Research Guide by David Tippey

Researching Your Family History

Getting started

The aim of this site is to provide you with access to the research tools you need to create your family history.

Using information learned from your relatives, you can search for births, marriages and deaths and order certificates of these events from the GRO. The birth certificate will give you an exact date and place of birth, the father’s name and occupation, and the mother's maiden name. The marriage certificate will give the date and place of the marriage, the forenames and surnames of the couple, and their ages (before 1855 it will only show either ‘full’ if over 21 or ‘minor’ if under). It also lists the residence and profession of the father plus the names of the marriage witnesses.

You can then use these facts to search the census. Search for the known family members and you will often find the whole family listed with their ages (using SmartSearch™). This information can be used to search for further births and marriages, so you can work your way back through the generations. The census will allow you to work back down the tree and help you to find any living relatives.

See our paleography/handwriting section for help with interpreting difficult writing.

It’s helpful to record the information you find in a family history program such as RootsMagic, which will enable you to print trees and create a family history.

As you work back, ask relatives if they can provide stories or information about particular family members.


RootsUK houses a collection of essential records for your family research, with the resources being especially useful for investigating the lives of your 19th and 20th century ancestors. In this introductory guide we take a brief look at each area of research that you can carry out using the resources of the RootsUK website, finding out what the records are and how to use them.

The RootsUK online service offers a wide array of material, but its main strengths lie in the accurate census transcripts, combined with access to the complete General Register Office BMD indexes. These are what have particularly attracted many subscribers, although there is also other material to explore, for example the 2005 London Electoral Roll.

Follow the links below to find out more about the records that can be accessed by members of RootsUK.


Smart Search Logo

SmartSearch™ is a way of searching the birth, marriage and death data for 1984 onwards. It utilises an intelligent search system to perform a reverse look-up, and allows you to search for:

SmartSearch™ can also be used in census transcripts from 1851 onwards to:

The Census

Census Page Example

The census is a unique historical document, invaluable for both personal genealogical research and for those with a broader interest in social history. Taken every 10 years, the first comprehensive census was completed in 1841, when a team of enumerators was specially employed to count the population, and in particular to list all members in households and institutions. Effectively, the census is a snapshot in time- it gives you great insight into your ancestors’ lives, and directions for your research that you never knew existed. RootsUK have census information from 1841 to 1901.

What is the census?

The census is a statistical exercise undertaken to inform the government, counting and recording facts about the population. You could say that the first large scale census taken in modern history was Domesday and there have been others over the years, such as Muster rolls, taken to see what able bodied men and weapons were available for war.

A census as we understand it now has been carried out every decade since 1801. The only exception was 1941 when other things seemed more important. It is not intended for family historians to use, but as a government exercise in finding out statistics about the population, to enable them to make informed decisions on a wide variety of topics including housing, transport and food, and to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the economic structure of the country.

What does it tell us?

Census Example Page

From 1801-1831 purely statistical data was collected with no usable genealogical material, however the 1841 census introduced records with some personal information for the first time.

The usefulness of the 1841 census is limited to family historians because it didn’t accurately record people’s ages, or where they were born, only noting if they were born in the same county or not.

The amount of information collected was extended in 1851 and from 1851 to 1901 there are only minor changes to the information recorded on the census form. The principal information you can expect to find is:

Possible pitfalls

Many people don’t realise that the census page images we see are actually transcripts of the household census forms, the details were copied into the books by the enumerators. This provides several opportunities for mistakes to occur, firstly as they tried to decipher the writing on the household forms, which were later destroyed. Illiterate or barely literate ancestors may not have understood the form or even know with any accuracy the answer to the questions. They may have been suspicious of this government prying into their affairs and been less than honest in their answers. Just as today, a certain percentage manage to avoid being included, either deliberately or accidentally. With the possibility of errors and misinformation creeping in from the very outset, you should always use your own judgment when assessing the information from the census, it may be completely accurate, but you will often find discrepancies.

Using the census

The biggest problem for the family historian is actually finding the entries they need amongst this vast collection of data. Unless your ancestors never moved more than a mile from their origins, some sort of finding aid is required.

At first the only help available was an index to places, to help you locate the relevant section to manually search page by page, and for larger towns and cities a street index. Family history societies then started to index their areas and make some name indexes available. These didn’t make a very large impression though and most of the census remained unindexed until the joint project to transcribe and index the 1881 census took place and showed what could be done. The upsurge in the use of home computers and internet have brought a complete new set of tools to the aid of the family historian, and an ever growing demand for more information to become accessible online.

