Researching your family tree can seem dauntingly expensive. Some costs, such as birth, marriage or death certificate fees, are unavoidable. But, with a little effort, you can bring other costs down to nothing. The internet has revolutionised family history research over the last decade and much of its content is free. At the same time, county record offices, which are open to the public and free to use, can take you deep back into your family’s past. Just follow the tips in this feature and you’ll soon be able to start tracing your family line back without any cost at all.
When beginning your family history research, you will want to look first at censuses and birth, marriage and death indexes (BMD indexes) which together can take your family back to 1837.
Traditionally, family historians would visit their local county record office (CRO) to view the census returns on microfilm, which is still something you can do at many of them. CROs are free to use and an excellent resource, allowing you to ask for advice in person as you set about your family history research. Check opening hours online before you go, as well as details of what you need to apply for a reader’s pass.
Visiting a CRO isn’t the only way to get started with the censuses and BMD indexes for free, as you can also carry out research from the comfort of your armchair at home.
You will need to use the BMD indexes, which list births, marriages and deaths since 1837, if you want to order a certificate or corroborate information that you find in the censuses. Although all subscription sites allow access to the indexes, you can also research them online for free.
The website www.freebmd.org.uk provides the BMD indexes for England and Wales from 1837 until 1992, allowing you to search for your ancestors and then order the relevant certificate. It’s not complete yet, but has very good coverage. Any certificates that you want will, unfortunately, have to be purchased, although you may be able to pool your resources with other family members to keep costs down.
As well as FreeBMD, you can try www.freecen.org.uk, which aims to publish the census returns for England, Scotland and Wales from 1841 to 1891. You won’t be able to view the original record as you would on a subscription site or at your local CRO, but the transcriptions tend to be very accurate with a good deal of information included to allow you to take your family tree back further. As with FreeBMD, FreeCEN is a work in progress, but, if you can find your ancestor you can compare the detail with that which you discover in the BMD indexes, allowing you to build a picture of your 19th century ancestors.
Alternatively, do look at TheGenealogist’s free three-month First Steps package – this gives you three whole censuses for England and Wales to search, as well as all the BMD indexes, again for England and Wales, right up to 2005. This is a fantastic way to springboard your quest for your ancestors.
While the censuses and BMD indexes are great for taking your research back further, there is a danger that all you will be left with will be a list of names. Instead, think about just what you want to know about your ancestors.
The censuses should give you your ancestors’ occupations and many work records are available in record offices or online for free. Start with The National Archives’ (TNA’s) website, since it has a series of useful research guides on locating people in different sorts of records (see https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/?research-category=family-history). Was your ancestor a policeman? You can access the Metropolitan Police registers from 1829-1958 online for free at TNA. For example, a discharge certificate for Robert Wright of Wandsworth Division records that he joined the Metropolitan Police as a constable in 1863 and resigned in 1868. Throughout this period, “his conduct was good”.
When using TNA’s research guides,even if the online records aren’t available to view for free, remember that you can always go to Kew to view the originals. It’s easy – and free – to obtain a reader’s pass, which will allow you access to the documents stored there. Remember to take a pencil and a notebook!
Many people’s ancestors include military personnel. While you can only view a lot of the records at subscription sites, the website for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a great resource. You can use the site to search for ancestors from Commonwealth countries who died in both world wars. Results will give you the name, age, rank and burial place of your family member, potentially allowing you to
visit their grave. You will also find out details of their regiment, which will allow you to further expand your research into their life.
Once you have taken your ancestors back to 1837, start thinking about parish registers. These are records of baptisms, marriages and burials, which were kept by the parish clergy. They go back to as early as 1538, although most only survive from the early-17th century onwards. Once again, your local CRO will hold copies of parish registers and other documents, allowing you to view them for free.
If you want to explore parish registers online, the most complete collections tend to be held by subscription sites such as TheGenealogist, so you might want to try a free trial to explore what they hold. Alternatively, there are free resources available if you’re prepared to put in the time and effort to look for them. The website www.freereg.org.uk is still a work in progress, and consequently has patchy records, but there are nonetheless more than 50 million of them. For example, a search for the surname ‘Blount’ in Worcestershire gives 20 results from three parishes. One thing to be careful with when using this site is that it’s not always easy to work out which parishes have yet been added. Don’t assume that zero results mean your ancestor doesn’t appear in the parish registers.
If you are lucky enough to find your ancestor on FreeREG, click on the number next to their name to view the full record. Although the site shows transcriptions rather than the original record, you should find a good deal of information. Since people tended to spend their lives close to where they were born, you should be able to follow families back through parish registers. Even if you can’t find your ancestors at FreeREG, there are still parish registers available to view for free elsewhere, eg at https://familysearch.org.
Many local societies have also published transcripts of parish registers, such as the Shropshire Parish Records Society. Your local library might be able to order the correct volume for you. Alternatively, try searching for the specific parish at www.archive.org or https://books.google.co.uk as they may be available to view online. You don’t have to stop your research at the beginning of parish registers, since there are free resources available to take your family back into the medieval period.
For example, if your family were members of the gentry, try heraldic visitations, which are family trees compiled by teams of royal heralds in the 16th and 17th centuries. These have been published by the Harleian Society and you can find many online. Alternatively, TNA’s Manorial Documents Register is free and will help you locate manorial records that might be relevant to your ancestors. You can view these mostly for free in local CROs, which again will save you money on your family history journey.