Getting Started With Your Family Tree

(originally published in 1996)


  1. Introduction
  2. Tips
  3. Genealogy Standards
  4. Standards For Sound Genealogical Research
  5. Standards For Using Records, Repositories and Libraries
  6. Standards For Use of Technology in Genealogical Research
  7. Standards For Sharing Genealogy Information With Others
  8. Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet
  9. What do you hope to achieve ?
  10. Start with what you know
  11. Primary sources and vital records
  12. Public records - the basics
  13. Civil registration
  14. Census returns
  15. Parish registers
  16. International Genealogical Index
  17. Other online genealogical resources
  18. Researching Scottish ancestry
  19. Death and burial records
  20. Other records and sources
  21. Wills and Grants of Administration
  22. Military records
  23. Trade directories
  24. Maps and gazetteers
  25. Personal web pages
  26. Databases of names
  27. Ancestral files and Gedcoms
  28. Discussion groups, listservs, newsgroups, messageboards and chatrooms
  29. Netiquette
  30. Publishing on the Internet


  1. Choose which surname you want to work on first.
  2. Gather together everything you have: papers, photos, documents, etc.
  3. Interview the relatives. Start with your parents and then move on from there. Ask for stories, not just names and dates. In general, births, deaths, and marriages are the most important date events. These are fundamental to an individual's life-story, and they are also the most useful facts when searching for more information on that individual or his/her family. Enter dates and locations, with as much detail as you have available.
  4. Write down everything you have learned from your family - Person Enquiry Form will help get you started.
  5. Explore the Internet. It is a great place for information and leads but don't expect to find your entire family tree online. Start with my Search page and then try some of these genealogical web sites and other online genealogical sources which are updated regularly.
  6. Visit your local Family History Centre where you can access the world's largest collection of genealogical information. The UK Government Web Archive and local libraries and archives in the UK are also useful genealogical research sources.
  7. Look at the records of your ancestors including wills; birth, marriage, and death records; land deeds; etc.
  8. Organize your new information - take notes, make photocopies, etc. Make sure you save and date everything.
  9. Visit the place where your family lived - look at cemeteries, courthouses, churches, etc. for information. Burials are important. Being able to visit the grave of a family member can provide a tangible and meaningful connection to that person. By examining nearby graves (either in person or by contacting the cemetery), you may also find leads on other relatives.
  10. Make sure you continue to document everything, including taking pictures. You never know when you might need it.
  11. When you have gone as far as you can go, step back and take a break - then go to Step 1 and choose a new ancestor to start searching for.


  1. Ask your family members if there is a family history book or other genealogical records kept within the family. This could give you a wonderful head start.
  2. Keep copies of everything you find in your search. It may not seem important now, but it will be in the future.
  3. Make sure that you keep in mind possible alternate spellings of your surname as you are researching.

Genealogy Standards

The National Genealogical Society has published the following set of standards for genealogy research:

1. Standards For Sound Genealogical Research

Covers the basics of seeking, using and documenting genealogical record sources, as well as common courtesies when communicating, sharing, or publishing genealogical findings. Remembering always that they are engaged in a quest for truth, family history researchers consistently:

  1. record the source for each item of information they collect
  2. test every hypothesis or theory against credible evidence, and reject those that are not supported by the evidence
  3. seek original records, or reproduced images of them when there is reasonable assurance they have not been altered, as the basis for their research conclusions
  4. use compilations, communications and published works, whether paper or electronic, primarily for their value as guides to locating the original records
  5. state something as a fact only when it is supported by convincing evidence, and identify the evidence when communicating the fact to others
  6. limit with words like "probable" or "possible" any statement that is based on less than convincing evidence, and state the reasons for concluding that it is probable or possible
  7. avoid misleading other researchers by either intentionally or carelessly distributing or publishing inaccurate information
  8. state carefully and honestly the results of their own research, and acknowledge all use of other researchers' work
  9. recognize the collegial nature of genealogical research by making their work available to others
  10. through publication, or by placing copies in appropriate libraries or repositories, and by welcoming critical comment
  11. consider with open minds new evidence or the comments of others on their work and the conclusions they have reached.