British Data Archive have made the census page images available on CD, for everyone to use on their own home computers at any time. This itself was a great improvement, as only a couple of years ago you would probably have to travel the country to get only a couple of hours access. Having produced the images for everyone to use, the next logical step was to provide those images with the indexing necessary to make them easy to use, and with this aim in mind, RootsUK and TheGenealogist was set up.

Paleography (how to deal with difficult handwriting)


On many of the census pages the handwriting is hard to read. If you are having difficulty in reading a name the first thing to do is look at other entries to get a guide to how the author writes various letters. It can take a while to “get your eye in” as to how a particular enumerator writes. First names are more readily recognised and so gives a basis as to what letter shapes an enumerator uses.

When trying to interpret a line you should look at the line above and follow any descenders down and try to imagine the line without the clutter of descenders from the line above.

If a name is particularly difficult you will need to break it down into a range of names from the possible letters.

As a general guide the following rules apply:

If you can’t distinguish a forename don’t forget to look at the column the age is written in to check the gender of the person and their position in the household: “Dau” Daughter, “Son” etc.

Consider all the information given about the family to verify you have found the person you are looking for. Don’t forget: early census material may show a different surname spelling to a later one; as literacy improved these variations reduced.

Working with the census

Census transcripts have all of the important fields transcribed, providing a greater range of search options to locate your ancestors. All the information can be seen without downloading the page first. When you have located an entry it can then be checked against the original page image.

Anatomy of the Census Page

Not every piece of information is obvious to the casual observer, so to make sure that you extract every useful piece of information from the census page read on:

The front of each census enumeration book contains a standard section explaining how to complete the records. More useful is the page describing the streets and places recorded in that book, as they often provide clues to the route the enumerator took, often helping you locate a property. Large streets may fill several books which may not be continuous, and the routes often detour up side streets and alleys. The books also contain a chart which the enumerator filled in with the figures he totalled at the bottom of each enumeration page. These statistics are the ones which could be easily collated for early release to government.

Every page holds the details of up to 25 individuals divided over a number of full or partial households. Entries do not always include full addresses, so knowing a specific address for your ancestors doesn't always help. The page header contains information about the general location and includes area information on the district, ward or township, the enumerator filled out whatever information was appropriate. An odd page may be missing or torn, but generally we have very complete records for most places.

How the page is numbered

Always record the full reference to an entry, even if you make copies for your files, so that it can be found again by anyone consulting your research.

The full reference consists of four sections, a Class number, Piece number, Folio number and page number.

A typical reference will look like this and will enable you to identify a single side of one page in an enumeration book:-

RG13 / 51 / 122 / 21

RG13: Class number The National Archives class reference number, here indicating the year 1901. It appears with the Piece number on a label on every image.

51: Piece number The enumeration books are bound into volumes containing up to 200 sheets for archiving. The bound volume is referred to as a Census Piece and given a unique number. Each book page holds details of up to 25 individuals and a single enumeration book contains 20- 40 sheets.

122: Folio number As each book making up a Piece has identical pre-printed page numbers and there can be many books bound in a complete Piece, page numbers reoccur. To uniquely identify every sheet making up a Piece, it is stamped with another number in the top right hand corner, next to the page number.

21: Page number As the Piece and folio numbers are unique, it is not really necessary to record the page number. The combination of the Piece and Folio numbers provide reference to a single sheet containing no more than 50 people, so the page number only narrows it down to one side of that sheet, or 25 people.

The census information

It may appear obvious and some columns are self explanatory, but others warrant a little explanation. Here we look at the last available census the 1901 which has a little more detail than previous forms, but the principal categories of information are the same.

Other marks

About Census Indexes

Whether using census images on CD, microfilm or online, indexing is the key to productivity, helping you to find the entries you want quickly. However using poor and inaccurate indexing just leads to frustration, so the quality of the indexes is paramount. Recognising this, RootsUK have used accurate indexes from their sister site, The Genealogist, to create a searchable census transcript, which is linked to online census page images. Below is some information on Census Indexes.

