly workhouse. At Westminster archives I has access to the workhouse intake and discharge records, and also the Industrial School where he was sent when he was three years old and where he lived through all of his child life. I also had to hand the staff who helped me understand the geography of Westminster and find out where she had lived before George was born. They also helped me decipher the illegible handwriting. I had chance whilst I was there to visit some of the places, which I then went back to at Samhain that same year.

So, trust that the brick wall is there for a reason, and it is worth pursuing it. If you draw a blank, maybe put that line down and work on another family line for a while to practice and develop your research skills.

Also, it might be about timing. If I had broken down that brick wall when I first begun building my family tree, I wouldn’t have given it the same amount of time and attention. I wasn’t ready to find that story. I was in a very different place then. I had much less time and I almost certainly wouldn’t have gone digging quite as much as I had to uncover the details. I also wouldn’t have worked with the material which came up in the depth that I have. And I definitely wouldn’t have had the idea of writing a book about this story.

Also, remember to ask for help from the Otherworld. Call in on your ancestor ally to help guide you to what you are looking for. And watch your dreams.

I still haven’t found a record of where our family are from in Ireland. However, I did have an incredibly clear dream. I dreamt of George’s mother Catherine living just to the East of Belfast in Ulster. I woke confused, as I didn’t see how she could be in two places at once. My Irish geography was very sketchy back then, and I thought that Ulster was a city. But of course, it isn’t, it is the collection of counties which make up Northern Ireland. So, the dream makes sense, and that detail helped me take it seriously. This was further confirmed as I now have about twenty records where she is Church of Ireland/ Church of England. Again, there is a much higher chance of her being from Northern Ireland because of this.

So, this was the place I went to when she asked me to take her home when I moved on to heal that inherited trauma from this line.

I was also later to discover why I couldn’t find George’s census records from his childhood when he waws at the Industrial School. It is because those pages are missing and do not exist.

So that is just one example of how not giving up on a brick wall can bring incredible insights. Just give it time, and don’t let go of the thread. It can be frustrating, but it is worth the wait and hard work, believe me.

Which brings me onto the third pitfall, which is around timescales. So, I will see you in the next video.

Video 3: 3.4.3 – Timescales & Trying to do too much at once/ Lesson recap and intro to next Module)

OK this is the final video to this lesson, and I want to talk about timescales.

It is good to do this slowly.  It can be tempting to rush through this process, to build your tree so that you can see all the branches, and everyone named. And it can be tempting to race up the family lines.

But, the real depth comes from study. And this means going slowly.

This also helps with overwhelm, which comes from trying to do too much at once. There is a lot of data to gather here. If you go back seven generations, you have 254 number of people. Even if you just go back 5 generations you have 62 people. Each of those people has a story.

So, I recommend just focusing on one line. Your mother and her mother, or your mother and her father for example. Focus on the one which you have most information for first, so you can cut your teeth, even if this is the line you aren’t most interested in. See where you get to.

You can pick it up and put it down. Just take your time.

I have only been doing this for fifteen years and I have so many more stories I am intrigued to research. Because it isn’t just about data gathering. This is about your own personal process. Allow your thoughts to unfold. Allow time for dreams to come through. Allow time to go and visit your ancestral lands. Allow time for the stories to come through and the healing to happen.

What’s the rush?

Which brings me to the end of this lesson and the end of this module. You have done really well getting to this place, and by now I expect you have delved into beginning to create your family tree. If you haven’t, and you have decided to watch all the videos before you get started, then you must be raring to go.

So, now fully equipped with the knowledge of the top tips to get help when you need it, and the pitfalls to avoid, spend some time now working up your family tree. This might just turn out to be a very large piece of work, so enjoy the journey, enjoy the unraveling’s. This is exciting stuff and big stuff.

In the next Module we are going to begin on the healing work. And the first step to this is to draw out the stories, and so Module 4 is going to be all about that. I will see you there.