2. Standards For Using Records, Repositories and Libraries

Rules for proper conduct in libraries and archives, stressing respect for fragile records and courtesy toward research staff. Recognizing that how they use unique original records and fragile publications will affect other users, both current and future, family history researchers habitually:

  1. are courteous to research facility personnel and other researchers, and respect the staff's other daily tasks, not expecting the records custodian to listen to their family histories nor provide constant or immediate attention
  2. dress appropriately, converse with others in a low voice, and supervise children appropriately
  3. do their homework in advance, know what is available and what they need, and avoid ever asking for "everything" on their ancestors
  4. use only designated work space areas, respect off-limits areas, and request permission before using photocopy or microform equipment, asking for assistance if needed
  5. treat original records at all times with great respect and work with only a few records at a time, recognizing that they are irreplaceable and that each user must help preserve them for future use
  6. treat books with care, never forcing their spines, and handle photographs properly, preferably wearing archival gloves
  7. never mark, mutilate, rearrange, relocate, or remove from the repository any original, printed, microform, or electronic document or artifact
  8. use only procedures prescribed by the repository for noting corrections to any errors or omissions found in published works, never marking the work itself
  9. keep note-taking paper or other objects from covering records or books, and avoid placing any pressure upon them, particularly with a pencil or pen
  10. use only the method specifically designated for identifying records for duplication, avoiding use of paper clips, adhesive notes, or other means not approved by the facility, unless instructed otherwise, replace volumes and files in their proper locations, before departure, thank the records custodians for their courtesy in making the materials available
  11. follow the rules of the records repository without protest, even if they have changed since a previous visit or differ from those of another facility.

3. Standards For Use of Technology in Genealogical Research

A reminder that computer technology should be considered as a tool to facilitate genealogy, and not as a substitute for proper research and documentation. Mindful that computers are tools, genealogists take full responsibility for their work, and therefore they:

  1. learn the capabilities and limits of their equipment and software, and use them only when they are the most appropriate tools for a purpose
  2. refuse to let computer software automatically embellish their work
  3. treat compiled information from on-line sources or digital data bases like that from other published sources, useful primarily as a guide to locating original records, but not as evidence for a conclusion or assertion
  4. accept digital images or enhancements of an original record as a satisfactory substitute for the original only when there is reasonable assurance that the image accurately reproduces the unaltered original
  5. cite sources for data obtained on-line or from digital media with the same care that is appropriate for sources on paper and other traditional media, and enter data into a digital database only when its source can remain associated with it
  6. always cite the sources for information or data posted on-line or sent to others, naming the author of a digital file as its immediate source, while crediting original sources cited within the file
  7. preserve the integrity of their own data bases by evaluating the reliability of downloaded data before incorporating it into their own files
  8. provide, whenever they alter data received in digital form, a description of the change that will accompany the altered data whenever it is shared with others
  9. actively oppose the proliferation of error, rumor and fraud by personally verifying or correcting information, or noting it as unverified, before passing it on to others
  10. treat people on-line as courteously and civilly as they would treat them face-to-face, not separated by networks and anonymity. accept that technology has not changed the principles of genealogical research, only some of the procedures.

4. Standards For Sharing Genealogy Information With Others

Covers the responsibilities of family historians when sharing information or data with others, an essential part of family history research. Conscious of the fact that sharing information or data with others, whether through speech, documents or electronic media, is essential to family history research and that it needs continuing support and encouragement, responsible family historians consistently:

  1. respect the restrictions on sharing information that arise from the rights of another as an author, originator or compiler; as a living private person; or as a party to a mutual agreement
  2. observe meticulously the legal rights of copyright owners, copying or distributing any part of their works only with their permission, or to the limited extent specifically allowed under the law's "fair use" exceptions
  3. identify the sources for all ideas, information and data from others, and the form in which they were received, recognizing that the unattributed use of another's intellectual work is plagiarism
  4. respect the authorship rights of senders of letters, electronic mail and data files, forwarding or disseminating them further only with the sender's permission
  5. inform people who provide information about their families as to the ways it may be used, observing any conditions they impose and respecting any reservations they may express regarding the use of particular items. Require some evidence of consent before assuming that living people are agreeable to further sharing of information about themselves
  6. convey personal identifying information about living people - like age, home address, occupation or activities - only in ways that those concerned have expressly agreed to
  7. recognize that legal rights of privacy may limit the extent to which information from publicly available sources may be further used, disseminated or published
  8. communicate no information to others that is known to be false, or without making reasonable efforts to determine its truth, particularly information that may be derogatory
  9. are sensitive to the hurt that revelations of criminal, immoral, bizarre or irresponsible behavior may bring to family members.

5. Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet

Stresses that publishing information through Internet Web sites and Web pages shares many similarities with print publishing, and should follow the same rules and considerations. Excellent examples of what should and should not be included. Appreciating that publishing information through Internet websites and web pages shares many similarities with print publishing, considerate family historians:

  1. apply a single title to an entire website, as they would to a book, placing it both in the HTML tag that appears at the top of the web browser window for each web page to be viewed, and also in the body of the web document, on the opening home, title or index page
  2. explain the purposes and objectives of their websites, placing the explanation near the top of the title page or including a link from that page to a special page about the reason for the site
  3. display a footer at the bottom of each web page which contains the website title, page title, author's name, author's contact information, date of last revision and a copyright statement
  4. provide complete contact information, including at a minimum a name and e-mail address, and preferably some means for long-term contact, like a postal address
  5. assist visitors by providing on each page navigational links that lead visitors to other important pages on the website, or return them to the home page
  6. adhere to the NGS "Standards for Sharing Information with Others" regarding copyright, attribution, privacy, and the sharing of sensitive information
  7. include unambiguous source citations for the research data provided on the site, and if not complete descriptions, offering full citations upon request
  8. label photographic and scanned images within the graphic itself, with fuller explanation if required in text adjacent to the graphic
  9. identify transcribed, extracted or abstracted data as such, and provide appropriate source citations
  10. include identifying dates and locations when providing information about specific surnames or individuals
  11. respect the rights of others who do not wish information about themselves to be published, referenced or linked on a website
  12. provide website access to all potential visitors by avoiding enhanced technical capabilities that may not be available to all users, remembering that not all computers are created equal
  13. avoid using features that distract from the productive use of the website, like ones that reduce legibility, strain the eyes, dazzle the vision, or otherwise detract from the visitor's ability to easily read, study, comprehend or print the online publication
  14. maintain their online publications at frequent intervals, changing the content to keep the information current, the links valid, and the website in good working order
  15. preserve and archive for future researchers their online publications and communications that have lasting value, using both electronic and paper duplication.

What do you hope to achieve ?

Genealogy is fundamentally about reclaiming the past for the millions of ordinary people who have otherwise been forgotten. Many are fascinated by social history and don't just want to know the names of those they are descended from, but want to find out as much as possible about the conditions of their everyday lives.

Before you embark on this undertaking, you need to ask yourself what motivates you, because it is this that will determine the goals and objectives you set for yourself and shape the way you use the resources (including the Internet) available to you. Perhaps you just want to trace all your ancestors of one name back as far as possible - this is called a pedigree line - or even extend your research to include all the instances of that name you are able to find. You may have an unusual surname and are interested in tracing its origins and making contact with others who share it.

Perhaps you want to compile a family tree displaying your ancestry back as far as possible. Although it is very unusual to trace any line back beyond the mid-sixteenth century, when records began to be kept in a systematic way, some people have managed to establish links with those living as far back as 1380. Initially, a good goal to set yourself is to try and trace all 16 of your great-great grandparents. This doesn't sound like a lot, but it's quite a challenge, and should take you back to 1837 and the beginning of the UK's General Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

A narrative approach can be very satisfying as well as being a useful way of summarising all the various bits of information one quite quickly accumulates about particular ancestors. Writing up what you find out in a story form also makes your discoveries more accessible to other researchers and family members. The Internet has made publication a viable option for many people and it is surprisingly easy to build your own web page.

A good researcher should never set out with a prejudiced and preconceived idea about what they will find. Besides, one of the more fascinating aspects of genealogy - particularly genealogy on the Internet - is discovering things about your origins of which you had no idea.

Start with what you know

Whatever your motivation, the best way to begin is by writing down everything you and your relatives know (or think you know) about yourselves and the previous generation. Talk to elderly relatives, record their memories, collect names, dates and locations, identify family members in photographs and start to fill in a family checklist. By working backwards one generation at a time in this way you will be able to establish a basic family tree. It is at this point that you can start to use the Internet to help build a more vivid picture. By guiding you towards a variety of sources, which will in turn help you to access more information from more sources, the Internet will help you join together and put flesh on the dry bones of your personal history.

