These guides are written by experienced family historians, members of the society

Researching your family tree - by Judith Thomas

A presentation on how to use websites to further your research, with practical examples  – click to run

Starting your Family History in the UK - by Derek Trinder
First Steps

First . . .

… why not read a simple book on the subject?

Berkshire Family History Society offers several in the Shop  — including Starting Your Family History‘ by Margaret Ward and the soundly principled (but now very dated) ‘Beginning your Family History‘ by the late George Pelling.


Then . . .

… write down what you know already about your family — parents, grandparents, great-grandparents — preferably in chart form (eg drop-line chart or pedigree/birth brief).


Next . . .

… if you can get to Reading, plan a visit to The Centre for Heritage and Family History — the home of the society –  in the heart of Reading.


Entry is FREE. Searching online resources is FREE too. Here you can research your ancestors – wherever in the world they came from. It is not just for those with Berkshire interests


Talk to the volunteers who staff and run The Centre. They will explain the wealth of research data accessible here, whether online — using websites like Findmypast, The 1939 Register, The British Newspaper Archive,  The Genealogist or Ancestry Library Edition — the worldwide edition — or in CD format, microform, or in print, and on the many useful publications that are available. They can also help you to identify the ones that are best for your needs, and suggest next steps in your research.


If you are unable to get to Reading easily, contact one of the society’s Branches or, if you live well beyond Berkshire, get in touch with your local family history society. Details of most (but not all) are on the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) website.

Get back to 1911 and 1901
  • Rummage . . . through cupboards, drawers and boxes for birthday and address books, copies of certificates (Birth, Marriage and Death), Education documents, records of Military Service and any medal records, letters, diaries, photographs, the family Bible if there is one, memorial cards, wedding announcements, newspaper cuttings . . .All of these can hold key details for your research.

  • Contact and interview… all your living relatives … you will always wish that you had done this sooner! They will know much about your family — even if some of the details are sometimes blurred or exaggerated!

  • Search online indexes of key family history websites, like FreeBMD and Findmypast for General Register Office (GRO) references that you will need before you can order copy certificates for life events — births, marriages, deaths — of your ancestors. For England and Wales, these indexes start from the September quarter of 1837 — with events registered in the months of July, August and September 1837.  Registration began on 1st July 1837 in those countries (1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland). Online searching is now the best way of finding these references but copies of GRO indexes on microfiche are still held in a few libraries and record offices, including Berkshire Record Office.

  • Obtain . . . copy certificates of life events (births, marriages, deaths) that date from July 1837 or later. Use the online ordering system of the General Register Office. You can also obtain a copy certificate from the Register Office that is local to where an event took place, but you will need the local reference details for this. Websites such as UKBMD or Berkshire BMD can help you to find those details.

IMPORTANT: Certificates cost £11 when you order them online from the General Register Office.  From time to time, the GRO also offers PDF downloads of certificate information (Births and Deaths only) at a lesser charge.


If you order from a local register office, a copy certificate costs £10.00 and you will need to give  a local reference or event date.


BEWARE Certain commercial companies and websites will charge you much more than this — for something you can easily order for yourself, and at a fraction of their prices!

In 1939, in 1911 and in 1901

The 1939 Register (available in The Centre for Heritage and Family History in Reading) will help to fill gaps in your 20th century research.


Working back, search for entries in the 1911 and 1901 censuses too. These are online at Findmypast and several other websites. You can search indexes for FREE but you will need to pay for transcribed details of individuals and households, and for images of pages of original census returns (1911) or enumerators’ schedules (1901). Quality of transcriptions can be variable. You are advised always to look at the actual images where you can.

Then go back through 1891 to 1841

… by searching for census entries that are readily accessible on web sites like Findmypast and The Genealogist . SEARCH THESE FOR FREE (and more) in The Centre for Heritage and Family History.


Search progressively, entering the minimum of information — you can always refine things later should you need to.  One more benefit of using The Centre is that experienced researchers are on hand to give advice and guidance on how to get the best from these online services.


You can view census details for eight censuses (those for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911) for all of England and Wales (not just pre-1974 Berkshire) at The Centre. More websites that may be helpful to newcomers to family history can be found here.


Berkshire Family History Society also operates a research service see Berkshire Name Search for details.

Earlier than 1837, it gets a bit harder

You need to go to parish records to find information on ancestors who lived or were born before 1837. Details of baptisms, marriages and burials are recorded in parish registers. Other parish and local records can give useful details of individuals and families too.


The physical records are usually held in County Record Offices, like the Royal Berkshire Archives which has the original records of the parishes and places of the pre-1974 Royal County of Berkshire.


Increasing numbers of parish records are now indexed and transcribed and some of these can be found online, with page images in some cases. Berkshire Family History Society has transcribed substantial numbers of parish register entries. These have been published in CD format in a county wide series.


