Climbing your family tree

Jeremy Palmer

This is a transcript of a talk given by Jeremy Palmer as part of Shake Your Family Tree day at the National Archives of Australia on 27 February 2008.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Nice to see so many faces.

I'm talking today about climbing your family tree. It's mainly going to be a general talk about genealogy – the sort of things you might find, the sort of records that you might come across, and a little bit of information, some tips and guidelines for you, when you're starting out with your research.

Family history is one of the most popular participation hobbies across the world. Some people say that it's the second most popular use of the internet. And, to illustrate the interest in the subject, hopefully you'll see there a Google search which says, for the word 'genealogy', there are over a hundred million entries. So it's quite a big topic, suffice to say.

Many of you here will perhaps have already undertaken some research into your ancestry. commissioned a survey at the end of 2006 which showed that 83 per cent of Australians claim to be interested in tracing their family history.

However, even though this appears to be quite a widespread interest, the depth of knowledge was a little bit more limited. For instance, the average Australian's knowledge of their families only goes back to the 1860s, and 29 per cent of people didn't know where their grandparents were born. Similarly, 41 per cent of people under the age of 25 didn't know when their family first arrived in Australia.

It's fair to say that people often come to family history somewhat later in life. The reasons for people's interest in the subject are many and varied. Some people have suggested that the breakup of the family unit as children move away from the family homes, people not having so many children in the first place. Not too many people today are born, married, and die in the same place, as would have been the case 100 to 150 years ago, or even earlier.

So the breakup of the family unit is one impetus for people. They want to find out how they belong, where they come from, how their family fits into the society into which it was living.

Other people, such as myself, are just plain nosy and enjoy ferreting around and finding out what they can about people, albeit, usually ones long departed. Some people have a medical interest in the subject, want to find out about some genetic propensities, want to find out about deaths, death certificates, causes of deaths and those sorts of things.

And others have just interesting family stories that have been passed on to them by grandparents about being descendents of Captain Cook, or grandfather being a cockney, or illegitimate children, lost money, all sorts of family stories that get passed on from generation to generation.

And it's very much a detective story, tracing your family history. It's a question of undertaking the research, following the clues, finding the records, putting the assumptions together, proving your findings.

Some people also describe it as a jigsaw puzzle, where you don't know what the picture is, nor how many pieces there are, or how many you've got. And none of them have got straight edges. So there's all different ways to describe genealogy and family history. And of course, with every family history being different and every researcher being different, it means different things to different people. And it is such a big topic.

It's a subject that's certainly changed a lot in the last few decades. Up until the 1970s it was very much an affair of well-to-do families, landed families, nobility and gentry. People wouldn't have thought about tracing the ordinary ancestry of an agricultural labourer or convict.

But an upsurge of interest at the time saw the start of family history societies across the world. And the members of the family history societies have done an awful lot of work publicising family history, doing a lot of work indexing records and making them available. And now of course, it's perfectly possible for anyone to trace any aspect of their family history, presuming the records survive for us to look at.

Attitudes toward our ancestors have also changed. Terms such as 'the convict stain' are no longer heard. And if you saw the first episode of the SBS show, you would have seen Jack Thompson's delight at discovering that he had a convict in his family history, quite a badge of honour now in many respects, especially if it's a first fleeter.

And of course technology has revolutionised the subject as well. Through email, it's much easier and quicker to get in touch with people, especially those in distant parts of the world. The world wide web has seen in the advent of national archives catalogues, state archives, other archives across the world. So you can find out what records are where and how they can be accessed.

Then there are companies like, who's started digitising lots of records for people, their subscribers, to look at, to find out what they can about their ancestors through that medium.

So it's possible now to do research in the comfort of your own home or office. And of course that's also generated a lot of interest in the topic. People think that it's possible to go on the internet, press a couple of buttons and discover their family history. And of course, you're probably all aware that that is far from the case.

The material that has been digitised and made electronically available is only a very small tip of a very big iceberg. And so a lot of people do get put off by the fact that they need to make a trip to an archive, to a record office or whatever it may be to look at some old documents in very spidery old handwriting. But that's all part of the beauty of it, in my opinion. Interacting with the original documents gives you a bit more of a sense of feeling and belonging to the past.

