What is source material or source documents?
are the documents, certificates, records or any bit of information that can
confirm information about your ancestor.
What is the difference between a primary
source document and a secondary source document?
family history research we use two types of source material. They are
considered either primary or secondary sources of information. A primary
source document or record would be one that was created around the time of
the event. This is always the best and most accurate record to find. For
- birth certificate
- marriage certificate
- death certificate
- census enumeration
- military record(s)
A primary source document would have been created by someone
with direct knowledge of the event and recorded at the time it happened.
These records are considered very accurate and are the best source to find
in order to make sure that your information is correct.
Secondary source records are those that were
not created at the time of the event. These could be something like:
- old letters
- any second hand account of an event
Because things like books and letters tend to
be the recollection of an event the information may not be entirely correct.
Primary and secondary sources of material can be found in many types of
places such as online, in libraries, archives or family history societies.
The information might be free to view or you may have to pay a fee.
What is an Index?
index is a list of information that is usually in alphabetical order and it
will give you basic details only but will help you find an original document
The original document will have been viewed by someone who has
“transcribed” or copied the information into an index database. The index
will usually have information like a name, place and a reference number.
Many indexes that family historians use are free to view but for the
original document you may have to pay to see it (pay-per-view) or pay to get
a copy of the certificate or document(s) sent to you.
In family history
there are lots of organisations that put together indexes about lots of
different types of information. For example, there are indexes available for
births, marriages, deaths or military documents to name just a few! However,
if think you have found your ancestor in an index it is important to try and
view the original document so that you can check the information to make
sure that it really relates to your ancestor. Remember there were many, many
people with the same or similar names. Also, indexes may not be 100%
accurate so keep in mind:
- typing errors can occur when a person is typing
(transcribing) the information into an index.
- the typist (or transcriber)
will type the information as they read it from the original document but the
information may have been spelt differently many years ago. The transcriber
will type what they see as they are not allowed to change any spellings.
- your ancestor may have been known by a different first name or last name so
always double check search information.
- always try and view the original
documents as they may have far more information to give you other than what
is provided in an index.
An index is a secondary source document
What is a Census?
A census is a survey put
together by the government. It contains a particular set of questions in
order to find out and record information about members of that country. It
is unique because it covers everyone at the same time and asks the same
questions to everyone.
When did it start:
Since 1801 and every ten years
since (except during the war years) the government has set aside one day for
holding a ‘census’. Unfortunately, most of the early census returns for
1801-1831 were destroyed and only statistical summaries were left. The
census material that is available today and that family historians find most
useful in the UK are the census returns from 1841-1911. The last census in
the UK was held in March 2011.
What information will the census show me?
census will give you valuable genealogical information about your ancestors
and can show
- where they were living
- who else was living in the household
- occupation (job)
and from 1851 also
- the family connections the
householders had to each other
- whether they were married or single
All of these can assist you when trying to put together your family
Note: Because of UK privacy laws we are unable to view census material
earlier than the last 100 years. The latest census that we are currently
able to view is 1911.
You can look at some census returns of famous people
How will this help me?
Census records can help
you piece together your family tree but birth, marriage or death
certificates will provide you with more detailed information such as a full
date of birth, place of marriage and cause of death.
A census is a primary
What are “BMD’s”?
You may have seen the term 'BMD' when you
have been learning about tracing your ancestors. BMD stands for births,
marriages and deaths. These are legal records and are kept by the General
Register Office (GRO) of England & Wales. These records have been kept by
law since 1837, detailing every birth, marriage and death recorded in
England & Wales since that date. These records are used to issue copies of
birth, marriage and death certificates.
You can look at a free index of all
births, marriages and deaths for England and Wales which cover the dates
July 1837-1984. here
What is a Birth certificate?
A national system for registering births in England and Wales
was started in July 1837. This system demanded that all births were recorded
and particular information was required when registering your baby. A baby’s
birth must be registered no later than 42 days after it was born. From
approx 1874 penalties were applied if you did not register a birth.
indexes are arranged in year order and then into quarters of a year. Like
- March quarter – events registered in January, February and March
- June quarter – April, May and June
- September quarter – July, August and
- December quarter – October, November and December
Civil Registration index date is for the September quarter 1837. After 1984
the indexes are organised by year only.
The entries are then listed
alphabetically by surname and then by first name. Every birth will then have
a General Register Office index reference number.
So the index will show you
for each person:
- the year of birth
- quarter of the year the birth was
- first name(s)
- a district
- a volume number
- a page number in which the birth was registered.
You will need this
number if you would like to get a copy of the original birth certificate
from the General Register office.
So the birth entry for Genealogy George
might look like this:
Births June 1940 Surname: Genealogy First name(s):
District: Salford Vol: 8d Page: 928
The Local Register Office has a
similar system, however the index reference numbers are not the same as the GRO reference number.
If you would like to get a copy of an original
certificate from either the General Registration office or your Local
Register office you will need to apply to them either in person, by post or
online. They are costly and currently priced at £10 per certificate. You
need to be fairly certain with your research in order to avoid expensive
Why not try looking up the birth registration of a parent or
What information will a birth certificate show me?
Here is an example of a birth certificate:
- date of
- place of birth
- name and residence of the mother (and sometimes the
mother’s maiden name)
- name and occupation of the father
- date the birth
A birth certificate is a primary source document.
What is a marriage
A marriage certificate is the official record that two people
have committed themselves to each other in a marriage ceremony. As with a
birth or death certificate, registration of marriages began in England and
Wales in 1837. This document was legal proof that a marriage had taken
place. Before 1837 any marriage was only recorded in a church parish
register. You can search the index for marriages in the same way as births
(see explanation above). To search for a marriage in the indexes, you can
use either the surname of the man or maiden surname of the married woman.
What information will a marriage certificate
- date of marriage
- place of marriage
- full names of the bride and
- ages of bride and groom
- marital condition ( a bachelor, spinster,
- occupation of the bride and groom
- residence of the bride
and groom at time of their marriage
- name & occupation of the father (but not
the mother) of the
- name & occupation of the father (but not
the mother) of the bride
- church or registration district
where the marriage took place
Here is an example of a marriage certificate:
How will this help me
- A marriage certificate will usually give me
the names of both the father of the groom and the father of the bride. I
can then use this information to search the next generation in my family
- Note: If one of the fathers is dead, the
marriage certificate will usually say this. For example: Geoffrey Genealogy
- I can also find out the names of the
witnesses at the wedding from the marriage certificate. The witnesses may
be family members.
- I can find out if the couple were married
- I can find out where the couple were living
at the time of the marriage. This may help me to locate the house on a map
or family in a census.
A marriage certificate is a primary source
What is a death certificate?
A death certificate
is a legal document and is the certified copy of a death entry in the
Register of Deaths. In England and Wales compulsory national registration of
deaths also began in 1837. You normally need to register a death within five
days of the death. You can search the index for deaths in the same way as
births (see explanation above).
Here is an example of a death certificate:
What information will a death certificate show me?
- district in which the
death was registered
- where and when they died
- first name(s) and surname
- age at death
- cause of death
- name, relationship and
address of person who informed the authorities about the death
- date death
Note: Death registration will list the parent(s) if the deceased
was a child.
Further details have since been added to the death certificate
and now include the deceased's date and place of birth, maiden name and
other former surnames of women who have been divorced.
How will this help me?
- I can verify exactly when and where my ancestor died
- Find the name of
the informant on the death certificate which may be another family member
- I can learn the cause of death for my ancestor
A death certificate is a primary source