It is important to note that, as far as UK research goes, the Internet cannot help you much at the moment in the search for vital records of deceased ancestors born after the end of the nineteenth century. You will have to rough out a family tree back to at least the turn of the twentieth century using the primary sources available to you before the Internet can be relied upon to help with filling in any gaps. The Internet can, however, help you to locate and make contact with living relatives (before they find you) and I will look at this aspect in due course.

Primary sources and vital records

Your computer and the web are powerful tools to aid your research. And they have the advantage of being available to you at all hours of the day and night. However, there really is no substitute for the diligent, painstaking (and quite often dull and tedious) work of sifting through the "primary sources" that constitute most historical research.

Primary sources are original documents, records and so forth, as opposed to transcriptions (that is copies) or treatments (books, articles, analyses) of those sources. The Internet has very little in the way of primary sources. What it does have, in increasing abundance, are indexes and catalogues and transcriptions, all prone to human error. Even on the websites maintained by major depositories and archives, you must be wary of errors and omissions and can only ever be certain of the veracity of something if you have seen the primary source with your own eyes.

For this reason, most of your genealogical research will take place in the relevant public record offices and libraries, but the Internet can help you to make the best use of the time you spend tracking down and reviewing indexes and registers. By using the copious amounts of information available on-line in an intelligent way you can save hours of fruitless searching and avoid spending money on copies of certificates, for example, that you don't need or that refer to someone else's ancestor.

One of the most useful aspects of on-line research is the ease with which you can discover off-line resources. The Internet can help you to discover the precise locations of records and archives, as well as providing you with information about opening times and contact numbers (including e-mail addresses) for queries. The Genuki site is particularly helpful in this respect. It is organised hierarchically, first by county and then by parish, and has comprehensive links to a great many family history and genealogy societies throughout the British Isles, as well as County Record Offices (CROs) and major national projects relating to archives and records.

Public records - the basics

The nation's principal archive, the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office), Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, is the home of most of our major national documents from the Domesday Book on, and at some point your research will lead you there. It also maintains an excellent website, complete with opening times, guides to the collections (which include military, immigration and emigration records, and many more) and a comprehensive searchable database of its bookshop.

If you go to the site's Genealogy page you will discover indispensable information on researching family history using public records, including the free downloadable Records Information Leaflets on genealogy which are particularly helpful and informative. By spending a few informed minutes online you will be able to save yourself precious time when you eventually visit Kew, by knowing precisely what it is you are looking for and where it can be found.

Civil Registration - England and Wales 1837 to the present day

All birth, marriage and death entries for the surname Ramsdale and its close variants have been extracted and are published on this site.

The indexes to the General Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths for England and Wales from 1837 to the present are available for free searches by members of the public at The National Archives in Kew. To find out about The National Archives visit the "Visit Us" page on The National Archives website. Here you will also be able to access free leaflets telling you how to use the search rooms at The National Archives. If you are unable to visit The National Archives many local libraries hold copies of the indexes.

Once you have found the index entry, birth, marriage and death certificates can be ordered from the The National Archives, for £9.25 and are sent after 14 working days. It is more expensive to have them ready for next-day collection (£23.40). Alternatively, you can request a search of the index at the General Register Office (GRO) in Southport, Merseyside. It will cost you £11 for a three-year search, including the certificate (if they can find one), and £3 for any additional three-year searches.

You should aim to collect birth, marriage and death certificates for each of your direct ancestors as far back as 1837. As you research your family in depth, seek out the certificates pertaining to siblings, too. The more information you gather, the more vivid the picture of the family. Always look for the certificates of any family members born, married or dying near the date of a census, so you have an address to look up on the census.

From a birth certificate you will be able to discover the name of the father and his occupation. You will also have the address of the family home to check on the nearest available census. A marriage certificate gives you slightly more information. It tells you the names, addresses and occupations of the happy couple as well as the names and occupations of their fathers. Witnesses to the marriage are also included and it is worth noting these, as they quite often out to be relatives. You are also given the location of the marriage, providing you with a big clue where to look on parish registers for the rest of the family. A death certificate will tell you the age at death, the cause of death, the occupation of the dead person (or their husband's occupation in the case of women), their address at the time of death and the name, address and a description of the informant, usually a relative.

Census returns

The National Archives also holds copies on microfilm of the population census carried out in the UK every ten years from 1841 to 1891. These are available for free search by members of the public. The National Archives website has a guide to the censuses, which you can read before your visit. Copies of the census returns for each area are also kept at County Record Offices. Ramsdale and variant surname entries extracted from each of the censuses from 1841 to 1901 for all counties in England and Wales are published on this site.

