How To Research

Introduction to Family History - 10 Week Course

This series of articles was first printed in Ballina Shire Advocate some years ago. Contributors to the series were RTFHS members Carol Donaghey, Frank Harvey, and Meryl Broadley. Editing was done by Margaret, Rosemary Playford and Kerrie Alexander.

In each family there is a storyteller – one who seems to have an urge to find the family ancestors.
Maybe in your family you are that person. Anyone can become a family historian. The first step is knowing that you are the most important person in your research as all family history research must begin with you.

This series of articles will provide you with basic guidance on searching for your family’s ancestors and discovering that family history research goes way beyond just documenting facts. Click on the numbers across the top to access each lesson.

Here is the text version of the 10 Week Introduction Program is your device does not support the Tabs above.

Week 1: Getting started

Week 2: Birth Certificates

Week 3: Marriage Certificates

Week4: Resources and Summary of Weeks 1-3

Week 5: Death Certificates

Week 6: Search the Census

Week 7: Shipping Records

Week 8: Convicts

Week 9: Researching through the Internet

Week 10: Where are you now?

Week 1: Getting Started

The golden rule is to start with what you know.

Starting with yourself, write down everything you can about yourself – when and where you were born; names of your parents, siblings, spouse, children; where you live or have lived, your education, jobs, interests and hobbies. Then do the same for your parents and grandparents.
If you do this for each person in your immediate family, you will be surprised at how much information you have already accumulated.
Every home has loads of official documents, often in boxes in the back of a cupboard. Search through these documents – birth, marriage or death certificates; funeral accounts, memorial cards, obituary or newspaper articles – and write down the details and dates of family members’ life events.
For those who had ancestors who immigrated to Australia, you may also find shipping records, or citizenship records. Don’t neglect these rich sources of information.

And don’t forget to write it down. Note-taking is a most important aspect of family history. Information that can’t be substantiated is only legend.
There are specific forms available to record all this information which are available from the Richmond-Tweed Family History Society’s Marie Hart Library at 6 Regatta Avenue, Ballina (behind the Naval and Maritime Museum).

Week 2: Birth Certificates

Last week in this series on researching your family history, we talked about getting started in researching your family history so when you have exhausted all the facts you know about your immediate family members, it is time to talk to your relatives – your parents, grandparents, aunts uncles and cousins.

They are a rich source of valuable information and often have photographs and other family mementos. They can tell you the family stories, who was married to whom, who was unmarried but had a child, who was divorced and why. The stories are endless.

Memory sometimes isn’t completely accurate, so check your facts with other family members and compare notes and then record all the information you can – names, dates and the stories which help to bring your research to life, and make sure you record who gave you the information.
If you don’t have your own birth certificate, you may like to apply for it from the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, PO Box 30, Sydney 2001 or online at

Your birth certificate not only gives you your registered name and date of birth, but also where you were born, the ages of any children born before you, your parents names, occupations, where they were born and when they were married. On your parents’ birth certificates, you will find your grandparents’ details, which in turn will give your great-grandparents’ information.

You can see how quickly you can find another generation and build up your family tree. Our friendly duty officers will be happy to assist you in getting started.

Week 3: Marriage Certificates

Following on this week from your research with birth certificates, you should be well on the way to creating your family tree.

From you grandparents’ birth certificates you will have obtained the names of your great-grandparents (including your great-grandmother’s maiden name), as well as details of their places of birth and occupations. Now you can search for their marriage certificate. You may have to search a few years back from the birth of your grandparent.

It can be harder to assess when a great-grandparents’ marriage may have taken place as your grandparent may be the first child or the last in a long line of children. For example, if your grandparent was born in 1899 and is the fourth child, you great-grandparents may have married around 1882 or earlier. To cover your options, you could do a search between 1876 and 1884. Dates were very flexible years ago, especially before registration of births, deaths, and marriages became law.

What we imagine took place isn’t always what really happened. However marriage certificates provide us with so many more details to add to your tree. They record the names and ages of the bride and groom, the date and place of the marriage, their occupations, where they lived at the time of the marriage, their parent’s names and their father’s occupations – occasionally in early marriage records, some information is missing, e.g. age, place of birth, parents’ names. The ages of the bride and groom may show as the actual figure, or in the case of United Kingdom marriage certificates, may show as ‘full age’ which means they were over 21 years. A copy of the marriage certificate usually shows the names of the witnesses as well, which can be helpful to your searching as many witnesses were siblings of the bride and/or groom.

Week 4: Resources

You should be well on the way to extending your family tree by now, and you may have collected a great deal of interesting information about your grandparents, or even earlier relatives.

