Resources for family history research

There are many different resources available to family history researchers. It is a fact that you will find relatively few of them on the internet, but nevertheless, the main ones are quite easy to obtain.

To begin with, the main resources that you will be accessing are birth, marriage and death certificates, census information, county directories and parish register records of baptisms, marriages and burials. You can go a long way with your research using these. Later you will learn to access other kinds of records.

In this section, you will learn all about these resources, how to find them, and which ones to trust.

Types of Resources

  • Primary Resources
    Think of primary resources as being the original documents and books. They are accessible, and they are the very best source of family history information.

  • Secondary Resources
    Resources such as indexes and transcriptions of the primary resources, which can be subject to errors and omissions. Use secondary resources to locate and obtain copies of the primary resources.

  • Unreliable Resources
    Yes. Some resources are very flaky indeed. You will be learning how to recognise them.

  • Outright scams
    It is surprising how many companies there are out there who will offer to sell you your family tree or your coat of arms.


Actual Resources

  • Old Books and County Directories
    A tremendous source of family history information, not only for locating ancestors, but to find information on the places where they lived, and their lifestyle.
    Find out more about old books

  • Census Data
    There were some earlier local censuses, but the first major census in England & Wales was carried out in 1841, and then every ten years, excluding 1941.
     Find out more about censuses

  • Parish Registers
    These were started in 1538, and were records of baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish churches.

     Find out more about parish registers
  • Newspapers and Magazines
    Old local newspapers can be a superb source of information for history and genealogy. Magazines from the 1800s contain lots of fascinating articles about towns, and include some superb old illustrations. Then there are specialist magazines, such as the 272 weekly volumes of the Magazine of the Great War.
     Find out more about newspapers and magazines plus some samples to download for free.

  • Birth Marriage and Death Certificates
    Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths (BMDs) began in England & Wales in 1837
  • Maps
    Enhance your family history file with old maps. And some free maps to download.

  • Wills
    Wills are relatively easy to locate, (even those back into the 1500s) and form a really useful resource for family history.
    (section under development)

  • Gravestone Inscriptions
    The inscriptions on gravestones in church yards and cemeteries are superb sources of family history information.
    More about Gravestone Inscriptions

  • Important Dates in English Genealogy
    Types of records and Acts and their significance to genealogists.
     Pointers to other sources of information.

Resources by County

Primary resources

It is the aim of every serious family historian to look at, and obtain copies of, primary resources wherever possible. If we build our research on second hand information only, then it is the same as building a house on sand.

Second hand information should always be checked against primary resources whenever possible. It may be sound information, but equally, it may contain errors or omissions.

There is a huge amount of primary resource information that is available to you. Most people think of just birth, marriage and death certificates, church registers and censuses, but there is lots more if you look! On these pages, we will show you where and how.

Secondary Resources

Secondary resources are second hand information. Some of them are very good indeed, and some less so. Some are very unreliable indeed. We have to learn to tell the difference. In these pages, we hope to give you some pointers to the good ones, and how to identify the poor ones.

Secondary resources can take the form of transcripts of original documents, indexes of original books and documents, or the family history research done by others. All need to be checked against the original primary source. Because the information you are searching for is not in a secondary source, doesn't mean that it is not there in the original! Transcripts and indexes are prone to having errors, some much worse than others.

Some transcriptions and indexes are are not checked, done by people with no local knowledge, and little knowledge of interpreting old handwriting. At times, so poor as to be comical. You would have very little chance of locating an ancestor in some of those.

One example that was taken entirely at random from a major internet genealogy site which had an index and transcription of a census (it was easy to spot them, because there were so many implausible names!):


And the real entry, in very clear handwriting on the original document

The point being, if you happened to be searching for that name in that index, you would never have found it!

Some transcriptions and indexes are double checked, done by knowledgeable locals, and published by those who really know the locality. 10/10 Brilliant.

Unreliable Resources

Unfortunately there are many. One of the best places to find unreliable source material for your family history research is on the web pages of other researchers. Sounds crazy. Yes? But there are so many people out there who have not done reliable research, and who have relied on indexes, poor transcripts, hearsay, huge leaps of assumption, and pure guess work. That doesn't mean that every family research web page is like that, on the contrary, there are some very good ones. But how do you tell the difference?

For a start, a good one will always quote the reference of the original source document. Most do not.

The number one rule is to retrace the research of others, reach your own conclusions by applying sound logic, and most of all, look at the original primary resource information. The original documents and books.

Outright scams

It is surprising how many companies there are out there, who will contact you by post, or which you will find on the internet, that will offer to sell you your family tree, or your coat of arms or the history of your "illustrious" family. Almost all of them are scams. Beware!

For each of the resources that we describe here we shall try to give you guidance on primary resources, secondary resources, and unreliable resources.

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Copyright ©2003 Rod Neep