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Find your family fortunes... for FREE!

Have you recently taken up family history? Karen Clare details the next steps and must visit websites that won't cost you a penny

The funny thing about doing your family history is, the more you discover, the more you want to find out. There’s so much more to it than acquiring a list of names, places and dates. To really strike gold tracing your ancestors, you need to start putting meat on the bones of the dry facts.

If you’ve caught the genealogy bug, you’re likely to have already grilled as many relatives as you can for information. You’ve probably bought BMD certificates and family history website subscriptions, begun following your ancestors down the decades using census records 1911 to 1841, and started sketching out a basic family tree.

You may have also hit a few snags along the way, which family history enthusiasts rather intimidatingly call ‘brick walls’, but this is actually where the fun starts.

You’ll soon be poking your nose deep into your ancestors’ business, learning about their schooling, home and working lives, war work or service, secrets and lies. Everybody, whether simple farm labourer or High Court judge, has a story worth telling- and you could be the one to do it.

Useful websites

You’ll be amazed at the kinds of records available online, with many on the main subscription websites such as Ancestry.co.uk, TheGenealogist.co.uk, MyHeritage.com, Findmypast.co.uk and ScotlandPeople.gov.uk, but the good news is that there are plenty more websites to explore that won’t cost you a penny.

Here are five popular free websites to take your genealogy journey further:

1. FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org)

FamilySearch is one of the world’s biggest family history websites. Records are constantly being digitised and added to the site, and one-to-one online help is also available. Articles, research guidance and online classes make this a great starting point for beginners. Some records are searchable or browsable on the site; others may be linked to a commercial genealogy website, or you may have to visit a FamilySearch Family History Centre (you’ll find these listed on the website)

2. Free UK Genealogy (www.freeukgenealogy.org.uk)

This website is the jumping-off point for free access to family history records for England and Wales. Search birth, marriage and death (BMD) indexes from around the country at FreeBMD.org, census data at FreeCEN.org and parish (local church) registers at FreeREG, with new records being added by volunteer indexers all the time. The BMD project covers records for England and Wales, and the sister sites FreeCEN (census data) and FreeREG (parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials that can take you back to before civil registration began in 1837 in England and Wales).

FreeBMD allows you to search records from the General Register Office (GRO) from 1837 to 1992. Once you’ve found the birth, marriage or death index entry you’re looking for, simply note its reference number and you can send for the certificate from the GRO (www.gro.gov.uk).

3. The National Archives (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk)

Discover which archives are held where in the UK with the National Archives website, which offers a gateway to 1000 years of documents held in 2500 archives around the UK, back to the Domesday Book. There are descriptions of more than 32 million records, nine million of which can be accessed online. Categories include Wills and probate, military, immigration and emigration, census, health and court records. You can search by archive name, keyword or category in the Discovery catalogue. The site’s research guides are also hugely useful for explaining how and where to find records, both on and offline.

4. Cyndi’s List (www.cyndislist.com/uk)

The UK and Ireland version of Cyndi’s List is part of a US-based website run by genealogy enthusiast Cyndi Howells. While at first glance the site may seem overwhelming, the thousands of links to UK family tree websites are divided into regional categories, with the option to search alphabetically and by topic, too.

5. Family Tree (www.family-tree.co.uk)

Explore the many different aspects of the hobby, with how-to guides aimed at beginners and more experienced researchers, printable charts, plus all the latest news and opinion from the family history community on the Family Tree magazine website. You can also find out about Family Tree Live, the new family history show taking place at London’s historic Alexandra Palace this spring.

Digging deeper

To unearth stories about your own ancestors, it’s well worth exploring old newspapers. Stern great-uncle Albert, whose photo hung in your granny’s hallway in your childhood, could have been mentioned in anything from a local bonny baby show to a murder trial.

The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) – also at Findmypast – covers 200 years of history through the pages of hundreds of UK newspapers, or you can search 15 million articles on the free National Library of Wales’ Welsh Newspapers Online site: (https://newspapers.library.wales/).

There are many more ways you can fill in the details of your ancestors’ lives, especially with so much material now online. You can learn about their hardships in the workhouse, their occupations, the ships they emigrated on, the battles they fought. Embark on a house history or surname study, visit local archives and museums to learn about their communities, or reunite with long-lost relatives across the world – and discover old photographs that disappeared down their branch of the family tree 100 years ago.

In family history, you’ll soon find the smallest of discoveries can bring the biggest and most unexpected joys. Even if there is no long-dreamed-of family fortune hidden in the archives, you’ll be all the richer for the experience.

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