But the internet has made research easier and quicker. And certainly getting in touch with other researchers is a lot simpler. And it's worth sharing your family history results through online trees such as the ones on the site. You never know who might get in touch with you and what information they might have.

I've mentioned the words genealogy and family history quite a lot already. And they're usually used interchangeably. Although they mean slightly different things as far as I'm concerned.

Genealogy's more the process of tracing a person's ancestry back, finding out the details of the ancestors' birth, marriage and deaths. So it's, in essence, possibly a collection of names, dates and places.

Family history is a much more encompassing term. As well as needing those basics that the genealogy covers, family history will cover social history, local history, oral history, family stories. All these sort of things that bring a person to life and turn them from just a name on a page with a birth date and a death date, to a person who lived, married, had children. You can find a bit more about them. So it's that further step to turning the genealogy into the family history that's often the most interesting part of it as well.

So how many ancestors do we have? Well, quite a lot really, as simple maths will show us. Start of with yourself, of course, with two parents and four grandparents. Add another generation back and you've got eight great-grandparents. It doubles at every generation: 16, 32, and so on and so on.

You will find that once you go back three or four hundred years, you might have 512 thousand or 242 thousand ancestors in any one given generation. And of course they're all your ancestors. They've all contributed equally, well, as much as my science will tell me about the genetic makeup of yourself.

A lot of people will concentrate on one family line, perhaps just the male line at each generation. But that's only one tiny aspect of your family history. Really, you're a part of all of those thousands and thousands of people. They've all combined together to make you and the genetics that makes you.

And so it's certainly a neverending topic, really. There's always something else that can be researched, another line that can be traced if you get stuck on one of the others.

So how do we set out with this trail of discovery? Well, the first thing to do is to talk to as many family members as possible. And gather all their information together. One aspect many people don't realise is that by being the family historian, you end up as the repository of all of the family knowledge, all of the stories, all of the rumours. And you become an archive for your family.

So those stories of your grandfather skipping school, or your mother's pets, all those sorts of things, they're just as valid and need recording, and need remembering for the future, as anything else.

It's a shame in many instances a lot of those stories haven't been passed down to us from generations previous to our grandparents, because obviously no one had the time or the ability to record them. And it's something we should try and do for the future, I'm sure.

Your relatives, they also have some family documents that might help you. They may have copies of birth, marriage and death certificates, or photographs, military medals, whatever it might be. Or they may have a family Bible.

Here we've got a picture of a slide from a family Bible. Many of the Bibles from the nineteenth century had a page like this where you could write in details of marriages, children's births, deaths, whatever it may be.

This isn't my one. I've got one very much like it. But it's completely blank, because no one's ever actually filled anything in.


Having said that, I haven't filled it in either. So I can't really complain.

But if you're very fortunate, you may have a family Bible where all of this fascinating detail is recorded, if it's correct, of course. That's the other point that we'll come to later.

I mentioned before that many people start later in life with their family history. And so often Dad or Mum or Granny or aunts and uncles aren't around anymore to ask about these sorts of things. And it's often the case that you'll hear: 'Oh, I wish I'd started this 30 years before when Grandad was around to ask all these questions'.

So I suppose the moral of the story is start as soon as you can. And ask those elderly relatives in the family, if there are any still, what they know. Unfortunately people aren't around forever. So do tap their knowledge while you can.

Once you've exhausted family material, it's time to turn to archives and repositories. I'll assume here that your family's been in Australia for several generations. And that your family history information is perhaps really taking you back to the early 1900s.

However in most cases, the principles of research are the same. The records in different countries would be the same to a certain degree. So it's a question of looking for the corresponding records in whatever location it might be. And the first thing you usually start to look for are birth, marriage and death certificates.

It would be worth getting these to confirm the family history information you've been given as well, if possible. Because often it's not always entirely accurate, depending on people's accuracy of memory.