Some (but not all) of the society’s transcriptions are also accessible online at Findmypast.


The FamilySearch website can be a useful finding aid, although coverage by parish and by time period is far from complete for most counties. Due to privacy laws, the most recent records may not be displayed. 

To summarise - aim to get back to 1837

Use GRO Indexes of Births, Marriages and Deaths and census details, in the Berkshire Family History Society’s Centre for Heritage and Family History, in County Record Offices or online. Other pages of this website explain where online information is available.


Ensure that you have a true member of your family — not someone simply sharing the same forename and surname and about the same age! To be quite certain, you will sometimes need to buy a copy certificate. These often give you vital extra information that can help the next steps in your research — addresses, ages, maiden names, occupations and confirmation of relationships.

And then later

You may want to search parish registers of BaptismsMarriages and Burials, and other parish records, for towns and villages where your ancestors once lived.


Original records are held by County Record Offices and are usually available on microfilm or microfiche. Some parish register transcriptions and images can also be found online and in our shop.  Go here for an overview of the society’s records


Storing your research findings

You will need to organise and store information that you discover. In the past, this was often done using a card index or paper record. Today, it is usually done with the help of one or more computer programs. There are many widely available programs written for family historians. Examples include:


RootsMagic Kith and Kin
Family Tree Maker (FTM)
Legacy Family Tree

Ancestral Quest

Family Tree Heritage
MacFamilyTree Pedigree
Family Historian Gramps (free software for Linux and UNIX like systems)
Family Tree Builder (linked to ) Genopro (free)
YourTrees – provided free to members of the society as a means to store a copy of your research and collaborate with other members

All can generate reports in several forms, including ‘Family group’ tables and charts of ancestors and descendants. Some allow extensive customisation of reports. The society can offer good advice in this area and, where requested, demonstrate programs by arrangement on Tuesday evenings at the Research Centre.

Find a course

Learn how to research your Family History properly.


Berkshire Family History Society runs introductory programmes from time to time too. See the Events page for details


Ask about courses available in your area. Or look online, using a search engine like Google or go to the GENUKI web page tor local information and details of events, including courses.


Contact others who are researching the same surnames that you are.


Also . . .

… the society runs workshops for beginners and improvers in family history research and also in the IT (computing) aspects of the pastime.


On the first Tuesday evening of each month, a Discussion Group meets at The Centre for Heritage and Family History.


And on most Tuesday evenings at The Centre, knowledgeable volunteers are available to answer your computing related queries – from hardware issues to choosing and using a family history program.


You are always welcome to come along to . . .

… any meetings of Berkshire Family History Society (or your local family history society) and meet and talk to other researchers, most of whom will be only too pleased to help you and share their knowledge and experience.


Visitors are always welcome at Branch meetings and events.

Where they can afford to do so, visitors are encouraged to donate £3 when attending a meeting. This is a suggested contribution towards the costs incurred by the society in arranging local activities.


Look out too for the many outreach events — often in local libraries — where you can drop in for free help and advice with your research.

Subscribe, read and watch

Buy a family history magazine like Your Family Tree or Who Do You Think You Are?’ and watch out for family history programmes in the TV and radio schedules.


The TV series Who Do You Think You Are?’ provides some valuable perspectives on researching your family history — but will not necessarily explain exactly how to do it! Programmes from earlier UK and US series are often repeated on TV too. Look out for these.

Census returns - by Derek Trinder

A census has taken place in England and Wales every 10 years since 1801 (with the exception of 1941). The first four of these generated largely statistical returns, but some census enumerators also listed names of householders and occasionally those of their families. [Binfield’s 1801 census is a Berkshire example.]


The first census of real and universal significance for family historians was taken on the night of Sunday, June 6 1841. Names were recorded of everyone resident in each property, starting with the head of household. In many cases, even vagrants and those living rough in tents were also recorded. But there is little doubt that in the summer of 1841, significant numbers of people were missed. The information on this census is quite limited, and ages of adults were invariably rounded downwards, making interpretation difficult in some cases.


