Ever wondered who may be hiding in the branches of your family tree? Here’s 8 top tips to find out.

I’ve found out that Formula One driver and former world champion Jenson Button is my second-cousin on my mother’s side. Of course, he doesn’t know it. And may not be very excited if he did.

However, the discovery made my day – as have many other others – when searching the depths of my family history. It’s an activity I enthusiastically recommend – especially for those no longer working full time and, supposedly, with time for new interests.

You may be surprised as to how easy it is to learn more about your roots and, in doing so, leave a legacy for those following on. And what a way to have conversations with grandchildren about where they have come from.

Fancy giving it a go? Then, based on my experience, here come my top 8 tips.

Perhaps you’ll find past relatives to match another of my own – Sir Philip Randle, internationally honoured for advancing scientific understanding of the causes of diabetes and who founded departments of biochemistry at Oxford and Bristol Universities.

Want to find your own ‘Sir Philip’? Then here we go –

  1. Get clued up on the subject
  2. To get you going, read a book or two on researching your genecology. Or have a good Google. Just put ‘all you need to know about researching ancestors’ into a search engine and you are on your way.

  3. First dip into the memories of older relatives
  4. This is the ideal way to get things rolling and establish a launch pad. You may be amazed at what they know about their own forebears.

    I discovered my mother was the one who knew everyone, had facts at her fingertips, and could recall things with great clarity – making it an ideal way to start.

  5. Use the internet
  6. The internet has pushed this type of research to new levels – delivering you from endless visits to trawl through parish records and survey gravestones.

    Specialist genealogy services like Ancestry, Find My Past, and The Genealogist now offer access to billions of records – and not just in the UK. They will absorb your time and are not cheap.

    However, all include a free trial. So you could work flat out for a short period of time. Or try your local library which may have one or more of them to access without charge.

  7. Use a genealogy programme on your computer
  8. This is a way to save hours of work. It completes all the links for you, draws a tree, and include pictures if you wish.

    The most widely used is Free Family Tree Builder from MyHeritage. Also recommended by the experts, and also free, is Legacy Family Tree Genealogy Standard.

  9. Access the census records
  10. Census forms list everyone in a house on a particular day, their ages, relationships, and their work. With there having been a census every ten years since 1801, other than 1941, you have access to great insight into the past.

    It was a special experience for me when examining the 1911 census – the first in which residents had to fill in the form themselves and the last released for public consumption. I was moved to see to see my grandfather’s writing, knowing he had actually penned the entry.

    However, it has not all been joy. I’ve discovered some of my relatives ended up in the poor house, and many worked down the mines in the Midland’s coal field.

    One of these, Albert Wilkinson, was a Main Checkweighman at Elsecar Main Colliery – chosen by workmates for his integrity because he checked the weight of the coal brought to the surface and, thus, the amount their earned.

  11. See what churches have to offer
  12. Churches have lists of their weddings and baptisms going back many years. Lancashire, for example, has many of the churches’ listings, including even including burials, at the Online Parish Clerks site – http://www.lan-opc.org.uk Other regions may have the same.

    This has made it possible for me follow my Hall tree back to 1808, when my great-great-great grandfather was born.

  13. Check and double check everything
  14. I’ve discovered it’s wise never to assume dates and places as being accurate. Wherever possible cross reference and check again to save you barking up the wrong tree (see what I did there!)

  15. Find others on the same quest
  16. Most areas have a group dedicated to family history and provide a meeting point to learn new tricks or make friends who can help guide your research. Often a local library runs sessions to introduce newcomers to such research.

There you go and who knows who or what you will find to delight you in the way that I have been delighted to discover –

  • My grandfather, Elijah Hall, was a local preacher in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, – and a miner under contract to deliver an agreed tonnage of coal to the pithead, hiring and paying his own labour.
  • An uncle who lost a leg in a mining accident when quite young and became a cobbler.
  • An uncle who became a county councillor on the West Riding of Yorkshire and was made an Alderman.

It is an enthralling and rewarding hobby which uncovers the past and opens up many avenues to discover your roots, skeletons in the cupboard, famous relatives, or even those who have emigrated and made it overseas.

So go get hunting. You won’t regret it.

For other ways to discover new challenges and activities in your after-work years see the AfterWorkNet pages on New Opportunities.

Have you made discoveries about your ancestors? Or have insights on how to find them? Please comment here or on our Facebook Group. 

David Hall

Dave Hall working life was as a journalist on local newspapers, Christian magazines, and as a press officer. Married with two adult children – one in Spain and the other close to his home near Burnley. Dave preaches and helps at Little Stars, the mums’ and toddlers’ group, and Messy Church at his village church.


  1. Thank you for sharing this article. I have lots of hand-drawn family tree pages done by my father before the days of computer ancestry took off. So very cramped and in tiny writing. What software would you recommend to enter them in to, without having to do more research, so I can have a printed tree that is readable?

    1. Family Historian is good. British as well.

      A good place to purchase:

      My History can also print out large family trees for you.

      It’s useful to enter your source into the program – maybe number your father’s handwritten pages so that you can get back to them if a query arises in future.

      And if you later want a source for on-line data Find My Past is good.

      Although I prefer to store my tree on my PC rather than with a commercial company.

      Good luck with your quest.

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The word retirement is not even in the Bible. What is taught in scripture is transition. There is nothing that says you work most of your life and then get to be selfish for the next 20 years

Rick Warren, PurposeDrivenLife