Genealogy breathes life into all those who have gone before us; it makes you feel you are never alone; these wonderful ancestors are part of you and your children and in putting flesh on their bones with your stories you bring them to life for generations to come.

Researching your ancestors can show you who you are and why you do the things you do. It gives you pride in what your family members have accomplished and how they have contributed to what you are today. If you are having any difficulty in locating a certificate, or in fact any aspect of your research, come in and talk to one of the duty officers at the Richmond-Tweed Family History Society. You may even consider joining a family history society. This can be a positive step in progressing your research, and will give you access to resources, seminars, publications and links to organisations in Australia and overseas. It will also put you in contact with like-minded people who can help with your research.

The RTFHS research room has a large number of resources available to members or to casual day users, some of which are Census records, General Registry Office UK records, Irish records, electoral rolls for the 1900s, and many more.

While you can apply to the NSW Registry Office for your certificates, there are also a number of transcription agents who provide accurate transcriptions of the Registry certificates from $18 each. With marriage certificates, the agents also record the details if the marriage has been dissolved – an added bonus to your search.

See the Links page for BDM accredited Transcription Agents.

Week 5: Death Certificates

Much information can be obtained from a death certificate, which provides the date, name, and place a person died, the cause of death, the age of the deceased person and the name of the informant. It also records the deceased persons spouse, the age and place when marries, and the parents names. The certificate will also show if an ancestor died of an illness, an accident or any other unusual circumstance.

The duration of an illness is usually recorded, with often the name of the attending doctor. In NSW, the children of the deceased, and the age they were at the time of the parents death, are recorded. A death certificate can give you a picture of the family, particularly if a parent died young, or left a number of children. It can also show if there is a pattern of the same illness in several family members. You can search for a death certificate on the NSW Registry Office website, and once you have found and obtained the reference number, order a transcription of the certificate. Burials can also be searched online at some cemeteries. Rookwood Cemetery, at Lidcombe in Sydney, has online indexes, which gives details of the position of the grave or ashes placement.

Keep in mind that sometimes the information in death certificates can be inaccurate and should not be totally relied upon. Remember this information is usually given at times of emotional upheaval and stress, and often the informant is one of the children who may not know all the details of the parent’s background. One way around this is to talk to your children about your childhood, your parents’ names and where they were from.

Talking is the most active ingredient in family history. Talk to your parents and other relatives. Ask them about their lives, where they lived, what they did as an occupation. You would be surprised at the information most people are prepared to give. They often are just waiting to be asked.

Week 6: Search the Census

Much English family history information is obtained from the eight available National Census records, beginning in 1841. Even if you ancestors arrived in Australia before 1841, the Census records will assist you to trace your ‘distant cousins’ who did not migrate to Australia. These records give us valuable information about the members of the family, where they were living, their age and marital status, and their occupations – and most importantly, the relationships between the people living under the same roof. These 10-yearly Census records are also helpful in providing a picture of the development of family life and fortunes over a period of time.

The first Census in England was taken on Sunday, June 7, 1841. It is quite basic in that addresses are often non-specific, ages are approximate, and an exact birth place is not given – neither does it give the relationship between household members. Improvements in each succeeding Census are obvious. The 1851, 1861, and 1871 Census are greatly improved, ie: more legible handwriting, more trustworthy ages, more accurate addresses, greater definition in employment descriptions, the recording of family relationships and each member’s birthplace.

The 1881 Census is of great importance to many mature aged Australian family history researchers because there is a good chance that their own grandparents may have been included as young children in this Census. This means that if you have grandchildren of your own, you are, in fact, in touch with the detail of six generations of your own family!

The 1891 Census includes the difference between employees and employers, and the 1901 Census brings us into the 20th Century with a recording of the number of living rooms in each dwelling. The most recently released 1911 Census was the first time the Census Form was personally completed by the head of each household, and many people are thrilled to view the actual handwriting and signature of one of their ancestors.
Come in and view any of these eight Census records on Find My Past at the RTFHS research room.

Week 7: Shipping Records

Not only convicts came to Australia during the 19th Century.

Many people chose to travel to the great southern land to make a new life, and immigration has continued to the present day. In the early days of European settlement, the colonial government encouraged people with skills, particularly agricultural labourers and mechanics, to leave the UK by offering assisted passages. This was also a way of re-settling people from crowded cities during the industrial revolution in Europe in the 19th Century.