The next census taken on the night of Sunday, March 30, 1851 was a much grander affair, and far more useful for family historians. Around 30,000 enumerators collected 4.3 million schedules. These were eventually transcribed, into 38,000 books. The precise dates of the England and Wales censuses were:

1801 Census Tuesday 10th March 1801 Limited information, and only available where the lists of individuals have been kept
1811 Census Monday 27th May 1811 Limited information, and only available where the lists of individuals have been kept
1821 Census Monday 28th May 1821 Limited information, and only available where the lists of individuals have been kept
1831 Census Sunday 29th May 1831 Limited information, and only available where the lists of individuals have been kept
1841 Census Sunday 6th June 1841 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc — but contains limited detail on individuals
1851 Census Sunday 30th March 1851 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1861 Census Sunday 7th April 1861 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1871 Census Sunday 2nd April 1871 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1881 Census Sunday 3rd April 1881 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1891 Census Sunday 5th April 1891 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1901 Census Sunday 31st March 1901 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1911 Census Sunday 2nd April 1911 Complete, widely published and available online with Findmypast, The Genealogist etc
1921 Census Sunday 19th June 1921 Anticipated publication date 1st January 2022
1931 Census Sunday 26th April 1931 Destroyed by fire (not by enemy action) during the Second World War
The 1939 Register Friday 29th September 1939 A “mini-census” compiled by 65,000 enumerators and sent to every household in England and Wales, the Register records details of over 41 million people, with their names, addresses, dates of birth, marital status and occupations. Issue of National Identity Cards followed and the registers were used for other purposes after the Second World War ended. The 1939 register has been made available online by Findmypast — with some records subject to (essentially 100 year) closure.
1941 Census   No census taken  
1951 Census Sunday 8th April 1951 Expected publication date 1st January 2052
1961 Census Sunday 23rd April 1961 Expected publication date 1st January 2062
1966 Census Sunday 24th April 1966 Ten per cent sample only, trialling an alternative method of enumeration, expected publication date 1st January 2067
1971 Census Sunday 25th April 1971 Expected publication date 1st January 2072
1981 Census Sunday 5th April 1981 Expected publication date 1st January 2082
1991 Census Sunday 21st April 1991 Expected publication date 1st January 2092
2001 Census Sunday 29th April 2001 Expected publication date 1st January 2102
2011 Census Sunday 27th March 2011 Expected publication date 1st January 2112


Ten Commandments of Genealogy - by Richard W Eastman

The following article (originally published on 19 November 2010) is from Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright by Richard W. Eastman. It is republished here with the permission of the author. Information about the newsletter is available at


Ten Commandments of Genealogy

In the course of writing this newsletter, I get to see a lot of genealogy information. Most of what I see is on the Web, although some information is in books or in e-mail. Some of what I see is high-quality research. However, much of it is much less than that. Even the shoddiest genealogy work could be so much more if the compiler had simply spent a bit of time thinking about what he or she was doing.


Creating a first-class genealogy work is not difficult. In fact, it is expected. It should be the norm. Please consider the following ‘rules’. If you follow these guidelines, you, too, can produce high-quality genealogy reports that will be useful to others:

  1. Never accept someone else’s opinion as ‘fact’. Be suspicious. Always check for yourself!
  2. Always verify primary sources (see Footnote #1); never accept a secondary source (see Footnote #2) as factual until you have personally verified the information.
  3. Cite your sources! Every time you refer to a person’s name, date and/or place of an event, always tell where you found the information. If you are not certain how to do this, get yourself a copy of ‘Evidence Explained’ by Elizabeth Shown Mills. This excellent book shows both the correct form of source citation and the sound analysis of evidence.
  4. If you use the works of others, always give credit. Never claim someone else’s research as your own.
  5. Assumptions and ‘educated guesses’ are acceptable in genealogy as long as they are clearly labelled as such. Never offer your theories as facts.
  6. Be open to corrections. The greatest genealogy experts of all time make occasional errors. So will you. Accept this as fact. When someone points out a possible error in your work, always thank that person for his or her assistance and then seek to re-verify your original statement(s). Again, check primary sources.
  7. Respect the privacy of living individuals. Never reveal personal details about living individuals without their permission. Do not reveal their names or any dates or locations.
  8. Keep ‘family secrets’. Not everyone wants the information about a court record or a birth out of wedlock to be posted on the internet or written in books. The family historian records ‘family secrets’ as facts but does not publish them publicly.
  9. Protect original documents. Handle all documents with care, and always return them to their rightful storage locations.
  10. Be prepared to reimburse others for reasonable expenses incurred on your behalf. If someone travels to a records repository and makes photocopies for you, always offer to reimburse the expenses.

The above ‘commandments’ apply to online data as well as to printed information. Following the above ‘commandments’ will increase the value of your work and make it valuable to others.


Footnote #1

A primary record is one created at or immediately after the occurrence of the event cited. The record was created by someone who had personal knowledge of the event. Examples include marriage records created by the minister, census records, death certificates created within days after the death, etc. Nineteenth century and earlier source records will be in the handwriting of the person who recorded the event, such as the minister, town clerk or census taker.


Footnote #2

A secondary record is one made years after the original event, usually by someone who was not at the original event and did not have personal knowledge of the participants. Most published genealogy books are secondary sources; the authors are writing about events that occurred many years before they wrote about the event. Transcribed records are always secondary sources and may have additional errors created inadvertently by the transcriber(s). Most online databases are transcribed (secondary) sources.