Creating census name indexes

RootsUK's sister site, The Genealogist, began writing name indexes as a volunteer project when the first census CD sets were released, but it was soon realised that the volunteers on their own wouldn’t be able to create all the necessary indexes in a short enough time scale, as it was a mammoth task which rapidly grew as more census CD sets were released.

So a strategy was devised to speed up the process, whilst still retaining the necessary control over the project to ensure that the end results would be of the highest possible accuracy.

The original census transcription is now being carried out by a carefully selected specialist company in India. Transcripts done abroad have come in for much criticism in the past, so the company were supplied with specially designed databases and tools to help them. Quality control checks are carried out on each batch of transcribed data as it arrives in the UK, with substandard batches being rejected for reworking.

Meanwhile an elaborate, multi stage checking and correction system was set up at the The Genealogist's UK headquarters. Custom written checking and comparison software examines the data, looking for any unusual entries and flagging any that look suspicious. Their in-house team of transcribers then check and correct the flagged entries where necessary. Only the Forename, Surname and Ages are checked to begin with, so that the Name Indexes can be released as quickly as possible for subscribers to use.

Using Census Indexes

Whether using film at the local library or census images on CD, the surname indexes will speed up the process by helping you locate the entries you want to view.

The index supplies the Piece and often the Folio number for the page containing the name you are looking for, so you can quickly locate the required page on film. You will also find the full reference to enable you to locate the exact page on the British Data Archive CD image sets.

If you are not sure what Piece and Folio numbers are, take a look at the Anatomy of a Census Page section.

Accuracy and omissions

Remember that the enumeration books themselves are only a transcript of the individual household census forms, so the enumerator may have transcribed the information incorrectly in the first place or the information may simply have been wrong. Also some people managed to miss being enumerated at all, whilst others manage to be in two places at once. However, to help find these awkward entries that have been misrecorded, an ability to use wildcard searches, or to look for nicknames and surname variants is used.

BMD Index - Births, Marriages and Deaths

Woman with baby

Civil Registration was introduced in 1837 to record Births, Marriages and Deaths, which previously hadn't been centrally registered. Like the census, its introduction had much to do with monitoring the growth and age profile of the country's population.

The General Registry Office was in charge of collecting and collating this data and they created quarterly indexes to Birth, Marriage and Death registrations. Registration certificates are a key resource in family history research: you cannot view the original register entries, but you can purchase copies of the certificates. The GRO indexes are used to locate the references necessary to order certificates, and these can now be found at the Family Records Centre.

The GRO's indexes are sometimes still called the St Catherine's Indexes, after the building they lived in for many years, and it's not long ago that you would have to spend hours winding rolls of microfilm or navigating fiche, to search just a few years looking for a single entry.

Commencing with the introduction of Civil Registration in 1837 and running up to the present day, the indexes enable us to locate the dates of family events and purchase the certificates necessary to carry out our research. Now the BMD indexes are fully searchable online, you can achieve in a day what may have taken you months or even years previously. Now that the GRO provide online certificate ordering, the whole process can be carried out quickly, without leaving your home. The only delay to your research is the few days waiting for the post to arrive.

What they provide

Although the certificates themselves provide a wealth of knowledge, the indexes provide very little, just an Event, Name, Year, Quarter and Page number. You may also find the reported age at death, the surname of the spouse or a mother's maiden name on later entries.

Civil Registration was introduced in 1837, previously the only records were the parish records kept by the church. Civil Registrations are a little patchy in the early years, especially if you are looking at births because initially registration was voluntary.

Why buy certificates?

Some researchers are content with just finding the reference in the GRO indexes, recording the "M Y Ancestor" was born in the 3rd quarter of 1897, married the 1st quarter 1932 ...etc. Purchasing certificates can be expensive if you buy them all, but although you may not wish to purchase them for every child for example, you should purchase at least a representative sample for each family, as well as those purchased to try and solve particular problems.

Certificates contain a wealth of extra information related to each event, the index reference only provides an approximate date, and even with unusual names you can never be certain. For instance birth certificates can show how a family moved around a town, possibly indicating the family's wealth and social status at the time. A marriage certificate can provide both spouse's father's names and occupations as well as the actual place and date of the marriage, plus their ages and addresses at the time of marriage.