Shipping records can reveal a great deal of information about the assisted immigrants apart from the name of the ship and dates and locations of departure and arrival. Recorded are passengers names and ages, including names and ages of children travelling with them; occupations; place of birth; marital status; religion; if can read and write; parents’ names and residence – and if parents were alive or deceased. There are indexes of assisted passengers which can be consulted to find the ship which your family may have travelled on. Clues to your ancestor’s arrival date can be calculated by looking at the death certificate. NSW death certificates often show the number of years spent in the colony, which could help your calculate the year of arrival.

Come in and view the passenger records on Find My Past in the library. Your shipping research will add more flesh to the bones of you family history story.

Week 8: Convicts

Perhaps there is someone mysterious or elusive in your family tree. Chances are that an ancestor may have been a convict. A wealth of information is available about convicts and there are various resources for you to follow up in the Richmond-Tweed Family History Research Room.

You will need to know the name of the person, their year of arrival in Australia and/or when they left England. Where was that person sent? Was it Sydney, Tasmania or Western Australia?

The first step is to check the indents, which are the records of the convict’s personal details on the shipping order. The later indents have greater detail such as height, complexion, distinguishing features. Many of these convict records are available to view on Find My Past at the RTFHS research room.

Other helpful resources are: books containing records of early musters in the colony, censuses and land grants. There are also convict stories and accounts of specific convict groups: convict assignments, tickets-of-leave and those on the hulks in Sydney Harbour, convict applications to marry, pardons, and the colonial secretary’s correspondence.

Sometimes a full death certificate may provide useful information, but the early ones from church records are less helpful. You might want to find out more about the crime for which the convict was transported. The Old Bailey website has many trial transcripts for those tried in London, and many county assizes are now also online. If you find that you have come to a stop and don’t know where to go next, ask one of the duty officers for help.

Week 9: The Internet

The internet is an obvious choice for locating family history information, but for the beginner, searching the internet may appear quite daunting. Over recent years the internet has become exceedingly complex, but there are many user-friendly sites (some are free, but most charge for usage). Your friends at the Richmond-Tweed Family History Society are happy to steer you through the maze of choices as you begin your search on the internet.

Sites are:

England/Wales - Births, Marriages and Deaths – try the ‘FreeBMD’ site:
Scotland - Births, Marriages and Deaths plus wills and valuation books – try this paid site:
Worldwide - Births, Marriages and Deaths – try the Mormon Church Family Search website:

Learn to use the internet search engine, Google. This will give you access to endless sites uploaded from individuals, researchers, universities, national, state and county record offices, as well as a myriad of small village history groups. Looking for information on Google is somewhat akin to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. The trick is to learn to ask Google the right question, remembering that ‘less is often more’. With a bit of patience, and guidance from other family historians, you’ll get the hang of it.

A final word of caution; locating information on the internet submitted by another person, rather than official documents, doesn’t make it absolutely true! Use the located material as a guide, but confirm the given facts for yourself from as many other sources as you can. But be careful that other sources are not also unthinkingly regurgitating the same incorrect information.
Happy researching!

Week 10: Where are you now?

Now you have had a chance to do some research into your family, where are you at now?

Family history research can be frustrating at times, as well as time-consuming. It can also become addictive, but the excitement of finding a long-lost ancestor overrides all the frustrations. Researching your family goes beyond just documenting facts. It takes you to libraries and research rooms; it leads you to cemeteries and when you stand before a headstone of one of your great-grandparents, it gives you that sense of satisfaction and belonging that being part of a long family line brings.

Genealogy gives you a sense of pride in your ancestors’ accomplishments; a sense of respect for their hardships and losses, their determination to make a go of it – never giving in or giving up; and it gives you a sense of knowing these people who went before you. We are who we are because of who they were.

There are so many more avenues of research available than is covered in this series, including military records, parish records, wills and obituaries. All of these additional records embellish the story of your lineage. The internet is a wonderful tool for finding information, and there is an enormous amount of material available online now, but don’t forget the manual investigation too.

Being a good researcher is a little like detective work. You need an open mind and to be prepared to spend many hours trawling through documents, diaries, books, films, and visiting other archives, at libraries, the RTFHS research room, or the Mormon research room at Glen Street, Goonellabah. Other people will be interested in your discoveries, not only members of your immediate family, but maybe even people you haven’t yet met.

Through ordering transcriptions of certificates, you may be put in contact with others researching your family and find you have cousins you didn’t know about. You may create your own family tree online or keep it for just your family. You may wish to write about your family and their stories and print your creation for posterity. Family history research never seems to stop.

It’s a challenge, and if your join a family history group you’ll meet people who have been researching their family trees for sometimes decades. A continuing process, there is always more to do, more records become available, a new avenue to pursue, an ancestor who fascinates you and you just have to find out more. Under these circumstances you will understand why the family history researcher’s personal motto is ‘Never Give Up’!