The Breach Family's Sussex Origins

A Family History Blog by Alison Vainlo (Breach)

Guide to Researching

Researching Your Family Tree

Help and Advice

If you are starting from scratch on your family history, you'll need a few tips to get started, so I'll tell you a bit about what I did and then it's up to you. I'm not a professional genealogist, but I am experienced. I've managed to get as far back as the 1400's (with a little help from contacts) and have found it to be fascinating, absorbing, rewarding and frustrating in equal measure, but it is also highly addictive and very enjoyable. So here are my tips for happy researching.



I find that if you get organised before starting your project it will save you a lot of confusion and head scratching later. You don't need much to get started, but for me the essentials would include:

  • A large notebook or project book
  • A concertina file to store certificates etc
  • A family tree program for your computer
While there are plenty of good family tree builders online, I like to have one permanently on my computer that I use as my primary tree (everything goes on there first), then I have one online at which I transfer things to. The Ancestry tree is public, so others researching lines connecting to mine can see my results. Family history is a very social thing and much can be gained from sharing information.

If you are only considering an online family tree builder, then Ancestry is a great choice, however, be prepared to pay the subscription which, at the time of writing is £119.99 annually (based on the Premium package, other packages are available). You can make your tree private if you wish so no-one without your permission can see it. I also used one called Family Echo which is a good basic one and easy to use, again it is private unless you invite others access to it, and it is free.  

Let's Go Family Treeing 

First of all start with what you know. Begin with your parents, decide which line to trace, whether paternal or maternal and write down dates of birth, marriage, place born etc. I have researched both my lines, but I would advise doing one line at a time, using a different note book for each line. It's OK to add both lines to your digital tree though. Next move on to your grandparents and go through the same process. 

If there are any older living relatives you can ask about the family, then this can be a great starting point.  Maybe they have old photos or documents you could borrow and scan. Write all your findings down in your notebook as you go along then you will always have a hard copy of your notes.

Free Stuff

There is so much you can find out about your family history for free online, and two of my favourite sites are Family Search and Free BMD

Family Search is a free search facility run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) in America. They trace their ancestors and baptise them into the Mormon faith, but the advantage for us is that they have put all their records online for us to search. I've had great success with this site, and have gone back generations in an evening just using this site! The great thing about being a Breach, is that it is a fairly easy name to research and you quickly find patterns emerging where names get passed down, and in the places where families lived. You do have to register to use the site, but everything is free.

Free BMD  is a search facility to look up Birth, 
Marriage and Death  indexes. It is mainly used to look up the information you need to order a certificate but even if you don't want to order anything it can be useful when you just want to know the year an event happened in. 

National registration began in 1837, so you should find an index for anyone born from that year on. Before 1837 we have to rely on parish records being available. This is where Family Search can be useful as they have sourced millions of parish records.

The UK Census

The census is a brilliant way of finding out information, it can give you a whole family unit in one go. You can find out where they lived, how many children they had, all their names, ages, occupations and where they were born. It is dependent on where an individual was resident on census night, so a person might be found at the place they were working, especially if they were live-in domestic servants. So sometimes it is necessary to carry out a separate search for someone missing from a family group. 

A census has been taken every ten years from 1841 onward in the UK. You can access the 1881 census for free at Ancestry but you will have to take out a subscription or pay-as-you-go to view the others. Ancestry is free for basic searches, but to view documents you need to pay.

There is currently a 'one hundred year rule' on viewing the census, so currently you can access up to the 1911 returns, with 1921 becoming available around 2021.

Ordering Certificates

At some point you will need to order certificates to get that vital piece of information you are missing. Whether it's to find out who a person's parents were, when a marriage took place, or what a person died from, certificates are a must. 

It can be costly if you are sending for lots of certificates, so just target the ones you really must have in order to move your research on.

First of all you will need to look up the information you need to order the correct certificate, you can do this via Ancestry or Free BMD. I will explain how to do this using the Free BMD site for a birth certificate.  

Go to the Free BMD home page and click on the search option. It will take you to a new page. Enter all you know about your relative on the form. From the top:

  1. Click on 'Births' in the Type box.
  2. Enter the surname.
  3. Enter the first name.
  4. Enter the mother's surname if you know her maiden name (this only applies to births after 1911).
  5. Leave the next two spaces blank.
  6. Enter the dates between which you think your ancestor was born. For instance if you think they were born in the mid 1880's, then choose 1883 as your start date and 1887 as your end date. 
  7. You can select one of the districts or counties offered on the right, but that's optional. 
That is usually as much as I would fill in. Next click the Find button and the results will presented in a new window. You might only have one result, a list of results or no results at all depending on how much information you put in. In the case of no results, it's often worth going back and doing a wider date search.

