How to research your British family history

Last updated on March 13th, 2021

1. Start with what you know!

Common sense obviously says to start with what you know. That is, speak with members of your family, particularly older members, to see what records may exist, and whether anyone in the family has looked into your family history (“genealogy”) before.

I was lucky enough find that my grandfather had looked in this, and traced back to the mid 1800’s already. I also was able to get all the records he had, which include random family letters and photos, which I went through in search of information!

2. British Census Records

There are census records every 10 years in the UK, since 1841. These record the households across the UK and basic information on the individuals within them.

I always use these as the primary source of information, as once you know the name of a person, rough age and location, a census search becomes possible. There are lots of online sources where you can search these records. I would recommend the below sources (using the FREE functionality only, there is no need to pay for an expensive subscription at this stage in your search!).
Personal favourite, this site is clear and concise
Best known site, but not so clear in my view
Free site, but still has work to complete transcribing the census records

Your aim in using the census should be to identify where your ancestor was every 10 years of their life, and who they were with. A census search can help identify unknown children or parents for your family tree.


a. Historical censuses were handwritten. As a result electronic means of searching censuses are based on intepretation of someone’s handwriting, and may be inaccurate in places.

b. Early censuses were written at a time when literacy was not what it is today. It is also possible that poor literacy (of town clerks taking the census, or individuals providing input) means the spelling of names may change between censuses (e.g. BEACH may become BEECH or even PEACH or REACH).

c. On early censuses particularly, it is possible for people to be missing, either deliberately (e.g. seeing it as an invasion of privacy) or accidently. It is also possible that they will have lied about their age in particular, so be flexible in your searches, and don’t be surprised if an individual appears to have avoided the census on multiple occasions.

3. BMD Records (Birth, Marriage and Death records)

Having identified key ancestors in your British Genealogy from census record searches, I would recommend looking at key event records.

In the UK Births, Marriages and Deaths are key events which the British have had to record since late 1837. There are Birth, Marriage and Death indexes for the whole of the UK, created for each quarter of each year. These have been translated by most online genealogy sites, and are freely searchable on most sites.
Personal favourite, this site is clear and concise
Best known site, but not so clear in my view
Free, and good provides free access to original images of indexes

It is worth noting that BMD records will confirm key events, the indexes do however only have basic information. When you need further information it is well worth ordering certificates for one of your ancestors. Certificates have to be obtained from the UK government General Register Office (GRO), and cost approximately £8 each (at time of writing). More details here:

4. Council Records/Local area search

If you’re still searching for information, I would recommend finding out what information exists for the region of the UK that you are looking into. Each country in the UK is broken into counties, and these each hold records. I have personally visited the local office in Dover, Kent as part of my research, and found it fasinating and helpful to see some of the records that only exist in hardcopy.

I took the opportunity to also visit a family grave and key properties in our history. Don’t forget to arrange meetings in advance as council offices are only open to genealogy searches by appointment.

Check out whether you can get free subscription access to pay sites

I’m certainly not going to run down the idea of getting a subscription to one of the major genealogy websites, but I can confirm that my local library provides free subscription level access to and

It’s worth checking your local library, as you may have a similar deal which can save you money on a subscription.

Adblocker detected

Please bear in mind that ad blockers prevent this website covering its costs.

If you find this site useful, please consider supporting me by whitelisting this site, or making a £1 / $1 donation.