The census returns disclose not only how ancestors earned their livings, but whether they had servants, details about their children and their neighbours from which you can discover useful information about the area in which they lived. Census returns also provide you with clues as to likely marriage dates, birth dates and, after 1841, the birthplaces of ancestors, all of which gives you insight into the way a family might have lived. Once you know where an ancestor lived and what they did, you can go and do more general research about the lives they may have led. Using general search techniques, you can search the web for information about the region they came from and their occupations.

While on the subject of the censuses, it is important to be aware of "strays". These are individuals who crop up on the census, giving their birthplace as somewhere other than the place in which they are recorded as living. In the nineteenth century, many families moved away from the villages with which they had long associations in the search for work and new horizons. Trying to find them on a census return, especially one for a large city, can be more difficult than searching for the proverbial needle. The indexing of "strays", therefore, is a necessity for genealogists. We would otherwise lose ancestors who have moved away from their birthplace, often to locations with which they have no apparent link. Genuki carries a list of strays organised by county - click "UK Census Finding Aids and Indexes". You will also find strays listed by county on the well organised Gendocs pages now hosted by the Genes Reunited website.

In addition, many local family history societies have compiled general indexes to the 1851 census for their area. By linking to their sites, via Genuki, you will be able to access information, which, in turn, will help you to locate your ancestors more easily on the actual census return at The National Archives or County Record Office.

Parish registers

Once you are back before 1837 (and even during the reign of Victoria, particularly if your ancestors remained in one area) in England and Wales, you will need to search the relevant parish registers. These are the records that parish priests were obliged to keep of all the christenings, marriages and burials conducted by them from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. These are normally held at the relevant County Record Offices. You generally have to make an appointment beforehand and sometimes give some indication of what it is you are hoping to search. The Internet can not only help you to track down the most likely location of parish registers, but it can also help you in your search of the registers.

The International Genealogical Index

The Familysearch site has over 300 million names taken from parish registers (mainly baptismal records and some marriages) and other sources - many of them from the UK. This resource, known as the International Genealogical Index (IGI), was started by the Mormons as part of a rolling programme to baptise posthumously as many of their own ancestors as possible before the Day of Judgement. The IGI is an incredible resource, which has been available for more than ten years on microfiche at local family history societies and some libraries and County Record Offices. Since May 24 1999 it has been available to search for free on-line. All RAMSDALE and variant surname entries have been extracted from the IGI and published on this site. All Ramsdale and variant surname entries have been extracted from the IGI and published on the Ramsdale Family Register.

Familysearch can provide you with clues about where to look next for ancestors. When you reach the home page, click on Custom Search and then select IGI from the list of options. Enter information about the individual(s) you are researching and the computer will return a list of "possibles" in batches of up to 75 names per page. Print out the pages for future reference (if asked by your computer, select the "as shown on screen" option), because, particularly if you have an unusual name, the distribution of surnames across the whole country gives you clues as to the most likely location for a particular family's records.

You can select any of the individuals from the IGI for more information on a record, which carry the date of baptism, parents' names and the place of baptism. If you are lucky and find "one of yours", the baptism date and place can help you to quickly locate a birth registration on the General Register Office (GRO) index, or a baptism on the parish register.

The IGI can also help you find marriages in much the same way, returning a record showing the name of the bride and groom, and the date and location of the marriage. I would also use the IGI to conduct a Parent Search, which will return a list of all the children in the database born to the couple specified. To do this you enter the name of the father and at least the mother's first name in the right-hand fields on the search page then select the region and click on Search.

However, a word of warning: not all the transcriptions are accurate. I have found several mistakes when using it, particularly in the way names and places are spelt. I should say, however, that the IGI is quite clever at finding names that are similar to the one you have entered. Where spellings vary, even slightly, this is an important feature. It will also, for instance, look for Johns if you enter Jack, and will include Mary Anns, Marys and Pollys in the same search.

Other online genealogical resources

After 2002 you will be able to search the 1901 census on the Internet - available for a minimum fee of about £5 via the The National Archives website.