In Australia, each state has its own registry of births, marriages and deaths. And records go back to the mid-1850s, although each state has a slightly different start point. There are indexes to births, marriages and deaths. And it will depend upon where your ancestors came from as to how easy and accessible these are for you.

Some states have their indexes available online, such as New South Wales and Victoria. Whereas others, you may have to go to a library and look at some microfilm, perhaps.

Here we've got a picture of a web page from the New South Wales registry of births, marriages and deaths. And you see it's quite easy. Just fill in the names that you know. In this case, we're looking for the death of a gentleman called Robert Charles Hunt, between 1939 and 1942.

And as you can see, the results have come up on the bottom of the screen there. There were two men of that name who died in those four years. So it's not always necessarily straightforward. You might find one answer to a search for birth, marriage or death, and maybe several people of the same name.

And that's one of the tricks of genealogy is making sure you're not tracing wrong line, you got the right person's birth, marriage, or death certificate. He's either the right 'John Smith', rather than one of the other 1500 'John Smiths' that you might find.

Once you found the entry that you're after, it's then a question of ordering the certificate from the appropriate authority. And family history research is very much a step-by-step procedure. You might need to order a birth certificate to find out about some parents' names. And once that's arrived, you may need to go back and think about getting a marriage certificate, moving on a step-by-step basis like that.

Unless your ancestors are from Victoria. Those people with Victorian ancestors are extremely fortunate in that as well as the indexes being made available online through the Victorian birth, marriage and death registry, the certificates are available online as well.

You can download copies of the certificates there and then. So theoretically it's possible to get a lot of certificates and do a lot of Victorian research all in one afternoon from the comfort of your own home. So what might take you several weeks of ordering certificates and waiting for them to be delivered elsewhere, you can do it in a couple of hours with Victorian research.

And the certificates are important, because they provide you with a link from one generation to the next. Here we've got a death certificate. As you can see here, we've got the details of the death, how old Robert Charles Hunt was, where he was living, what the cause of death was. Importantly, it names his parents. Here is Joseph Able Hunt, a ferryman, and Elizabeth Laurence.

It also says where Robert was born in New South Wales, there. And that he married in Queensland when he was 23. And he had all of these children and their various ages. So lots of family history information there on death certificates.

Another important point is that for those people who were born abroad, it will say how long they'd been in the, whatever Australian colony it was. So it might say that they'd been in New South Wales for 20 years, so you can work out from then, from the date of the certificate, when they'd arrived in the country.

This is Robert's marriage certificate, I believe, in Queensland. Again, he gives mostly the same information: the ages are roughly the same – the parents' names are the same. But, in this case, the birth place is somewhat different. Instead of being born in New South Wales, he's now born in Echuca in Victoria.

Of course, one thing to bare in mind is who gives this information? At the time of the marriage, the bride and groom will provide these details. At the time of the death, the deceased person isn't going to give those details – he's already deceased. So it was the informant who provided that information to the registrar and it depends upon how well he knew the deceased, as to how accurate that information might be.

But, here, we see, in this case, Robert says he's born in Victoria, which does indeed turn out to be the case here. He is the entry at the bottom here – Robert Charles Hunt. And, again, we've got details on his parents, Joseph Hunt and Elizabeth Lawrence. This time, it says where they're born as well. But Joseph is a postman, I think, aged 40, from the Isle of Wight; so, in this case, Joseph is the immigrant ancestor for this family.

And so, using birth, marriage and death certificates through the 19th century, you can often work back to your migrant and get details of where they originated in whichever country it might be that they came from. So they're very important birth, marriage and death certificates.

Which leads us on, of course, to the immigration records. Many people researching their family history will have migrants in their ancestors that have come from one place or another. And you'll find that immigration records are very helpful. They'll give you the passenger lists. You can look for the details of your ancestor arriving in this country. The National Archives, here, has many ships' passenger lists and immigration records, as you know. But, often, there are lots of material in the various state archives as well, especially for the earlier part of the 19th century.

This is the New South Wales state archives. They've got an immigration list – an immigration index, there, for assisted immigrants, from 1828 onwards. So a lot of the material has been indexed, but not all of it. There is no one master database of people arriving in Australia. You may need to know which state your person arrived in. You may need to look to see what has been indexed for that state for that period.