Searching Berkshire Parish Registers - by Chad Hanna

Two key dates in your research are Saturday, 1 July 1837 — the start of civil registration in England & Wales — and Sunday, 6 June 1841 — when, for the first time on that particular census night, the national census collected names and some limited personal information of every person in the household. But if you need to search before 1837, what other resources can you use?

To find ancestors before 1837, or to learn more about people who were born, married or who died before that year, you must turn to parish records. While many different parish records survive, Church of England parish registers of baptismsmarriages and burials should be your starting point. Earliest registers date from 1538 (but many parishes did not begin to keep records until much later) and registers are kept to this day, offering valuable information for researchers.

Registers of baptisms are particularly important. In the early years of civil registration (from July 1837 to 1875), it is estimated that up to 15 per cent of births went unrecorded in some areas (for a variety of reasons). The baptismal record thus remains a key record even in the early years of civil registration.

Those parish registers that are over 100 years old should now be safely deposited in the relevant diocesan archive, usually the County Record Office (CRO) or its metropolitan equivalent. For all of pre-1974 Berkshire (including parishes of North Berkshire and the Vale of the White Horse), original registers and other parish documents are held at Berkshire Record Office in Reading.

Finding your ancestor in church records is rarely as straightforward as searching for them in civil registration and census records. You need to know how best to make intelligent use of available finding aids and indexes to parish registers. And you need to be able to use other research resources that can help you to find the right parish register for your needs.

What transcriptions and indexes are available? And how readily can you use them?

Searching Berkshire Parish Registers

Berkshire Baptisms

Volunteers are working hard to build a database of baptisms for pre-1974 Berkshire. While this work is at a less mature stage than the society’s Marriages and Burials datasets, in March 2016 the society published the Second Edition of Berkshire Baptisms as a CD and, more recently, the Third Edition. Transcribing continues.

Berkshire Marriages

In 2014, the society published Berkshire Marriages, Third Edition on CD.

Much (but certainly only part) of this most recent dataset is also accessible on computers at the society’s Research Centre in Reading. Some of these transcriptions (but again not all of them) are also included in the Parish Records Collection of Findmypast

Berkshire Burials

Berkshire Family History Society also publishes a comprehensive Berkshire Burials CD, now in its 13th Edition  

To find out more about these CDs and to purchase a copy, please visiti our shp (see top menu).


Data Downloads

The county-wide CDs are great value if you’re reseraching many Berkshire ancestors but if your reseraches are norrower, we also publish the records for individual sites as in PDF format as Data Downloads that you can purchase from our shop (see top menu).  Search by location to see what’s available – there are over five hundred to choose from. 


Parish Register transcriptions

If many of your ancestors were living in one particular Berkshire town or village for some time, you may also be interested in the transcribed registers of those specific places. Society volunteers have transcribed parish registers (that is births, marriages (including banns) and burials) of a number of pre-1974 Berkshire parishes and project work continues to add more. You can buy these transcriptions in searchable CD form. Find out more in the Shop section of this website.

Over time other groups and individuals have indexed or transcribed records of some parishes in a variety of traditional (non-electronic) formats. You can see their outputs at Berkshire Record Office, the Society of Genealogists and in some local studies collections within the county.

If you would like to help with work on any current Berkshire project, you can find out what is involved on the main Projects page (You do not have to live in or close to Berkshire to play a useful part in project work, although some tasks (like checking against original records) can only be completed with convenient access to Berkshire Record Office in Reading.)

NOTE: Copyright and database rights subsist on all indexes and transcriptions of parish register entries produced by the society.

You must take great care at all times not to infringe those rights. Care is essential both in your use of information and, in particular, when sharing information with others.

Sharing information informally, or posting details publicly — online on a message board or discussion list in response to an enquiry, for example — could constitute a serious infringement of copyright and database rights.

Unauthorised use or incorporation of another party’s indexes or transcriptions in any other shared or published form or database is an infringement of rights and could have civil or criminal consequences. Written permission should always be sought from the rights-holder. To apply for such permission from US in respect of content WE own, please use the Help > Contact menu item

International Genealogical Index (IGI)

The International Genealogical Index (IGI) was a family history database listing several hundred million names of deceased people from countries throughout the world. The individual names in the IGI came from two sources. Families either submitted details to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons), or volunteer teams abstracted and indexed details from original records. The IGI was first published in 1973 and was closed in 2008, but is still possible to search this database.

You will then need to create a FamilySearch account to take matters further.

Even today, the IGI can be a useful finding aid. It is free to use and, if used with care, can often be helpful in research. But it does have numerous limitations. Note that the IGI does not contain all parish registers from a particular location, it does not cover all time periods, nor does it include all parishes. In many cases, entire parishes are missing.Except for some burials of infants and young children, the IGI contains no indexed burial information  .