The Society of Genealogists is another excellent resource, and its site is full of useful information (including a well-researched on-line publication, Computers in Genealogy). On 2 January 2001 announced the launch of English Origins which provides exclusive Internet access to some of the valuable collections of the Society of Genealogists which relate to England. This material is unavailable online anywhere else. The new site works in much the same way as Scots Origins, but access is for 48 hours not 24. Within this time period, users will be able to view and download 150 records with the option to purchase more 'credits' and time if necessary. A FREE surname search facility allows users to determine whether there are any records that will be of interest to them before committing themselves to the £6 (approximately US $9) search fee. Use the free surname search to see how many records of interest there might be. RAMSDALE entries extracted from these SoG records (1568-1850) are published on the RAMSDALE Family Register.

The Rootsweb site, dedicated to free access to genealogical information via the web, is chiefly US-oriented, but hosts several pages of interest to the European researcher, most of which are only accessible via the Rootsweb server. Chief among these is FreeBMD which is an ongoing volunteer project aimed at uploading (that is putting on the Internet) the General Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths for England and Wales and giving researchers free access.

Researching Scottish ancestry

If you are researching Scottish ancestors you will need to check the main records in the care of the Registrar General in Edinburgh. They have a useful and informative leaflet available on-line which will tell you how to get started and what is available. Scottish certificates are much more informative than English and Welsh ones - they include, for example, the maiden surnames of mothers of the bride and groom on marriage certificates, which is a great boon.

There is a searchable database on the web of all the vital records for Scotland from 1855 to 1898 (deaths to 1924), the old parochial records from 1553 to 1854 and the 1891 census entries, which you can access on payment of a fee. The site is called Scots Origins and it is run by the General Register Office for Scotland and a company called, a specialist in uploading transcripts of vital records to the net. At the time of writing, the fee for access to the database was £6 for 30 page credits, valid for 24 hours, each page credit offering up to 15 search results. You can also order certificates on-line (£10 each in June 2000).

If you don't live in Scotland, I think this service is good value for money. Used in conjunction with the Familysearch site to check dates and locations on the IGI, you can, if you are lucky, go quite a long way through your family line without having to leave home. However, because the database only goes up to 1899, you need to have traced back to the late nineteenth century before the Scots Origins site can help you. The National Archives has a terminal linked to the site, which can trace records up to the twentieth century, for a fee of £4.50 for half an hour.

Death and burial records

Genealogists compiling a family tree attempt to "hatch, match and despatch" each and everyone of their direct line - that is trace and record the births/christenings, marriages, and deaths of individuals and their two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, 32 great-great-great grandparents, 64 great-great-great-great grandparents, and so on. At present, unless you are Scottish, there is little available on the Internet relating to deaths and burials in the UK. The Familysearch website has no burials at all in its database, so this is one area where off-line resources will (unless you are very lucky - or of Scottish descent) be the only route available to you.

One notable exception to this is in the search for ancestors and relatives who died in the two world wars. The Debt of Honour Register is a no-fee searchable database containing the names and other details of 1.7 million Commonwealth (UK and former colonies) soldiers who died in these conflicts. It is compiled by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Other records and sources

In addition to registers of births and baptisms, marriages, and deaths and burials, there are other primary sources that have survived the ages. The best place to find out about these records and their availability is The National Archives website.

Wills and Grants of Administration

The further back you go, wills and Grants of Administration in the case of intestacy (Admons) are often only means you have of establishing the relationships between individuals. They also often provide a more personal insight into the lives of ancestors than some other records.

Since 1858 all wills and Admons proved in England and Wales have been centrally administered and indexes of them can be searched for free at The National Archives and at some CROs. There is a comprehensive guide from the The National Archives on the subject of wills and probate records, which you can download for free. You should read and print out the guide, and take it with you when you visit The National Archives. A copy of every post-1858 will is kept at the Probate Search Room, First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP (020 7936 7000).

Pre-1858, wills in England were proved at one of 300 ecclesiastical courts and it can be difficult tracking them down. The National Archives' series of research leaflets includes an excellent one on probate records, which you can download for free. All Ramsdale wills and Admons from 1383 to 1992 have been extracted and are published on the Ramsdale Family Register.

In Wales, all pre-1858 wills proved locally are kept at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and you can find out all about this resource on its bilingual website.

In Scotland, wills and deeds are to be found at the National Archives of Scotland, General Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YY: e-mail.

In Ireland, quite a lot of wills were among official papers destroyed in 1922, but there are indexes, and these can be found at the National Archives of Ireland - click on Wills and Administrations.