If they arrived in an indexed period, that's great. You can use the index to find them. If not, then it might be a question of pouring through shipping list after shipping list after shipping list to try to find them.

If your ancestors arrived from the UK after 1890, there's a database on a website called that lists people leaving the UK for foreign countries from 1890 to 1960. Obviously, that includes Australia. But you'll find lots of people going to Canada and America, wherever it might be. It's basically for places outside of Europe, people leaving the UK for places outside of Europe. So, if you have Australian migrants who came in the period after 1890, that's a very good pay-per-view website. They'll have a lot of information for you there. You'll be able to download a digital copy of the passenger list for your ancestor. It's going to go up to 1960, but, currently, it only goes to 1949 – the latest 10 years have still got to be done.

If your ancestors were in Australia prior to the 1850s, you may find that perhaps they were convicts at one point or another. Obviously, a lot of the early settlers of the Australian colonies were convicts. And a great deal of convict material has been made available online through You'll get details of the transport ship the person came out on, the date of the trial, the sentence, the court in which the trial took place, all of these dates. Dates of pardon, dates of tickets of leave, all these sorts of things that'll help you get a picture of your convict ancestry.

I'm sure more Australians have convict ancestry than they might perhaps imagine, and certainly, if you can trace all of your lines back to the early part of the 19th century, a lot of you will find at least one – and possibly dozens – of convicts in your family history, depending on circumstances.

There are other records that will help with your convict ancestry, as well, depending on circumstances. This is a newspaper report of the trial of Thomas Cordall and Thomas Rudd for theft in February 1800. Trials that took place at the Old Bailey, the central criminal court for London, have all been digitised for a large portion of the period from 1600-something to 1834, so you can download the actual trial transcripts of the trials if your ancestors came from a criminal court in London.

This Thomas Rudd is the four-times-great-grandfather of our new Prime Minister, who was transported for stealing a bag of sugar, which sounds pretty innocuous at first, but then you read on. A little bit later, you realise that the bag of sugar weighed 112 pounds.


So it was quite a big bag of sugar, which perhaps had a bearing on the effects. But yes, you get, word-by-word, sort of verbatim accounts of the trials. It's a fascinating study of 19th-century people and how they lived, how they talked, the mannerisms and the sentence structure. All those sorts of things might be available as well, depending on circumstances.

Prior to the early-to-mid-1800s – before birth, marriage, and death certificates were introduced, either in Australia or in the UK or in whichever country it might be that your ancestors came from – you generally need to turn your attention there to church records of baptism, marriage and burial. These can lead you back many generations, depending upon, of course, the survival rate for the area concerned.

With England, for instance, theoretically, parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial go back to 1538, although it's really only about a thousand of the 12 thousand parishes in England and Wales that have registers that early. The rest are 1600-something.

For those of you with Irish ancestors, the situation isn't quite as rosy. Irish records were never very well kept, and they unfortunately lost a lot of them in a variety of fires and bombing attempts and things, and so often, it's really only the early 1800s that the parish registers of baptism, marriage and burial will date back into in Ireland.

Other European countries will have much the same sort of thing, but it's key to know a location. Each parish is perhaps only a mile in size, and you need to identify the records of that particular church where your ancestors would have worshipped – be it the state religious church, an Anglican church, for instance, in the UK, or a nonconformist church – Wesleyans, Methodists, Catholics, whatever it might be.

You need to know the location of where they're from. It's most important to do as much work as you can in the 19th-century records of birth, marriage and death to pinpoint them in a particular place. If you know your ancestors came from England, then you're going to need to do a bit more work to find a baptism in the 1820s, because there were over 12,000 different parishes, each with their own parish register.

Simply, locations on the continent in Germany, Italy, France – the records are kept very locally, so unless you can find a local area, it's important to try and pinpoint that area, so you can then move on to the local records, which are often very full, are often very informative and often relate to many many generations of your family. You'll find that in some instances, it's quite common for families to live in the same place for four, five, six, ten generations, year after year after year, generation after generation. If that's the case, then you're very fortunate. And you can do a lot of work there in the surviving records.