Using Berkshire as an example, many parishes are included, at least in part, in the IGI but information is far from complete.

You should also be aware that some IGI data was derived from Bishops’ Transcripts and not from original registers. This has the potential to introduce disparities from the original entries and an additiponal level of transcription. (See below)

Some Berkshire parishes (and parishes in other counties too) are missing in entirety, or nearly so. Significant Berkshire omissions include Kintbury St Mary, Newbury St Nicholas, Reading St Laurence and Wargrave St Mary.

There are also significant gaps in the time periods covered and, for many parishes, indexed details stop at 1812.

Help in using the IGI

To discover which parishes and time periods (not just for Berkshire but for all counties) are included – and, equally important, those that are omitted – in the IGI, there is a website that may help you.

You may find it easier (especially if you are fairly new to family history research) to check first on the parishes and time periods included in the IGI. You can do this by visiting Steve Archer’s website FamilySearch: a Guide to the British batches

You can then search quite specific batches of parish records — remembering each time to change Batch Numbers as you search for different people in different parishes

  • This particular website, confined to UK content, explains the IGI in more detail;
  • Includes British batches added since 2002, especially ‘I’ batches;
  • Provides a detailed analysis of ‘mixed’ batches – where the LDS included data from more than one place;
  • Assigns places to mid-19th century historic counties. For example, if you consider entries for ‘London’, these are assigned to the City of London, Middlesex, Surrey or Kent
  • Lists the number of entries (life events) per batch and dates covered, obtained from the data itself; and
  • Includes some summary statistics.

Final words of advice on the IGI.

You cannot build an entire family tree from information found solely online or just from the IGI – even if names and places look, superficially, to be correct. The IGI is a ‘secondary’ rather than a ‘primary’ source of information. Should you find entries in a secondary source, like the IGI, that might be relevant to your research, you then need to look at the original records (the primary sources) and to confirm those details. The original registers will be accessible in the relevant county record office or metropolitan archive. In some cases, but certainly not all, digital images of register pages may be available to view online.

Always satisfy yourself that any indexed or transcribed information is accurate, correct and, most important, complete. Many original register entries contain important and relevant additional detail that is not recorded in the IGI itself.

Berkshire Record Office

Berkshire Record Office is a designated diocesan archive for the Diocese of Oxford, of which the Archdeaconry of Berkshire forms a part. It holds original registers deposited by the parishes of pre-1974 Berkshire (including those of North Berkshire and those of the Vale of the White Horse). In a few cases, most notably Abingdon St Helens, parishes have been permitted to retain their registers.


In 1992, the Church of England made a requirement that all parish registers of baptisms and burials containing entries that are 150 years old or more should be closed and (in most cases) deposited in a diocesan record office. The order does not apply to a church’s copy of marriage registers after 1837 (copies of these entries should have been sent for entry into the civil registration system). In practice, most of these older marriage registers have been deposited too. In a record office, these old and very often fragile registers can be safely maintained under suitable storage conditions.


Bishops’ Transcripts (BTs)

From 1598 onwards, most parishes were required to furnish an annual copy for the bishop of those baptisms, marriages and burials that had been entered in the register in the preceding 12 months.


Some of these copies were constructed at the same time as the original register entries were made. Others were compiled retrospectively, once the year had ended. As a result, under both approaches, there are variations (sometimes providing vital missing details for family historians) between entries in a parish register and the corresponding transcripts prepared for the bishop.


Once prepared, bishops’ transcripts were sent to the bishop of the diocese holding authority over the parish. There are a few instances of bishops’ transcripts before 1598 and the transcripts mostly ceased around 1837 with the arrival of the civil registration process. A very few BTs extend into the mid-19th century.

Many bishops’ transcripts have been lost or destroyed but there are situations where BTs survive while the original register has been lost. This makes BTs a potentially valuable resource in your research. Where both registers and bishops’ transcripts survive, it is good practice to check both, and compare the entry detail. As explained earlier, there will be inevitable differences for some entries – offering you a challenge — which source should you accept in your research?

Surviving BTs for Berkshire are held in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre (the Berkshire Archdeaconry formed part of the Salisbury Diocese until 1836). For the few BTs prepared subsequently, original returns are held in the Oxfordshire History Centre (after the 1836 transfer of the Berkshire Archdeaconry the Oxford Diocese).


North Berkshire

Berkshire Family History Society is the only society to cover all of pre-1974 Berkshire. It’s Baptisms, Marriages and Burials CDs provide county wide coverage.

Its Vale of the White Horse Branch (which meets in Abingdon) provides a focal point for family historians living in North Berkshire.