Military records

These are extensive and mostly located at the Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. To find anything useful, you generally need to know your ancestor's name and the regiment they served in, and to have some idea of the period in which they served. The National Archives has prepared several leaflets to help you find military records as part of its Family Fact Sheets.

The Scottish GRO also has some records of service from 1881 to 1959, detailing the births, marriages and deaths of Scottish servicemen and women and some fragments of the War Registers from the Boer War (1899-1902), and the first and second world wars.

Trade directories

All good local reference libraries will have copies of the 19th and 20th century trade directories for their area. These make fascinating reading as well as being an invaluable source of information about ancestors who were in trades or professions or who were private residents. Many local family history societies provide extracts on their websites, and it is worth checking for these via the county links from Genuki.

Maps and gazetteers

Before long, you will feel the need to have a good map of the areas you are researching. Census returns in particular are unwieldy and any knowledge of an area's layout can prove hugely rewarding. You can find a list of Ordnance Survey map references to help you locate the correct map in the Landranger series at the OS website and you can also download sections of OS maps. You can find UK street maps at Genealogy Free Resources and a searchable database enabling you to find street maps at various scales by place name, London street, national grid reference or postcode at

Historical maps can also be invaluable and there are reproductions of nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps available for reasonable sums. You can find a catalogue of them and an on-line order form.

Genuki again has very good links to other sources of maps - many of which are featured on the various county and parish pages - visit their searchable database of places as entered in the 1891 census.

Personal web pages

If you want to find out whether a relative you have lost touch with, but who may be able to help you with your research is on-line, you can try looking for them through an e-mail address database such as or through Yahoo!'s People Search.

You may be able to find relatives simply by typing your family name into a search engine some of which are genuinely informative. Cyndi's List has a page of links to personal web pages.

Databases of names

You can also look for relatives using some of the databases that are available on-line. These work just like those lists of names at the back of magazines, such as Family History Monthly and Family Tree Magazine. The most comprehensive, for UK researchers, are the regional surname lists hosted by Genuki which are listed by county. Here you will find links to all the listings of different surnames that are being compiled nationwide, alongside the names and e-mail addresses of the researchers. The GenForum site contains the names of people (mostly from the US) who are looking for ancestors, and if you think a branch of your family may have emigrated it is worth looking there.

Genuki will also help you to make contact with local family history societies where you stand an excellent chance of finding distant cousins who are still living and researching in the areas your ancestors originated from.

As well as the Guild of One-Name Studies, Rootsweb has a large mailing list for surnames. You simply select the relevant letter of the alphabet, choose your surname from the list that appears and look for it among the assortment of databases. The Ramsdale Family Register is registered with the Guild of One-Name Studies as the subject of a Category B one-name study into all world-wide occurrences of the surname.

Ancestral files and Gedcoms

A number of people have published the results of their research and you may be lucky enough to discover a family tree already compiled and featuring some of your ancestors. When using the IGI on the Familysearch site, for example, you may notice that an ancestor comes up with a special button and link attached to his or her individual record, indicating there is an ancestral file in the LDS Church database. Ancestral files are collections of genealogical information collated from pedigree charts and family group sheets submitted to the LDS Church over the past 20-odd years. The information has not been verified in any way, so, needless to say, you should use it only as a basis for your own research and be sure to check the contents against the primary sources.

You will come across the term Gedcom a great deal as you penetrate deeper into the world of e-genealogy. Genealogical Data Communications is the standard file format for genealogists, enabling them to export their research databases, the contents of family charts and family group sheets, and share them with others. Gedcoms appear on your computer screen as a chronological list of names and dates written in plain text, so they can be easily read on a number of different machines and systems.

You make Gedcoms with special genealogical software. You can find out more by visiting the principal hosting project for Gedcoms, Worldconnect, at Rootsweb. On this site you can find out how to upload Gedcoms and make use of the search feature to visit the Gedcoms uploaded by other researchers. There are more than 10 million names on this free site.

Several commercial sites offer a similar service, but they levy a subscription charge and some of them retain copyright in your research and prevent you from posting it elsewhere. The Genserv site carries more than 12,000 Gedcoms, which you can search for a small fee once you have submitted your own Gedcom.