Finding certificate references

The full reference necessary to purchase a certificate consists of the Registration District; Year; Quarter; Volume number and the Page number. These references apply only when you order certificates from the GRO, if you apply at the relevant local office, the registrar there will have a different system. They can make use of the year and quarter information you supply, but will have to look up the entry in their own index. You will also need to know the name of the church in the case of a marriage, as they tend to be kept separately. In a large town or city with many churches this can be a problem, which can be overcome by ordering the certificate direct from the GRO whose indexes are amalgamated.

BMD Index Data 1837-2005

The first port of call for your research should be the Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes.

Using the information gleaned from your relatives you can search for births, marriages and deaths and order certificates of these events from the GRO (General Register Office).

The Births, Marriages and Deaths section of RootsUK offers complete coverage of the GRO Indexes for England & Wales 1837-2005. Originally theses indexes were only available as name indexed images for 1837-1984 & transcripts from 1984-2005.

We're currently transcribing the BMD Indexes, which we will integrate into our SmartSearch technology, allowing you to find potential children from a marriage, and vice versa, you can also jump from one person's marriage record to the spouse's record.

So far the SmartSearch is included for Births between 1837 and 2005 & Marriages between 1837 and 2005 & Deaths between 1984 and 2005. You can search for a record using a name, area or date. You can also use the partner's name to search for a marriage, e.g. searching for John Smith marrying Jane.

Early indexes contain just the name and reference, but extra information was later added to help locate the correct individual. The Age at Death was included in the Death indexes from 1866 and from 1912 the Surname of the Spouse was added to the Marriages and the Maiden name of the Mother to Births.

Ordering certificates

Copies of Birth, Marriage or Death certificates for England or Wales can be ordered online direct from the GRO website:

Simply follow the instructions on the GRO website, providing the necessary information and the GRO Index reference you have found in the indexes. This is the year, quarter and district, usually accompanied by a volume number and page reference, but later records may simply have an Entry number. The GRO require you to supply more information in the application for events from the last 50 years.

The Birth certificate will give you date and place of birth, full name and maiden surname of the mother, forename(s) and sex of the child the informant's name, address and relationship to the child, full name and occupation of the father if married to the mother (or if he attended with the mother and signed the registration entry) from 1969, the place of birth of both parents.

The Marriage certificate will give you date and place of marriage, marital status of the bride and groom whether by banns, licence or certificate, current address and occupation of the bride and groom, names and ages of the bride and groom names and occupations of their fathers ('full age' indicates that the person was over 21) names of witnesses.

The Death certificate would give you name of the deceased occupation, or the name and occupation of the husband, if a married or widowed woman date and place of death name, address and family relationship if any of the informant, given age date and place of birth, usual address and maiden name if a married or widowed woman (but only from 1 April 1969) cause(s) of death.

You can then use these facts to search the census. Search for the known family members and you will often find the whole family listed with their ages (using our family button). This information can be used to search for further births and marriages, so you can work your way back through the generations. The census will allow you to work back down the tree and help you to find any living relatives.

Additional features


The Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes featured on are incorporated into the SmartSearch. Several searches based on the results you have already located can be performed with just one click, for instance, you can find potential children from a marriage, and vice versa, you can also jump from one person's marriage record to their partner's record. So far the SmartSearch is included for Births between 1837 and 2005 and Marriages between 1837 and 2005. You can search for a record using a name, area or date. You can also use the partner's name to search for a marriage, e.g. searching for John Smith marrying Jane.

From the Age at Death it can automatically list the Birth index pages likely to contain their birth. Of course this only works with entries for males or spinsters, and reported ages are often inaccurate, but the feature can save you time and effort.

Surname Mapping

The Surname Distribution Mapping tool has been applied to the BMD data. This enables you to map surname densities onto a county map of England and Wales, often with interesting results. This is colour coded, according to the numbers of events present, providing a visual display of surname registration densities across the counties for different periods in time. As well as the visual representation, a table provides an accurate count for each county.

Other resources

2005 London Electoral Roll

Together with the 1984-2005 BMD, the electoral roll for London in 2005 is an extremely useful people-finding tool; carrying the name and address of everyone old enough to be entitled to vote. The electoral roll is updated every year with the personal information given by prospective voters to the Electoral Registration Office.

Enter a name to receive search results listing name, nationality, elector’s reference, and full address details including postcode. The database covers all districts in London, helping you locate old friends and neighbours, relatives and missing persons throughout the capital. An advanced search will allow you to enter more search criteria, including address and postcode.