Following changes to modern county boundaries in 1974, some North Berkshire parish registers have also been indexed or transcribed by the Oxfordshire Family History Society (OFHS). Reflecting techniques and materials used, most of these OFHS outputs are not as readily searchable as Berkshire Family History Society CD publications. Most of these Oxfordshire publications are available from the Shop on this website, as microfiche or non-searchable CDs.


Suggested further reading

An Historical Atlas of Berkshire, 2nd edition, December 2012, Editors Joan Dils and Margaret Yates, published by Berkshire Record Society (and available from the Berkshire FHS shop)

Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers,  3rd edition (2003) by Cecil R. Humphery-Smith

National Index of Parish Registers Volume 8 Part 1 Berkshire (2003) by Anthony Wilcox, published by the Society of Genealogists Available from the Shop

Where in Berkshire were they buried? - by Chad Hanna

Some researchers pay less attention to deaths and burials of their forebears than to earlier events in their ancestors’ lives. Here are nine reasons why that approach is hard to support:

  1. a recorded age at death, even if inaccurate, can help to identify a birth year…
  2. parish burial register entries confirm where families lived at a particular time and…
  3. …often give details of relationships and other key information
  4. a death certificate may hold an address that helps direct further searches
  5. a death may be marked with a newspaper obituary or funeral notice…
  6. newspapers report on coroners’ inquests too
  7. dates and places of death can help to locate probate documents
  8. monumental inscriptions can include ages, relationships, addresses and occupations
  9. causes and circumstances of deaths can often be of interest

Berkshire Burial publications

The society’s Berkshire Burials CD is the definitive finding aid for burials across all of  pre-1974 Berkshire.


The 12th edition holds over 900,000 transcribed entries from registers and records of more than 270 churchyards, cemeteries, workhouses and burial grounds in Berkshire. You can buy the CD at The Centre for Heritage and Family History or online from the Shop.


Keep in mind that people often sought to return to a former parish where they once lived to be buried. Sometimes, people wanted to be reunited with a spouse who had predeceased them. Thus, burials may not necessarily be found in the expected localities where deaths took place. Many such examples can be found in the Berkshire Burials datasets – underlining the value of the CD – and its county-wide searching potential.


Some family history societies have indexed burials for their respective counties too. The third edition of the National Burial Index for England & Wales (published in 2010) has useful, if much abbreviated, details of burial records BUTindividual county coverage is very variable, and some counties having little or no information included.


Death certificates

English certificates often contain less detail for researchers than those issued in some other countries. But addresses at the time of death can help later census searches, recorded ages may point to birth years, and informants may prove to be direct relatives — although they might just as easily be neighbours.


Certificates are normally issued before funeral arrangements are finalised.


Until recently, registration of a death took place in the registration district where the event took place. This may not be the district or locality where any subsequent burial or cremation took place. It follows that certificates of deaths at work, in hospital, or in a workhouse, and those for deaths occuring away from home or while travelling may offer few if any clues to eventual burial places.


Other sources of information

As in so many areas of family history research, a little lateral thinking can sometimes open up new lines of research. Here are three further suggestions to consider when searching for accurate information concerning the deaths of your ancestors.

  • Coroners’ Inquests  – for those who died unexpectedly. While records do not always survive, inquests were invariably reported in local newspapers. The society has published an Index to Coroners’ Inquisitions for the years 1688 to 1926 on CD, available from the Shop. This indexes surviving papers for the pre-1974 county held in Berkshire Record Office in Reading.

  • Local and national newspapers contain funeral notices, funeral reports and obituaries. The British Newspaper Archive website has transformed the newspaper search process, with more than 23 million pages from old newspapers now searchable online (December 2017).  The British Newspaper Archive, along with Findmypast, The Genealogist and Ancestry — the worldwide edition, is available to all researchers FREE of charge at The Centre for Heritage and Family History, the society’s home in Reading.

  • Wills and probate documents have become much more accessible in recent years. Wills, in particular, while potential sources of rich family detail, may provide pointers to a burial place. Berkshire Family History Society, with other project partners, published an Index to the Probate Documents of the Archdeaconry of Berkshire (2012). This covers the period from 1480-1857 and the actual documents are held by Berkshire Record Office. This link gives more information.
  • From 1858 onwards, probate jurisdiction became a civil process. A number of finding aids are now available and simple (and free) searches can provide dates of death, addresses, executor details — particularly for the period 1858-1996, but also from 1996 to the present (date of death only). See the Find a Will service on the website. Pay-per-view websites like Findmypast and Ancestry also offer a means to search the Probate Calendars for England and Wales for selected periods, and other probate records and indexes.
Tracing your ancestors - by Brian Wilcock
How do you start your research?

When you are ‘new’ to family history research, there seems so much to take on board.


It is never quite so straightforward as they make it look in those TV programmes. No one just produces the information for you! This short article provides a practical approach to get you started and establishes some sound working principles to guide your research.