For those families where a generation moves around, one after another, in search of work especially in the big cities, it can be a lot more effort to pinpoint them and to track them down.

So there's a lot of work that can be done on the internet. I mentioned before using sites such as They've got the UK Civil Registration Indexes of birth, marriage and death from 1837. They've got the censuses from 1841 to 1901 all transcribed and indexed and copies of original documents available there. They've also go a lot of Australian records available to use as well.

And similarly, through their partner sites, there are lots of records available for the USA, for Italy, Canada and Germany. In total, I think there are over 32,000 different databases of family history material that you can use on the sites.

But again I should stress that most historical material isn't available in this manner. And it's a great place to start your research, but it shouldn't be the place where you finish it. You need to use it as a jumping block to come to repositories such as the National Archives here or your state library. Or whatever it may be that has the appropriate material for you not only to go further, but also to double check that the information that you have found on the internet, through contacts you might have made or family history information you've been given by family members, to check that in the original records just to make sure it does say what you believe it is supposed to say.

So, top ten tips for people tracing their family history. (Oh, there's a parish register entry for you that I forgot to show you.)

Top ten tips. First of all, talk to your elderly relatives. Your parents, aunts, uncles, whoever it might be. Other family members who might have been doing some research as well. There's always someone in most families that has undertaken some research into their family history. So talk to your family. Find out what they all know. However small, however little the piece of information they might give you, it might be crucial later on down the line in solving a dead-end problem.

Work from the known to the unknown. Genealogical research is often likened to following crumbs along a trail. You can't jump ahead and know that you're in the same place, that you're on the right track for the right family. You've got to work on a step-by-step basis from one known fact, finding out an earlier fact, linking an earlier generation.

You might be tracing a particular surname in the late 1890s and come across a reference to the same surname in the same place 80 years before and think, well, that's going to be an earlier ancestor. And it may well be. And research might show that that is the case. And similarly, it might not be. And if you just assume that it's right, you might end up spending all of your time and all of your money tracing someone else's family history, which probably isn't the point of the exercise.

Record your progress. You'll amass a great deal of information at every stage. And so you need to know where you are and what you've discovered. It's so confusing, especially when they're all called 'John'. Which particular 'John' are you talking about? Is this the 'John' from 1892? Or the 'John' from 1895? So you need to sort some sort of system out to record the information you find. This can then act as a handy reference for future research.

The that I use site has an area where you can upload your family history information to share it with other people in the genealogical community. There are a variety of other sites that have a similar sort of thing.

So it's worth putting your research facts out there, because you never know who might get in contact with you, who might search the family trees and discover that you've got the same three times great-grandfather. They may have a lot more family history information that they can share with you. They may have some different photos or memorabilia that perhaps hasn't come down your branch of the family.

Record your searches. It's important to know what you've looked at, what records you've looked at, especially where you haven't found anything. It's quite easy to come back to a particular family a couple of years down the line and thinking, 'oh why didn't I search for the birth of that person?' And then you go away and do it. And it's only when you got to the end of doing it again that you realise, 'I actually think I did it, and I didn't find anything, and I forgot to write it down'. And again, you've wasted a bit of time and effort and possibly money duplicating your research. So it's important to write down what researches you've undertaken and the results of them, whether they're positive or negative.

Get a map. One problem people find is that their ancestors move around from parish to town to another locality. And so it's worth studying a map, working out where all these places are. You'll be able to find the roads and the rivers and the other transport links in the area that may give you a clue as to where they've gone. They might not have gone west because there's a big huge mountain in the way. They would have gone to the north, or whatever.

Similarly, you've got to make sure you're researching the right place. There are lots of places in this world that have the same name. And just because you assume that the 'Newtown' that your ancestor came from is the 'Newtown' you knew when you were a child, or the most famous 'Newtown', doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't one of the other hundreds of different places called 'Newtown' that they actually did come from. So it's worth studying the locality and making sure you're in the right place.

