As family history devotees know, tracing our ancestors can sometimes become a little costly. However, building your family tree doesn’t always have to come at a price, as we discover in this guide to enjoying family history for free.
Tutorials and courses
If you’d like to expand your knowledge and stretch your research skills, there are several free of charge options available online. The National Archives hosts free tutorials on reading Latin and old documents on its website, and also has handy audio and video guides on a range of topics, including the two World Wars, house history and criminal records.
A number of free online family history courses and tutorials run at different points during the year, one of the best known being Future Learn’s ‘Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree’. Check enrolment dates on the Future Learn website.
Societies and events
The family history community is a welcoming one and no matter what stage you’re at with your research, you’ll find plenty of support if you know where to look.
Many family history societies run free helpdesks at local libraries and archives, and at their open days. Check the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) website for your nearest society. Some groups also offer free entry to one or two of their meetings before you decide whether to join.
Consider volunteering on a family or local history project in your area. Not only will you expand your own knowledge, you’ll also benefit from the skills and experience of your fellow volunteers.
Family history fairs held around the UK are another great source of help and advice, especially those which offer free ‘ask the expert’ sessions and family history workshops. A calendar of events can be found on the FFHS site.
Ancestryhour is a networking site which offers advice via the #Ancestryhour hashtag and website. The themed hour runs on Twitter from 7pm to 8pm GMT and at other times, a blog, newsletter and regular tweets offer help and information, including a regular blog from Family Tree.
Libraries and archives
The staff at your nearest local history library or archive have a wealth of knowledge and will be happy to help point you in the right direction with your research. Check the relevant website before your visit to see what help’s available; many sites have tutorials or guides which can save you hours of searching in the archives or catalogues.
Most large UK libraries, and some smaller local history or family history libraries, offer free of charge access to subscription websites such as Ancestry and Find My Past for library card holders. When researching at home, you can also take advantage of the trial period that most subscription sites offer.
Some repositories offer free help sessions or assistance with an initial query (usually up to half an hour’s research time). Archive events or open days can range from orientation sessions for those new to using the archive, through to in-depth sessions on specialist collections.
Keep a look out also for free exhibitions which showcase library or archive collections to members of the public; these can be a great way to see rare material which you might not otherwise have come across. The National Archives has a great range of online exhibitions on topics including WWI military service tribunals, railways in the 19th century and life on the Home Front.
The internet is a great source of free of charge family history information, but do follow the golden rule of verifying any facts you find online before adding the information to your tree.
One of the world’s most popular family tree websites is Family Search, which holds millions of records kept by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. You can create your own family tree on the site and search for ancestors around the world from the millions of names in the International Genealogical Index (IGI). Collections include BMD records, censuses, probate and court records, and military records. Although the focus is on US records, more than 100 countries are included in total.
Volunteers working on Free UK Genealogy have made available records of over 300 millions births, marriages and deaths; 35 million records from parish registers and thirty million individuals from censuses covering the years 1841 to 1891. The site is completely free to search and view.
There are also many creative sites with free ideas for the visual side of family history, such as scrapbooking, making charts and displaying photos. Martha Stewart has articles, videos and image galleries, whilst Pinterest has plenty of inspiration for displaying your family tree information and images in creative ways.
[box out or side bar]
We carried out a Twitter poll on #AncestryHour asking for favourite free of charge websites and got some great recommendations for sites which family history enthusiasts and researchers have found helpful:
Dusty Docs has links to free websites containing parish records from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. You can search by county, parish or town and there are also links to a surname database, a certificate exchange forum for unwanted documents, and a list of Chapman county codes, which are three-letter genealogy shorthand used to identify the UK’s counties on documents and registers.
The Families in British India Society website was suggested for its database of more than 1.2 million individuals, images of the ships which carried passengers to India, and ships passenger lists.
Irishgenealogy.ie re-opened in September 2016, offering free of charge access to Irish civil registration birth, marriage and death records. The search facility for this site allows users to search the indexes and records in a variety of ways, including using the mother’s maiden name (1900 onwards) to narrow down results; and searching by individual Superintendent Registrar’s District.
The Welsh National Archives also merits a mention for its free of charge images of wills, journals and mortgages. The site is also the home of the Welsh Tithe Map Cynefin Project - a project to repair and digitize over 1,000 tithe maps and 30,000 pages of index documents, which will be freely available to the public.
The British Library Flickr site is the home of millions of copyright-free images from the Library’s collection of 65,000 digitised books; and there are plans to upload more images over the coming years.
Explore more than 160,000 maps from around the UK at National Library of Scotland’s maps website. Categories include county maps, town plans, Ordnance Survey, estate maps and military maps.
Internet Archive was recommended for its access to more than eleven million free books, with libraries including a World War II archive, Project Gutenburg texts, National Library of Scotland texts, and a family history library.
For more on tracing your family tree for free, visit Family Tree's website.