Most people know something of their parents and grandparents (maybe even something of certain great-grandparents). But do you know where they lived? Or what they did? What traces of their lives still exist today that can tell you more about them? When you trace your family tree, you begin a journey back into the past – a journey back into local history, social history and general historical events and not just into a series of names and dates. The quest might take you back no more than 50 or 100 years before the search ‘goes cold’, or it might take you back 500 years or more.


Family history research is like a cross between a good detective story and a jig-saw puzzle (with no straight-edge bits), and you are the ‘family detective’ and ‘puzzle manager’. Find a person – what else is there to find about them? And now who are their parents? Are there, maybe, siblings to find as well? Family history research will take you to new and unexpected places, provide sometimes joyful and sometimes harrowing moments of discovery, and will often give you new insights and perspectives into local, political, social and economic history through the lives of ordinary people


And, as you explore different avenues and archives, you will meet and make many new friends along the way.


Always work backwards…

…from what you know to what you do not know


Whether you have lots of relatives, or perhaps just a few, your search begins with yourself. And then your parents. And then their parents (your grandparents) and so on moving backwards.

Organise your information

Before you collect too much information, it is a good idea to get a large notebook or lever-arch folder to act as a simple ‘filing system’. Then you can keep all of your research material and information (including physical items like certificates, documents and photographs) in one place. At this early stage, having everything on the PC in scanned or retyped form is not necessarily the best answer. You may want to look at items side by side, or to rearrange them as you uncover new details.


Whatever method you choose, be organised from the start — don’t collect information on scrappy bits of paper!


Ask questions and get people talking 


Talk to your relatives, particularly older ones. Find out what they remember about your family and its ancestors. They will have many memories of many people – past and present (and not all of them factually 100 per cent correct). They will have anecdotes too (again these can sometimes be exaggerated or embroidered) that will fill out your family history. Just as important, their stories may prompt ideas for other questions you might need to ask, and of different lines of research that you might need to follow.


Collecting as much information as you from family members means that you will save valuable time and effort later.


What documents do you have?

Gather together your surviving family documents and look at them all carefully. They will confirm or confound some of those stories and anecdotes – and will highlight areas that you might need to explore in more detail. Birth, Marriage and Death certificates – while ‘official documents’ – do not always tell the precise story. On occasions, people gave incomplete or misleading details and, taking Death certificates specifically, a friend or neighbour may have had only a vague notion of the age or occupation of the deceased.


Who are the people in those old photographs? Do you know all of their names. Have any family wills survived? (They can often give vital information on family relationships and circumstances.) Are there surviving letters, military papers, postcards, address and birthday books that might tell you more? You may have a family bible with hand-written details about your ancestors. When you have discovered all that you can from reminiscences and records, try drawing the key details into a rough pedigree chart (or family tree). This will confirm what you know and, just as important, will highlight gaps where you need to do more research.


Now you are ready to go back, generation by generation, and find your ancestors. Work from what you know, and what you have proved, back to what you don’t know.

Decide on the SURNAME that you want to research

Which family line will be first? You can’t research everyone at once. You might want to stick to one surname, or to one particular line in the family. Remember too that how you spell a surname may be different from the spelling of your ancestors. Just because you write COTTERELL today does not mean that it has always been written this way. In the records, you may find others recording it not only as COTTERELL but also as COTEREL, COTRELL, COTTERILL, COTRIL, COTTRILL, COTTEREL, COTHERILL, just to provide a few examples. Never ignore these variations when you find them.


It’s probably easier to leave your SMITH, WILLIAMS or JONES lines until you have made a start on looking into some of your less common surnames. Unravelling John SMITHs in London, as an example, will prove very difficult and is not the best place to start research for the first time.


Finding information online

Some data, especially for 19th and 20th century ancestors, in which you are likely to be interested is now available online. But not all of it!


It’s vital to differentiate between reliable sources and individual supposition and opinion. There are so many obvious errors in so many of the supposed ‘family trees’ posted online!


Honesty is essential – if you cannot prove a relationship conclusively from original records, don’t just take someone else’s word for it and hope that you have the right person. Just because something is posted on the internet does not make it correct!


You will find good indexes to General Register Office references (needed to order copy certificates for births, marriages and deaths). The FreeBMD website is often under-recognised but is the best starting place (before the commercial online publishers). With the correct GRO reference, you can order copy certificates and confirm family and other details.


The GRO indexes contain errors and omissions and it may also be worth looking at details transcribed from the records of local registrars, using the UKBMD website.


Census records (from 1841 to 1911) are now online too, together with some parish register details and nearly 18 millionold newspaper pages. But, despite what online providers would like you to believe, always remember that many more records are not yet online (and may never will be).