And consider spelling variance. There is no such correct way to spell a name. And certainly any research back to the 1800s, you'll find that most names have some sort of variant recorded for them. People spelled their name in the way in which made most sense to them.

Obviously a lot of people weren't able to read or write. And so they'd say their name, and someone else would write it down for them. And depending upon that person's origins and how they interpreted what the person said would be how they wrote the name down in the manner they thought best fit.

So there's no such thing as a correct name. And if you're just looking for records that belong to your spelling, then you're going to miss out on a lot of information that may well be your ancestry. Just because its got a double 't' in the middle, you've discarded it. And that may be the wrong thing to do. So names like 'Whitaker' – there are a variety of ways to spell 'Whitaker', with 't's, with 'h's, one 't' in the middle, two 't's.

Jeffries is a nightmare of a name. Because the trouble with Jeffries is you can spell it with a 'g' or you can spell it with a 'j', which when you're doing some searching in indexes, means you have to look in a variety of places. And if you only look for the 'Jeffries' with a 'j', you might miss all the ones with a 'g'. So I always feel very sorry for people doing 'Jeffries' research.

Don't make any assumptions. You can't rely on your ancestors to have acted in the way in which you would have expected them to. Most people marry between the ages of 20 and 30 and have children in the 15 years or so after that, but not everybody. It was legal for girls to marry as young as 12, or 14 for boys, prior to 1929. Very few people did. But it's still possible.

Similarly, not everyone had their first child after their marriage. Often these were before their marriage. And a lot of people if they're searching for the marriage of parents, would only search for the period prior to the birth of their ancestor. Whereas in some instances, it may obtain six months after the birth of the child for the marriage to take place, often six years or 16 years, or possibly never at all.

You can't assume that your ancestors did everything by the book or the information they provided for birth, marriage and death certificates, for instance, is entirely accurate. It may have been accurate to the best of their knowledge, but still wrong. Or in some instances, they may have been downright misleading as well, depending on the circumstances. So you've got to make sure you cover all eventualities in your searching.

Try to work as effectively as possible. Discover what information is available online, and importantly, what information isn't available online and that you need to look at in person at an archive or a record office.

If you are using online material, do try and double-check it against the original material at some point in the future. If you can do a lot of research before you come to an archive, using their catalogues, using their help guides, using information leaflets, you can maximise your research time in the archive. So that you're getting the best out of your day rather than spending the first hour or two hours trying to work out what it is you're trying to find and how to do it.

If you can do all that preparation in advance, which you can now with most archives and their websites, that will allow you that much more time to sit there are pour over the records.

Share your findings. As I said, one of the benefits of researching your family tree is you'll discover many members of your family that you either lost touch with, or had never heard of, or had never met or ever imagined they even existed. Second, third, and fourth cousins whose relatives have long lost contact often get back into contact through researching their family history and getting in touch through the wider genealogical community.

So it's worthwhile sharing your findings if at all possible. You never know what you might get back from passing on a little piece of information to someone. They may have the family Bible that you've been aching to see for all these years and didn't think existed. So do share as much of your information as possible.

And one way to do that is to join a family history society. There are thousands of family history societies over the world. And they do a great deal of work indexing material, making it available to family historians. They're all volunteers. And it's a great community of people out there that you can be an important part of if you join the society.

You can attend local meetings. Listen to lectures on various different sorts of records. They have fairs. And of course, swapping information and telling people what's available where and how to help with the research. So there's a lot of information and education that you can gain from your local family history society. So I'd recommend that you do that.

And I think that's ten top tips, so probably just to summarise, enjoy yourself when you're doing your family history research. There's a world of information out there that will keep you going forever. You'll never come to the end of it. There's always something else to look for, something else to find. And do try and enjoy yourself while you're doing it. And make the best of the time when you are doing the research.

If you plan a research, plan in advance. And stick to it. Record what you've found, what you haven't found. Then hopefully you'll be able to research effectively and will be able to discover who your ancestors were quickly and hopefully easily.

Of course we all come to dead ends, which is perhaps where I can help now. If anyone has any questions on anything I've said today or generally on their family history, I'd be happy to help.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019