You can try out Gedcom software for free at the Brother's Keeper site, at the Cumberland Family site or via Kindred Konnections. The Familysearch site has its Personal Ancestral File (PAF) software available for free download, which can be used on both Macs and PCs. Dave Wilks has put together a very informative FAQ page on Gedcoms.

Discussion groups, listservs, newsgroups, messageboards and chatrooms

The internet offers a number of ways to network and make contact with other genealogists, sharing tips, research and information.

E-mail discussion groups, or listservs, dedicated to just about every conceivable genealogical topic, are legion. They all have their own rules, which you should find out about before subscribing and you should also spend some time reading the e-mail lists to see if the discussions are likely to engage you.

To subscribe to an e-mail list you send an e-mail to the manager of the list indicating your wish to become a member, entering the word "subscribe" in the Subject field. The message should just consist of the list name and your name. If you want to unsubscribe you send a similar message with "unsubscribe" in the subject field of your e-mail.

Rootsweb carries a huge collection of mailing lists. You can browse the list and after registering you can access old messages in the archive.

Newsgroups, sometimes also referred to as messageboards, are electronic forums, wherein users post messages, called "articles", to one another. You can find out more about them by using the newsgroup command on Outlook Express, Netscape Messenger or NewsXpress. There are a vast number of topics covered of interest to genealogists - for example, adoptees, Irish genealogists, Jewish genealogists and so on - and there is also a newsgroup dedicated to British and Irish researchers who are just beginning their research.

To search for newsgroups use the Newsgroup option on your search engine, or visit Deja's Usenet Archive (recently acquired by Google) which lets you search newsgroup articles on genealogy topics. Genuki also lists some county-based forums on its county pages.

Chatrooms allow you to interact with other people in real time, like having a telephone conversation on the Internet. You need to have reasonable typing skills. The Liszt IRC Chat Directory is very easy to use and has a large selection of chat channels for you to search.


A system of codes and conventions governing behaviour has evolved on the Internet. The rules are quite basic and do not defy the codes of practice most of us adhere to in our off-line lives.

Always acknowledge any help you receive from someone you contact over the net, and don't ask for help with anything you could easily find out for yourself. Try to reciprocate whenever you can, or at least make the offer. Most genealogists are helpful souls by nature and simple gestures, such as offering to look up a birth in the GRO index next time you are going, are much appreciated.

When taking part in a discussion group, forum or chatroom, try to stick to the point. If you don't, you might find your fellow members becoming more than a tad irritated. Make sure the subject line of your contribution gives others a good indication of what you are writing about. Don't be vague, but don't bang on too much, either.

When replying using the Reply to Author feature on your e-mail programme, make sure you delete all the previous messages irrelevant to this particular communication.

Use a standard font - such as Arial - as your default setting for e-mail messages. Fancy fonts may not be readable to other computers and can even cause systems to crash. Similarly, the stationery options that come with some Internet email software do not always carry to other computers and, being image-based, may often be blocked.

Take sensible precautions when replying to messages or in chatrooms. Do not give out personal details until you are confident you can trust the other person. Never, ever send credit card information over the Internet unless you are on a secure site. You can tell a site is secure when the URL starts https:// and a padlock icon appears in the bottom left-hand corner of your screen.

Publishing on the Internet

Building a web page of your own is a good way to enable long-lost relatives to find you, and it is surprisingly easy. There is a vast amount of information on the subject available through your computer, including probably everything you need to know in one of the software bundles that came with your word processing package. If not, there is good selection of suitable software packages reviewed at Top Ten Reviews.

Cyndi's List has an exhaustive collection of links and topics pages under the title of Cyndi's Genealogy Homepage Construction Kit and you should be able to find everything you could ever wish to know there. Yahoo! carries a page in its Guides and Tutorials section which is very informative. and you should read Peter Christian's two extremely good and easy to understand articles on web page creation, written for the Society of Genealogists on-line publication, Computers in Genealogy.

You don't have to know Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) in order to write a web page as many programmes can translate your files for you. But if you want to find out more The Bare Bones Guide to HTML is a very good basic explanation with lots of links to other web page construction sites.

Once you have built your page you will want to upload it to the Internet. You may have some free web space as part of your package with your Internet Service Provider. You can take advantage of the free web space offered by Rootsweb but I would recommend registering using one or more of the free url submission websites listed at Free url submission for your website if you want other search engines to be able to find you, as some do not run on the Rootsweb pages. You will also need a web address and there are several places where you can register your name at low cost - try UK Reg.