Many of these ‘offline’ records are often the ones that you need to provide you with a key detail or proof that enables you to take your research back to an earlier generation. You will find many such records in places like The National Archives, in county record offices and in other archives and libraries. Many of these will reply directly to enquiries (whether by phone, email or post), so that travel is not always necessary.


But at some point, you will need to visit places where your ancestors lived and worked, and the record offices that hold the original records for those areas. The alternative to travelling is to pay for research services that will (you hope) uncover information that you are seeking.

Hints, Tips and Ideas on Reading Old Handwriting - by Hilary Waller

This a reproduction of an article that appeared in the September 2022 edition of the Berkshire Family Historian – the society’s quarterly magazine that is provided free to members.


Anyone who has tried to use the 1921 census, which was released earlier in 2022, will have probably come across some poor transcriptions and wondered why people find 20th century handwriting hard to read. From 1911 onwards, householders filled in their own census forms, so every entry was written by a different hand. Before that the census enumerators wrote each entry, so once you are used to it, it can become just a question of recognising their individual style of handwriting.


When you have worked through the census records, you will then no doubt also look at Parish records and order copies of birth certificates. Parish records were usually written by the local incumbent and many of them were no better at handwriting than some doctors! Registrars on the other hand were professionals and usually took great pride in their record entries, but which of us has not still struggled to decipher an unusual occupation or an unknown address?


Then you will probably turn to looking at other types of documents, such as wills and land records. Older records tend to be much harder to understand, partly due to the style of language, their use of different abbreviations and phrasing, the old script styles known as ‘hands’ and fashions in other things such as date formats. 


One of the tools that I find most useful is a simple on screen ruler that helps me to keep my place in the document such as this one:


Latour, Rob. A Ruler for Windows. 


Another simple but effective trick is to magnify the image or to highlight it in a different colour. [Ed:  On many computers you can hold down the Ctrl/Cmd key and press the + key to zoom in and the – key to zoom out.  Ctrl/Cmd + 0 (zero) will return you to actual size from whatever zoom level you were on)].


Then it can be very helpful to create a letter chart. Simply create a list of the letters of the alphabet and against each add an image of how that letter appears in the document, both as an uppercase and lowercase letter. You should also be aware that they sometimes used special versions of a letter when they came at the beginning or end of a word. There were also other characters such as the ‘thorn’, typically written as a ‘Y’. Once you have your chart filled in, you can use it as a reference guide throughout the rest of the document.


You will also need some practice and one of the best tutorials is on an old part of The National Archives website. There is also a good Scottish site as below.


National Archives (Great Britain). Palaeography – reading old handwriting 1500 – 1800. 


One of their examples (Tutorial 6) is a document, dated 17 June 1554, relating to the sale particulars of the manor of Bulmershe, near Reading and is the auditor’s report on the farm of the manor. It is worth a look, not least as an item of local interest.


National Records of Scotland. Online Tuition in the Palaeography of Scottish Documents. 


It often helps to think about the context and structure of the type of document that you are reading. Most official documents are written in a formulaic manner and so you may be able to find a transcription of something similar. This can help you to identify common words and phrases. Then the golden rule is to transcribe what you see, not what you think the text says. Then stand back and check to see if it makes sense.


The fashionable style of handwriting used in formal documents has varied over time and by country. It is worth trying to identify the  type of ‘hand’, so that you can find other examples to learn from. ‘Secretary hand’ was in general use from the start of the 16th century. This was replaced by ‘Round hand’ from the 1650s onwards, producing the italic hand that we use today. This website has pictures of the typical alphabetic letter forms, which provide a contrast to the Scottish site mentioned above.


English handwriting 1500-1700: Early Modern Handwriting: Alphabets. 


There are also some free software packages such as the one below, which you can download. It splits the screen in two, so that you can see both the image and your transcription. [Ed: Current versions of Windows will allow you to splt the screen too.  Grab the top bar of an application and click and drag it off screen left or right and a backgound overlay will appear on that side.  Release the mouse and the app will resize to fill half the screen.  You can then open another app in the other windows.  Use whichever tool suits you.]


Transcription editing program. 


It is often said that palaeography, or learning to read old writing, is just like learning to play the piano – ‘Unless you keep practising then you soon forget how to do it’. I belong to several genealogy groups and every week an image pops up on WhatsApp or Facebook, where someone is asking for help in reading a document. Typically a fresh pair of eyes can work wonders and it also helps to keep us all in practice.


Ultimately, don’t be afraid to have a go.


[Ed: Don’t forget that the Society sells Alf Ison’s book on A Secretary Hand, an ABC Book and that there are periodic workshops on reading old handwriting. If you can’t wait for the next workshop we also have a recorded version, in three parts, that you can stream at your leisure.


Click here to buy an access pass for the recorded workshop