How to climb your family tree

Gill Hudson 

Until 'Who do you think you are?' hit our screens genealogy was often seen as a nerdy pursuit. Now we’re all at it, scanning the 1901 census and inmates of the prison hulks to find our forebears.


With luck, you can trace your line back to 1837, when official registration of births, marriages and deaths began. Before that, you’re reliant on parish records—if your ancestors moved or had a common name (John Smith is dispiriting) they can vanish.

What you need is a “gateway” ancestor, says Claire Vaughan, acting editor of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. “If there’s an aristocrat in your family tree, you can zoom back easily,” she says.

Ancestor-hunter Phil Reid has gone back in time to Rollo the Viking (born 870) by finding a link to King John through a string of vicars based in the ancient village of Avebury, Wiltshire. Claire explored family myth instead. “There was a rumour that we were Spanish but it turned out that my ancestor was an Italian immigrant,” she says. To find yours…

  • Ask your oldest relatives to tell you all the things they remember about their grandparents.
  • Trawl the archives. Best known are Family Search (free) and Ancestry (subscription), while censuses and military records can be accessed through the National Archives for a small fee.
  • Use social networking websites to pool your findings with others researching your family.
  • Look up long-dead relatives. From a First World War battlefield to a hill station in India, seeing where your family lived gives a real sense of your roots.