When you have found the correct index you will be presented with the year and which quarter of the year the birth falls into; MAR - for births between January and March, JUN - for births between April and June, SEP - for births between July and September, and DEC - for births between October and December. Make a note of the year and quarter your relative's birth is in. Underneath you'll see the surname, followed by the given name, then there is the registration district that the birth was registered in, this is in blue. Next there is a number, sometimes with a letter, e.g. 7b, this is the volume number of the register where the record is kept. Then there is another number, e.g. 368, this is the page number of the volume where the record is kept. You will need to note down the registration district, volume number and page number, so your relative’s birth index may go as follows:

BREACH – other name - Eastbourne - 
7b - 368

With this information it is easy to order a certificate online. Just go to the General Register Office website and click on 'order certificates online'. The next window tells you a little about the service and also about the new PDF format you can choose instead of getting a paper copy through the post. The PDF version is uploaded to your order page and costs less than a certificate but it hasn't done much to speed up the process. Certificates by post take about a week to arrive, PDF's are sent out on the fourth day after ordering.

Whichever format you choose the ordering process begins the same. Click the link to move on to the next step, where it says Search the GRO historical birth and death indexes and order Certificates/PDF's Online.

On the next page you will need to login or register. You will receive an activation code by email, enter it where indicated and then you can move on.

The options on the next window allow you to do a number of things, but if you have your information and just want to order a certificate then click on the Order a Certificate/PDF button.

You are taken to the application form and can enter some details. Select which type of certificate you want, i.e. birth, death, marriage etc. Then, if you have the GRO reference number (e.g. BREACH – other name - Eastbourne - 7b - 368), then select the 'yes' button. Under that enter the year the event took place in.

On the next window fill in all the fields required with a red *. This is where you will enter the person's name, the quarter, e.g. Mar, Jun, Sep or Dec. The district name comes next, e.g. Eastbourne. Then put the volume number in e.g. 7b, followed by the page number, e.g. 368. 

Underneath, choose the format and delivery service you want, standard certificates sent in the post cost £9.25, while PDF's cost £6. Once you have selected your option you can enter a reference number if you wish, although it's not really necessary if you're only ordering one certificate.

Once the form is complete, click submit and you will be taken to the payment window.

After that, sit back and wait for your certificate to arrive.


Building Your Family Tree

So, by now you should have made a great start to researching your family history. With first hand information from your living relatives written in your notebook, to information found online and through certificates, your family tree should be starting to take shape.

Your tree will widen out as you go up, just like a real tree, especially if you start to find families of families. I once read an article called 'All Ancestors are Equal'. It recommended that we don't just dig a tunnel through time to get as far back as possible, instead we should take time to include all the branches we find too. While I think that is a sensible approach you do run the risk of letting your tree get out of hand. Too much information can be overwhelming, and I have to confess that's what happened to me and it put me off genealogy for a good while. So my advice is to keep it manageable, if someone comes along wanting to add all their research to yours, expanding into new families in the process, then don't feel obliged to use it, file it away in case you need it later instead. I ended up doing that with some associated lines that came to me and I've even removed some pending posts from this blog, simply because it was getting too big and too complicated.

Why Can't I find...?

I won't pretend to you that genealogy is all plain sailing, there will be plenty of times when you just cannot find that vital piece of information. It can be frustrating, but there is usually more than one way to find information. Try variant name spellings, widening the date search and looking at other people's trees (on Ancestry). Also, if it isn't on one site, then it might be on another, you will quickly pick up all the tricks and ideas to find what you want. 

It is often a case of getting 'lost in translation' when it comes to old records, many of which were hand written, and while transcribers do a brilliant job, they can make mistakes and those mistakes can prevent us from finding things. There isn't much advice I can give on that, except to keep trying and with experience you'll have greater success.

We all have a few holes in our research, mostly it's missing dates or maiden names, but don't worry about them, it is something you can return to at a later date. Information is always being added to sites such as Ancestry and I often find if I leave something for a while I can usually find it later. Remember, family history can be a lifetime's work so there's no rush.

Presenting Your Research

Family tree poster

When you have amassed a nice lot of research it can be a good idea to find a way of presenting it to other family members. This can be something simple like an ancestral tree poster (above), which can be purchased online, or a bound book, which are produced by genealogical companies to a professional standard and gives you the option of including photos and stories.

Genealogy bound book

While these ideas are very nice, and make good gifts, I always worry that once you've taken that step there is no scope for adding new finds later. I started out by typing up my findings, printing it off at home and putting it into a ring binder. It was a hard copy I could show people but still there was room to add stuff and reprint the odd page. I now have this blog which is ideal; I can update it really easily and with most people having access to a computer or tablet these days, it just makes it a convenient way to share what I've done. The added advantage of having a blog is that other researchers, who often turn out to be related, can get in touch with you to offer help or their input. I certainly would not have got back to the 1400's without help, so a blog can be a great two-way street of information swapping. Blogs are easy to set up and you can choose how they look and how to arrange your work. I've used both Blogger and Wordpress for other blogs I have and I prefer the simplicity of Blogger myself. 


I hope you have found this guide interesting and informative. There are many ways to conduct your research and while experts may tell you to do things differently this is what works for me, and as long as you get the results it doesn't really matter how you get them.

Just remember, don't be afraid to ask for help if you get stuck, the genealogy family are usually a generous lot and someone will always be able to help out. That includes me.

Good luck with your journey into the past, have a great time.

Alison Vainlo 2018

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