How to trace your family tree

King, smuggler, lifeboat hero – what do you know about your ancestors? We’ve enlisted genealogist Laura Berry to give you seven easy ways to discover your family history
RNLI heritage photographs

Imagine you’re a detective, with clues readily available from people around you and at the touch of a button. It’s that easy to get started on researching your family tree.

Professional Genealogist Laura Berry is an expert, an archive researcher and an author. Like many, she was first inspired to research her own family history by chatting to her relatives. ‘It’s the best place to start. I remember speaking to my great grandma. And she remembered her grandfather, born in 1850, a cobbler from Hoyland.’

So what prompts people to research their family tree? Laura says: ‘It’s a combination of curiosity and wanting to understand how they’ve got to where they are themselves. You can connect with the past to understand the present. People are looking for a sense of belonging.’ 

If you don’t have family to talk to, you can still easily gather information. More and more records are now digitised and available online. Laura enthuses: ‘There are so many resources out there. So much has been kept – you can find out the intricate details of the lives of ordinary people.’

You just have to know where to look.

Genealogist Laura Berry

Photo: Laura Berry

Laura Berry’s simple guide to researching your family tree

1. Ask yourself what you know already

You can start straight away! Grab a pen and paper. Write everything down as you remember it. Sketch out your family tree, with names and dates – birth, marriage and death. It’s OK to leave gaps; you can check the details later.

2. Talk to your family

Ask your family what they remember. Even if you haven’t got older relatives, speak to any siblings or cousins. If you don’t have family around, there are plenty of other ways to get started.

3. Dig out your old photos

Rifle through any old drawers and boxes for photos and letters. Look on the back for names, places and dates.

4. At the touch of a button

Verify as much information as possible with documents. You’ll find birth, marriage and death certificates online, many dating back to 1837. And there are census records online from as far back as 1841.

You can get lots of free information at gro.gov.uk and freebmd.org.uk. Try genuki.org.uk for the UK and Ireland, and RootsWeb for making connections with researchers near and far. Plus, look out for 14-day trials at findmypast.co.uk and ancestry.co.uk

5. Spend a little money

There’s no need to spend a fortune, but you will get more information from gro.gov.uk if you pay a little for a duplicate of a certificate. Don’t skimp on this, or you may well waste time researching the wrong family name. You can also pay a little to access the British newspaper archive.

6. Get local help

You can enrich your family history by visiting local archives. This is especially useful for records before 1837 – but more and more are being digitised. Each county has a local record office and it’s well worth a visit. Speak to the local archivist there. Family history societies can help too.

7. Walk in their footsteps

Visit the places where your ancestors lived, at home or abroad. There’s something special about that. See their landscape, walk down their street or by their house or place of worship.

Isabel's fundraising outfits

Photo: Alex Doig

Isabel's lifesaving family history inspired her own fundraising outfit in 2016

Five generations of lifeboat heroes

Isabel Taylor’s family has discovered five generations of lifeboat heroes and counting.

‘My family’s featured in Lifeboat magazine quite a bit over the years – medal winners and fundraisers. Among others, there’s William Henry Baker who joined the crew in 1883 and Mary Taylor, my grandma, whom you might know as Lifeboat Mary. She fundraised for 79 years from 1935.

‘It’s all about making connections. I’m amazed how many people – even inland – have a connection to the RNLI. A link to the past and to the RNLI’s history is a really good thing.

‘Through the RNLI archives I found out how many medals my family has won and how many lives they’ve saved. We’ve worked out that, between all of us, we’ve clocked up 349 years of service to the RNLI. And the youngest generation are already Storm Force members.

‘It’s very interesting finding out about your relatives in the RNLI; it makes you feel part of something bigger. I’m really proud.’

Richard Beard and his brothers

Photo: Richard Beard

Precious early memories of Nicky (left) who drowned when he was 9, with Richard (right) and his other brothers Tim (top) and Jem (bottom)

The Day That Went Missing

Richard Beard was researching more recent RNLI history for a book he was writing – The Day That Went Missing – about his little brother, Nicky. 

‘In 1978 my brother Nicky drowned in the sea off the coast of Cornwall. He was 9 and I was 11, and for nearly 40 years I deliberately blocked out most of the memories of that day. I knew that the lifeboat had been called out from Port Isaac, and when I finally became interested in researching what had really happened, RNLI volunteers searched through the archives and dug out this simple log: 1978 Aug. 18 Recovered the body of a bather.

‘I visited the lifeboat station at Port Isaac. I made contact with former RNLI crewman Ted Childs, who still lived in the village and had been in the lifeboat called out to my brother in 1978. My meeting with Ted, who recalled the day clearly, was one of the most moving and rewarding outcomes of my research.’

What's your story?

Uncover your lifeboat family history by going to our Lifeboat Magazine Archive. The magazine archives go as far back as 1852 when The Life-boat Journal was first published. It’s now been digitised and you can search it online for your family history and more.

Simply type your surname into the search box on the Lifeboat Magazine Archive and check out the results.

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