Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

Searching for your ancestors can be rewarding and frustrating in equal measure. There tends to be one person in every family who slowly becomes obsessed with tracing the roots of the family tree. In the Tilbrook family, that person is me. But even if you feel your research has led you into a cul-de-sac, it can pay to keep your eyes open.

I recently travelled to a small village on the Suffolk-Cambridgeshire border, full of optimism that I might find clues to the lives of family members from the 18th century or perhaps earlier. But the village churchyard was a disappointment. The gravestones were far too modern to help in my researches, and none were engraved with my surname.

Driving out of the village, I spotted a war memorial in a side road and my hopes rose again. Maybe it would list a Tilbrook or two who had fallen in one of the world wars. I pulled into the road and scanned the obelisk. Again, nothing. My ancestors had clearly moved away long before the 20th century. It was as if this large family had never lived here.

Despondently, I returned to the car and prepared to leave. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that made the journey worthwhile — the road’s name was Tilbrooks Hill. It felt as if I had come home… albeit seven generations apart.

Researching your forebears contains a few moments like that, along with many laborious hours of checking and crosschecking facts and poring over documents. It will bring out the armchair detective in you.

Yet the process of uncovering your genealogy has in many ways never been simpler with the advent of online research tools.

In the UK, three of the biggest family history websites are Ancestry, Find My Past and The Genealogist. All provide millions of online records — at a price.

But before you subscribe to one, the Society of Genealogists suggests you explore other options. Pleasingly, many of them are free.

● Firstly, get in touch with elderly relatives. Their knowledge and memories of relations can provide a mine of information. Coming from a generation that seldom threw anything away, you may find they have some interesting documents — not just birth, death and marriage certificates, but newspaper cuttings, photographs and letters that will bring your family history to life.

● Start a family tree based on what you — and other relatives — already know. This is part of an all-important note-taking exercise. And be careful what information you discard. A name or an address that seems irrelevant at the time may become important later in your research.

● Ask for help from others. If you are looking for information about a particular district, it may be worth contacting the local family history society — see the Federation of Family History Societies website.

● A number of social networking websites exist and you may well find that someone else has already researched your family history. Sites such as FamilyRelatives, LostCousins and GenesReunited can help put you in touch. But do not assume that someone else’s research is 100 per cent accurate.

● UK census records — a vital source of information for the family tree detective — can be accessed through the National Archives website. You will almost certainly discover names of family members you never knew existed. From there, you can order copies of birth, death and marriage certificates, plus military service records, which should lead to more names and addresses. Some free indexes can be found at freebmd.org.uk. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a huge online resource at familysearch.org.

Important as official documentation is to tracing your roots, it is individual stories that will make your family tree bloom. Many researchers will live in hope of finding a connection to a famous — or perhaps infamous — name from the past.

Was highwayman Dick Turpin an infamous forebear? © Getty

Many years ago, my grandfather told a story, passed down through the generations, that the Tilbrooks were in some way related to the 18th century highwayman Dick Turpin (also known as Palmer). Sadly, nothing in my researches has confirmed this, although, curiously, my forebears lived a mere 15 miles away from where Turpin grew up. Coincidence? Probably — though worthy of further investigation.

Apart from travels through time, research will almost certainly take the armchair genealogist on a journey to far-flung places. I have discovered relatives in Australia and Canada. But looking at the passenger lists on emigrant ships has also uncovered a family mystery.

Early in the 20th century, my great great uncle, who clearly had a taste for adventure, was on board a ship for New York with thousands of other migrant passengers. Yet, there is no record of him entering the US at Ellis Island, where 12m others set forth on a new life. Indeed, he clearly returned to the UK, because the following year I found his name on the passenger list of another ship bound for Canada.

Again, there is no record of him ever entering the country. Instead, he returned to England after which, it seems, his wandering days were over. I can only surmise that he was refused entry to North America, which begs the question: why?

You never know where your family tree’s roots will lead you. But the search can be both intriguing and enlightening.

How much the big websites charge

Ancestry A comprehensive set of UK birth, death and marriage indexes and census returns and much else besides. £10.99 for basic access for a month, rising to £99.99 for unrestricted access for six months.

Find My Past A similar collection of records to Ancestry. Packages start from £6 a month, rising to £13 a month for full access.

The Genealogist The usual UK births, deaths and marriages collection, plus parish and tithe records, even some old telephone directories and much more. Packages range from £5 for 90 days limited access, to £119.45 for full access to records for a year.

Get alerts on National Archives when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article